German rail chaos becomes campaign issue six weeks before election

BERLIN (AFP) - 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.