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German rail chaos becomes election issue

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

German railway chaos that has hit a major train hub for a week and left commuters fuming has turned into a campaign issue six weeks before a general election.

The dispute centres on cost-cutting at rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB), with politicians variously blaming a decade-old free market shift for the problems or arguing it hasn't gone far enough.

The pro-business Free Democrats' election candidate Rainer Bruederle lamented "an international embarrassment" and charged that "an entire region is being held hostage".

"A company facing open-market competition couldn't afford something like this," he told local newspaper the Allgemeine Zeitung, adding that privatisation and an IPO should be considered.

German trains run on time, says conventional wisdom, but not in regional capital Mainz where more than half of the 15 train dispatchers have been on sick leave or holidays in recent days.

DB has adopted an emergency schedule, scrapping trains and forcing hours-long, rippling delays for thousands of commuters and holiday-makers who have drawn nationwide sympathy.

The rail behemoth has argued that dispatchers cannot be shifted from other stations because they must be familiar with local routes and trained for months.

This has not soothed popular anger with the operator, which has also drawn fire in recent years for delayed suburban trains in Berlin and faulty air-conditioning in summer. A third of Germans are unhappy with their service, said a recent survey.

The opposition Social Democrats, struggling in their campaign to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel on September 22, have demanded Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer face an inquest this week.

"The savings were obviously made in the wrong places," said Merkel's rival Peer Steinbrueck. "This is the consequence."

DB management and unions plan a crisis-meeting in Frankfurt on Wednesday, as DB chief Ruediger Grube, unlike the Mainz dispatchers, returned from holidays early.

Rail and transport union EVG charged that at DB there is a nationwide shortage of 1,000 personnel, including dispatchers as well as train drivers, conductors and maintenance staff.

Deutsche Bahn, which carries 5.4 million passengers a day in Germany alone, was formed in 1994 to succeed the state rail monopolies of the former West and East Germany.

It is a private joint-stock company, split into various subsidiaries such as passenger services, logistics and infrastructure, but remains 100 percent owned by the German state.

There were plans under former chief Hartmut Mehdorn to part-privatise the railway company and list it on the stock exchange, alongside a cost-cutting drive, to make it a leaner operation.

The Berliner Zeitung daily said this was the reason DB was struggling in Mainz, the state capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, and elsewhere.

"The chaos in Mainz is only one consequence of the tough austerity measures which the former railways chief Hartmut Mehdorn forced on the company to get it ready for the planned IPO," the daily said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130813/german-rail-chaos-becomes-election-issue