Passenger train drivers in Germany walked off the job on Wednesday and vowed not to return for six days in a strike over working conditions and pay that is expected to halt most long-distance and commuter rail travel across the country.
The strike, one of the most significant on the national rail service in years, was announced on Monday by Claus Weselsky, the chairman of the G.D.L., a union that represents German train drivers. Mr. Weselsky, in a terse news conference, said that negotiations with rail bosses had broken down and accused the chief negotiator of the national rail company, Deutsche Bahn, of “trickery and deception,” especially with regard to the latest offer.
The rail strike, the fourth in two months, comes amid a risk of reduced funding for the rail system after a court decision that stopped the government from repurposing money from a coronavirus pandemic fund for green projects. It also comes amid a trend of worsening performance of German trains. More broadly, there is general dissatisfaction with the administration of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which is plagued by infighting and seen by some as being removed from the problems facing regular Germans.
This time, the walkout is scheduled to run through the weekend and will therefore affect more leisure travelers than the recent previous strikes, which have taken place during the week and lasted no longer than three days. Drivers of cargo trains started the strike on Tuesday evening.
About 7.3 million people ride trains in Germany operated by Deutsche Bahn every day, and the number is growing as more travelers switch to rail amid concerns about climate change. Deutsche Bahn trains also move roughly 600,000 tonnes of freight each day, according to federal data.
Deutsche Bahn tried to obtain an emergency injunction before a three-day walkout this month, but a court in Frankfurt found that the union had the right to strike. The company said on Monday that it would not go back to the courts to try to force employees back to work.
The most contentious issue in the labor dispute is the number of hours drivers who work on a shift schedule are required to work. The union has demanded a 35-hour week, while Deutsche Bahn has offered 37 hours a week. Drivers currently work a 38-hour week. The union is also demanding a pay increase of 555 euros, or about $600, per month for all of its workers, which amounts to an 18 percent increase on starting salaries. Deutsche Bahn’s latest offer, which the union rejected, would see a nearly 13 percent increase for those workers who work the full 38-hour week.
Mr. Weselsky said that his union was pushing for the changes to make the job more attractive to younger people.
On Monday, Volker Wissing, Germany’s transportation minister, criticized the strike, saying that the conflict over contracts was taking on an “increasingly destructive tone” and that he had “zero sympathy” for the union.
“I don’t think Mr. Weselsky is doing himself or his union any favors with this style,” Mr. Wissing said.
As in many other European countries, trains in Germany are an important mode of transportation for a significant part of the population, offering both regular service between major cities and short commuter trips. Nonetheless, the roughly 25,000 miles of rail in Germany are overburdened, and less than 65 percent of intercity trains ran on time last year, according to Deutsche Bahn’s own numbers. Mr. Scholz’s government has vowed investment to rebuild older lines, but that construction will take years to complete, and the network is likely to deteriorate further in the meantime.
Two main unions represent rail workers in Germany. The bigger one, EVG, settled a dispute with Deutsche Bahn over pay increases to keep up with inflation last year. Those increases amounted to an increase of roughly 410 euros a month, or about $445, and a one-time tax-free bonus worth about $3,100. According to Christian Böttger, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin who studies rail transportation, that agreement has meant that Deutsche Bahn has been more willing to play hardball with the smaller G.D.L., to which most train drivers belong.
“When it comes to the actual issues, the two sides are not that far apart,” Professor Böttger said, referring to G.D.L. and Deutsche Bahn.
Markus Hecht, an expert in rail transport at the Technical University of Berlin, said he was worried that the six-day strike would hurt Deutsche Bahn’s goal of attracting new riders and cargo, one of the stated climate goals of Mr. Scholz’ three-party coalition. If the rail system was seen as unreliable, Professor Hecht said, travelers and businesses might look elsewhere for transport.
“It will have a huge impact that goes beyond just those days,” Professor Hecht said. “It will also have negative long-term effects.”