Union protest stops France's cut-price internet train in its tracks

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The French railways attempted yesterday to reintroduce young people to the pleasures of the train by launching a new cut-price service, copied from low-cost airlines.

Instead, the 500 passengers on the first "internet" train from Paris to the Mediterranean coast were given a lesson in the militancy of French rail unions and their dedicated resistance to change.

More than 400 railway workers, mostly from the Trotskyist-influenced SUD union federation, climbed on the tracks at the Gare de Lyon in Paris to prevent the departure of the first iDTGV - the first train bookable only on the internet. Police cleared the demonstrators from the line and the cut-price service - an additional high-speed train set, coupled to an identical but full-price TGV - departed for Avignon, Marseilles and Toulon 35 minutes late.

Demonstrators blew klaxons and let off detonators, deafening passengers for more than two hours at the station. The unions say the internet-only service, which will be extended to other lines, is the start of a "privatisation" of the state railways system, the SNCF. They also fear that the new service, aimed mostly at the young, signals the beginning of a wider move to internet booking which will destroy the jobs of SNCF staff.

The French railways say that the iDTGV is an imaginative attempt to seduce younger travellers away from cut-price buses and airlines. Tickets for the daily iDTGV service to and from the south can be booked only on the internet. The first batch of seats costs €19 (£13) for a Paris to Marseille single; the full fare is €86.10. All internet trains to the south are booked for the first month of the service. As each batch of tickets sells out, the cost rises; this is the system used by low-cost airlines.

Rail unions fear that SNCF plans to introduce a no-frills, low-cost service across the heavily loss-making network. Laurent Russell, of the railway section of the CGT union federation, said: "We are not against change ... but we don't want to see the drive for profitability come before everything else."