Why travellers in Germany could see rail strikes this winter

Travellers in Germany could see strikes this winter as the German Train Drivers Union (GDL) sits down to negotiate better conditions and wages with Deutsche Bahn.

An S-Bahn train stops at a station in Cologne at night.
An S-Bahn train stops at a station in Cologne at night. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

Train passengers in Germany had to deal with a series of strikes affecting long-distance trains and other services operated by Deutsche Bahn earlier this year due to a row involving the German rail union EVG. 

Now a new set of possible strikes are looming in winter – including over Christmas – as the GDL train drivers’ union kicked off its first round of collective bargaining talks with Deutsche Bahn on Thursday.

A truce on strike action ended at the start of November along with the union’s existing collective agreement, paving the way for more industrial action if union members vote for it. 

And GDL leader Claus Weselsky said he doesn’t want to start with the so-called ‘warning strikes’ and instead wants members to vote on whether they want ‘unlimited strikes’. 

Ahead of the talks, Weselsky had threatened an immediate members’ ballot if the union felt that Deutsche Bahn wasn’t serious about the negotiations.

But on Thursday, after the GDL rejected the rail company’s initial offer, the firebrand union leader revealed that the talks would continue next week.

Deutsche Bahn had offered the union an 11 percent increase in pay over 32 months, along with a €2,850 tax-free bonus to compensate for inflation – and offer that Weselsky dismissed as “too little and too long”. 

The GDL is also not ruling out the possibility of strikes happening over the Christmas holidays. He said Deutsche Bahn had suggested a “Christmas truce” to the union when proposing the negotiation dates.

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“We rejected that (truce) because we don’t know how things will develop, and because we don’t know how much negotiation we’ll have done by then,” said Weselsky. 

The months-long wage dispute between rival union EVG and Deutsche Bahn was just a few months ago. Twice this year, the railway and transport union paralysed rail traffic across Germany with warning strikes.

An agreement was reached at the end of August after a two-week arbitration process. The result was €410 more per month for workers and an inflation compensation bonus of €2,850 net, among other benefits. 

GDL boss Claus Weselsky in Berlin

GDL boss Claus Weselsky in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

GDL wants 35-hour week for shift workers

Now it is the turn of the smaller union, GDL, which has tended to be far tougher than its larger counterpart in previous negotiations. Among other things, they are demanding at least €555 more per month as well as the inflation compensation payment.

The sticking point of the talks so far, however, is the demand for a reduction of the working week from 38 to 35 hours for shift workers without a proportional reduction in wages.

In the first round of talks, Deutsche Bahn ruled out any decrease in working hours for train drivers. “DB would have to hire 10 per cent more employees just to close these gaps,” it said. “And that with a historically tight labour market.”

However, Weselsky said the reduction in hours could actually attract more workers.

“We have too few train drivers, too few train attendants and now too few train dispatchers,” he said. 

He added that this was not due to demographic change. “Rather, it is the unattractiveness of the professions, the activities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year in the railway system,” he said.

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The reduction in working hours is therefore “a step forward to increase the attractiveness of the professions and to show that there is recognition from society,” he said. 

But he expects a battle. Weselsky said that he has noticed in other negotiations that employers have been “very reluctant to go along with the reduction in working hours or to tackle the issue at all”.

It comes as Deutsche Bahn has been announcing its new timetable for the end of 2023 and 2024, plus price increases for customers. 

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Restrictions for weeks: Berlin’s central S-Bahn lines close for construction

Commuters in Berlin will need to navigate around the city's most popular S-Bahn lines for weeks. Visitors stopping by the capital on their summer vacation will also be affected.

Restrictions for weeks: Berlin's central S-Bahn lines close for construction

A section of Berlin’s S-Bahn – the city’s busiest central train line – closed on Wednesday for construction works expected to last two weeks.

This initial closure is scheduled to last until July 29th, with no above-ground S-Bahn trains running between Alexanderplatz and Tiergarten during this time.

A handful of the capital’s main lines are affected: S3, S5, S7, S75, S9.

The same routes will remain closed between Friedrichstraße and Tiergarten until August 7th.

Then between August 7th and September 4th, the section between Friedrichstraße and Zoologischer Garten will remain partially closed, with just one train passing through this section of track every 20 minutes.

The closure will have significant impacts on daily commuters and visiting tourists alike, as the repairs are set to last through Germany’s summer vacation period.

Replacement services

A rail replacement bus service will be running – first from Alexanderplatz and Zoologischer Garten, and then from Friedrichstraße and Zoologischer Garten – during the closures.

But you can also try switching to a regional train on the same section.

The regional lines are not affected by the construction work. Options include: RE1, RE2, RE7, RE8 and RB 23.

Keep in mind that regional trains don’t stop at every station that S-bahn trains stop at. On the affected section, regional trains only stop at the larger stations of Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstraße, Hauptbahnhof and Zoologischer Garten.

READ ALSO: How travelling on German trains has become a nightmare for foreigners

Between Alexanderplatz and Hauptbahnhof, passengers can also take the underground U5 line. Or between Alexanderplatz and Zoologischer Garten, you can take the U2. 

For those crossing the city centre completely – from Ostkreuz and Westkreuz – you’d be best served sticking to the Ringbahn lines S41 and S42.

What’s happening on the tracks?

Being one of the busiest railway lines in the capital, Berlin’s S-Bahn requires renovation work regularly, much of which is carried out during school holidays. 

Long-distance and regional trains were paused on the same section of track this past spring. Now Deutsche Bahn needs to repair parts of the S-Bahn line.

DB is renewing fastening points on the line, and replacing some sound absorbers and joint transitions on the bridges near the main station.