Worker sick leaves cause holiday chaos on German railways

Thousands stranded or severely delayed

BERLIN (Reuters) — Germany may have one of Europe's biggest and most heavily used railway networks, but that has not stopped the sickness of four or five signal workers in the city of Mainz causing days of nationwide rail chaos.

Mainz sits at the intersection of major north-south and east-west regional and long-distance lines, and the trains delayed or diverted range from the Vienna-Dortmund and Hamburg-Passau services to those serving the nearby airport of Germany's main financial centre, Frankfurt. Thousands have been stranded or severely delayed.

Deutsche Bahn boss Ruediger Grube has cancelled his holiday to tackle the mess and the firm has acknowledged that staffing problems go beyond Mainz, where the team of 15 signal workers had already been reduced by summer holidays before sickness struck.

"We have a strained situation across the country," one member of the state-owned rail operator's board told German television.

The chaos has topped the news and critics blame cost cuts made in preparation for a partial privatization that was abandoned due to the financial crisis.

With public frustration mounting and an election due in six weeks' time, politicians have been queuing up to try to score campaign points.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have asked Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer to explain the mess. Chancellor Angela Merkel's SPD challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, accused Deutsche Bahn of making "false economies" that had come back to haunt it.

Rainer Bruederle, a senior member of Merkel's Free Democrat junior coalition partners, complained of an "international embarrassment" and said the solution was an overhaul of Deutsche Bahn and a fresh privatization attempt.

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