LEAVING aside the unusual spectacle of German railway staff striking for higher pay, controversy continues to dog government plans to privatise all or part of Deutsche Bahn. Officially, the aim is still to push a bill through parliament before the next general election in 2009, but this is looking increasingly unlikely as arguments ?rage over the sale formula.

Matters came to a head at the Social Democrats' party conference at the end of October when a resolution was passed to the effect that private investors should not be allowed to hold sway over policy at DB. To avoid this, the party suggested that the proposed 25·1% stake should be sold on the stock market in the form of non-voting shares, allowing the government to retain control.

This proved quite unacceptable to the Christian Democratic Union, senior partner in the governing coalition, not least because it would make the shares less attractive and lower the value of the sale. Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee had no option other than to launch another round of negotiations to try and agree a formula.

Despite the government's wish to avoid further delays, the parliamentary transport committee charged with forging a compromise postponed discussions from November 5 to November 12. This gave the opportunity for a ministerial delegation to meet DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn on November 8, and the government came up with revised proposals in time for the committee's deliberations.

Media sources indicate that the Social Democrats' idea of non-voting shares has been ruled out. One option up for discussion is to set up separate holding companies for infrastructure and operations, with the state retaining 100% of the infrastructure company.

The government is meanwhile drawing up alternative plans should its hopes of selling off all or part of DB finally collapse, with the release of up to €550m of state funds for urgent investment.