Rail strike paralyses Belguim

A 24-hour nationwide strike by Belgian rail workers left commuters struggling to get to work today, while international Eurostar services between London and Brussels were cancelled.

The Belgian government said it could cost the economy £31m (€39m) in lost business.

Train stations across the country were empty and most people were choosing to either stay home or brave long hours on the roads to get to work.

The strike paralysed rail cargo services to the ports of Antwerp and Zeebruges, causing delays for shipping companies.

High-speed rail services run by Eurostar and Thalys also were forced to cancel their trains between Brussels and London, and between Brussels and Paris and Amsterdam.

The one-day strike started late on Monday after unions rejected a two-year pay and benefits package meant to boost productivity.

Unions demanded higher wages after the state-owned NMBS-SNCB railway company said it was profitable again.

Belgian Economy Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said the strike would mean lost business and cause more harm to the environment as many commuters were forced to travel by car or bus.

“The economic damage is estimated around £31m (€39m),” Van Quickenborne told VRT radio.

Belgium’s four rail unions have rejected a two-year package offering extra pay in exchange for curbs on compensation days and part-time work.

The railways’ productivity rose by 32% between 2002 and 2006, but not at all in 2007. The unions said the offer included an average 2% raise in wages only and no overtime for weekend and night shift work.

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