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Germany is facing economic headwinds and industrial strife as it prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its shippers are on the front line – facing extended delays at Europe’s second biggest port due to a series of rail strikes.

This weekend, millions of Germans will celebrate the reunification of the nation, but a crippling four-day strike by 20,000 train drivers – the longest in rail operator Deutsche Bahn’s 20-year history – looks likely to be a party spoiler.

The potential ramifications to Germany’s struggling economy have even prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose coalition government normally distances itself from commenting on strikes – to urge the GDL train drivers’ union and state-owned DB to resume talks to end the pay and working hours dispute – the sixth stoppage in the past year.

The GDL wants a 5% pay rise and a shorter working week for its members, but talks have apparently hit deadlock, amid bitter recriminations.

Most Germans are typically stoic about rail strikes and other industrial action brought by so-called ‘niche’ unions, such as those that represent only small groups of train drivers, airline pilots and doctors but have the power to bring much of the country to a halt.

But this latest rail strike seems to have touched a nerve – German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost described the timing of the strike as “an affront”. And Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was just as critical: “A rail strike on this date is utterly insensitive and is directed against the citizens.”

For freight trains, the strike began yesterday afternoon; and for passenger traffic in the early hours of this morning, with the stoppage lasting until early Monday.

DB says it is still hoping to run about a third of its services on a network that transports 5.5m passengers and carries 620,000 tonnes of freight daily – but there are predictions of severe chaos, and disruption even after the drivers return to work.

The port of Hamburg is the biggest rail hub in Europe, served by 200 international and domestic rail connections operating 5,000 wagons daily. More than 30% of all goods handled in the port are transported by rail. In the first six months of 2014, rail freight container volumes increased 5.3% year-on-year to reach 1.09m teu.

Moreover, Hamburg knows that it needs to drive more traffic to rail and barge services to keep the lid on the landside congestion that blighted the port earlier in the year, but this prolonged rail strike will set progress back significantly.

The rail strike could bring a return to a period of lengthy delays in receiving import cargo and leave export containers – the engine room of the German economy – stranded at rail heads.

It is another blow to the ambitions of the port and follows news last month of a further delay on the decision on the deepening and widening of the navigation channel of the lower and outer Elbe – regarded as essential if Hamburg is to cope with the rapid increase in the deployment of ultra-large container vessels.

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