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Superfast rail link opens French gateway to eastern Europe

Zooming east from Paris, the first high-speed train service between France and Germany is to make its maiden passenger journey Sunday as a new international rail link opens to the public.

Running on state-of-the-art new tracks to the French city of Strasbourg, the service will slash travel time to Frankfurt and Munich, opening a new gateway to central Europe with fast links to Luxembourg and Switzerland. Symbolically, the first passenger train to whizz along its tracks will be an Inter-City Express (ICE) operated by Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, leaving Paris at 6:43 am for the four-hour journey to the financial hub of Frankfurt.

France’s superfast Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) will also provide services into Germany from December, travelling over the border for the six-hour journey to Munich via Stuttgart. One of the biggest rail projects in Europe, the TGV-East network between Paris and Strasbourg mobilized some 10,000 workers over five years, requiring 78,000 tons of steel - enough to build eight Eiffel towers. It will provide a much-needed link between Paris and the major cities of eastern France - Strasbourg, Nancy, Metz and Reims - whose region is one of the last to be hooked up to the national high-speed network.

The arrival of the sleek new trains is hoped to give a shot in the arm to parts of eastern France scarred by industrial decline and overlooked by tourist circuits, such as the cities of Metz or Thionville. In a first image boost for the region, it was on the Paris-Strasbourg line that the TGV broke its own world speed record in April, hurtling into the history books at 574.8 kilometers per hour (357.2 miles).

Passenger services on the latest-generation tracks between Paris and the border will run at 320 kilometers per hour - compared to 300 kilometers per hour elsewhere on the TGV network - dropping to around 250 kilometers per hour once inside Germany. Along the TGV-East’s path 17 rail stations have been spruced up and three built from scratch, while gleaming new business parks have sprung up in anticipation of the extra investment and tourism the TGV is hoped to bring.

In Strasbourg - now two hours and 20 minutes from Paris, down from four - the central train station has been given a controversial face-lift with the addition of a giant glass dome to its classic stone facade. Metz has extended a pedestrian-only zone in its center, planted trees and built an entire new neighborhood on a former industrial site, while Nancy is building a giant congress center next door to the TGV station. In the heart of French Champagne country, the city of Reims hopes the slashed journey time to Paris, halved to 45 minutes, will make it a magnet for businesses and commuters. Past experience suggests the TGV can act as a powerful vector for economic development.

In the southern cities of Marseille and Avignon, tourism has jumped and house prices increased 120% since 2001, when a new TGV cut train journey times to Paris to three hours. The French rail operator SNCF has already sold more than 600,000 tickets for travel on the new Paris-Strasbourg line and hopes it will carry more than 11 million passengers a year by 2010. Pride of French engineering, the TGV - which turned 25 last year - is one of the world’s fastest rail services, along with Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train connecting Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, and Germany’s ICE.

Outside France, TGVs provide high-speed links to London and Brussels, and low-speed connections over the French border into Switzerland and Italy. For the TGV-East, the project cost of €4 billion ($5.3 billion) was shared among 22 financial partners including the French government, Luxembourg, the European Union and the SNCF. (