France's rail strike 'nears end'

French commuters have endured a ninth day of travel chaos, but an end to a crippling strike by transport workers appears to be in sight, officials say.

National rail operator SNCF said 42 out of 45 regional union committees have voted to return to work while talks with the government continue.

Services on the main French rail network should approach normality over the weekend, according to SNCF.

The strike was triggered by President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reforms.

Mr Sarkozy has vowed to press ahead with his plan to reform the "special" pension system that allows some 500,000 transport and utility workers to retire early.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon welcomed the unions' "responsible attitude" in calling for an end to the strikes and paid tribute to the "patience" of the French public.

"The French have been painfully penalised by these strikes. Many have been through unacceptable misery. Some have made incredible efforts to get to work," he said

SNCF said two out of three TGV fast trains were running on Thursday, while Paris metro operator RATP reported that more than one train in three was in service.

SNCF also said that 42 out of 45 union committees across France had decided to suspend the industrial action.

So far this has not been confirmed by the unions.

But one union said the initial voting suggested that its members "should be heading towards a return to work".

"We're heading towards a suspension [of the strike], it's only the form of action that's changing, the determination of the rail workers is intact," Daniel Tourlan, a member of the powerful CGT union was quoted as saying by Reuters.

SNCF later said it expected that its services would continue to improve on Friday and would be almost normal at the weekend. And RATP predicted that 70% of trains on most lines, 75% of buses and 80% of trams would be running.

Meanwhile, the talks between the unions and government and management officials - that opened on Wednesday - have been continuing.

Only the hardline Sud Rail union has so far been refusing to take part in the talks.

The government says it will not back down over the reforms, but that it could offer incentives of salary rises and a top-up scheme for pensions.

The talks are expected to continue for up to a month.

Just hours before the talks began, arsonists sabotaged tracks and signal boxes on the TGV train network.

Signal boxes and electric cables running under railway tracks in several locations on the network were set on fire early on Wednesday, causing even more delays to services already hard-hit by more than a week of strikes.

President Sarkozy called for those who caused the damage to be punished with "extreme severity".

He also urged protesters to go back to work, saying the strike had "already cost users - and strikers - so dear".

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has said the dispute is costing France up to 400m euros (?290m) a day in lost business. ( BBC )

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