Travel on the train of thought: where Nietzsche is in, but love is forbidden

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France, the country which invented the philosophy café, has just had another smart idea: the train of thought. From this week, passengers who book by internet on certain long-distance French trains can arrange to sit next to other passengers with similar interests.

Would you like to travel from Paris to Marseilles while discussing Nietzsche or football or prospects for next year's presidential elections? Would you like to exchange 90 minutes of conversation in French, for 90 minutes of conversation in English? Would you like to learn to knit? Or play snap? Or combine forces to defeat diabolical sudoko puzzles?

All possibilities - save one - are open to passengers who pay an extra €1.50 (£1.03) to consult the declared interests of passengers already booked on their intended train. The one exception, insisted upon by the surprisingly prudish French national railway system, is that there must be no lonely hearts or erotic proposals. "The mission of the SNCF is not to be a go-between for amorous meetings," said a spokeswoman for the state railways, Mireille Faugère.

What a shame. Has the SNCF not heard of the classic British 1940s romantic filmBrief Encounter, which was set in the buffet section at Carnforth railway station? Mme Faugère says that "grown-up" passengers can do what they want (in private) once they meet, but the new service is not aimed at "people who are purely looking for a sentimental or sexual partner".

There will even be a kind of internet chaperone service, manned by the SNCF, to weed out suspected lonely hearts. Anyone judged to be racist or violent will also be excluded.

To use the new service, you must travel on one of the special, cut-price, high-speed trains offered to internet bookers only. The ID-TGV trains connect Paris with 11 cities - Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Bordeaux, Cannes, Marseilles, Montpellier, Nice, Nîmes, Saint Raphael, Toulon and Toulouse - from €19 for a one-way trip.

The internet booking site for these special trains - idtgv.com - will now have a sister site - idtgvandco.com - where you can browse through the interests and offers of fellow passengers. Travellers wishing for help to pass the time will be invited to fill in a questionnaire, with information such as "my best quality", "my job", "my favourite food".

Travellers who wish to spend the entire journey reading The Da Vinci Code, or doing sudokos without help, or admiring the French countryside at 180 mph, have not been forgotten. The SNCF says that specially marked "silent" areas will be set aside in the "internet TGVs" for people who do not wish to eavesdrop on philosophy discussions or English lessons.

The introduction of the cut-price, internet booking trains early this year was opposed by the railway unions, which disliked the idea of the SNCF undercutting its own normal services. The project has, however, been a huge success, and expects shortly to carry its one-millionth passenger.

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