French high-speed rail link opens
PARIS, France -- A new French high-speed train has streaked from Paris to Marseille in just under three hours.
The TGV Mediterranee train made the 770km (480-mile) run in two hours 57 minutes despite an unexplained two-minute stop just south of Avignon.
It left Paris on its inaugural journey seven minutes late because of a protest by rail workers.
It sped past the lavender fields and vineyards of Provence to the Mediterranean port city, reducing the journey time by one hour and twenty minutes.
The new Paris-Marseille link cost 25 billion Francs ($3.25 billion) and took 12 years to complete, including seven years of research.
It has been dubbed the TGV Med, from the French for high-speed train -- Train a Grande Vitesse.
Public services on the new link start on Sunday. Already 100,000 people have made reservations for the week of June 11 and 550,000 travellers are scheduled to make the journey before August -- a rise of 40 percent.
There will be 17 daily trains, and the price of a Paris-Marseille ticket in economy class is $65.
French President Jacques Chirac decided to fly to Marseilles with his wife, Bernadette, to take part in the official inauguration of the train.
The state-owned rail operator SNCF hopes the new link will attract six million new passengers over three years, boosting passenger numbers from 18 million to 24 million.
New double-decker carriages, boasting a blue-and-silver colour scheme, will be added to the stock by 2004.
No TGV fatalities
The bad news is for the railway's main competitor, Air France. As the company's president Jean-Cyril Spinetta has admitted, a three-hour journey between Paris and Marseille means the train will take about 60 percent of the market.
Air France is expecting to lose about 700,000 passengers every year.
"It's an extraordinary feat," Transportation Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot told LCI television on Thursday.
Before the new high-speed link was built, it took 4 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 465 miles between Paris and France's second-largest city on the Cote d'Azur.
The French already have high-speed links with other cities, including the Eurostar to London.
A high-speed link to Strasbourg on the border with Germany is expected to be running by 2006, bringing the eastern city to within 2 hours 20 minutes of Paris.
An under-the-Alps link between the central French city of Lyon and the northern Italian city of Turin is expected to be ready in 20 years. Other high-speed links planned include a link via Perpignan through the Pyrnees to Barcelona in northern Spain.
But the TGV Med is a key part of the network because it opens up French cities to other major European cities, via the link with Paris.
This latest engineering triumph is also promising to boost the economy of Marseille, and other southern towns along its route, including Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.
The trains are built by engineering company Alstom. No one has ever been killed on a TGV, partly thanks to technology that stops the wagons from rolling over when they derail.
Since the first high-speed rail link was opened between Paris and the central city of Lyon in 1981, rail travel has flourished in France.
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