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High-speed trains arrive in Strasbourg

Traveling by train to this city that is home to the European Parliament takes so long that even the boss of France's national rail company prefers flying.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Traveling by train to this city that is home to the European Parliament takes so long that even the boss of France's national rail company prefers flying.

With the arrival of a high-speed train Sunday, the plane trip will no longer be necessary: The new "TGV" service will cut the train journey between Paris and this Alsatian city in eastern France by nearly half — to two hours and 20 minutes.

It's been a long time coming.

Making line a priority
Seeking to improve access to Strasbourg, which also is the seat of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, the European Union included the French TGV Est line among its priority transportation projects in 1994.

But funding problems delayed the venture, leaving France's seventh largest city cut off from the 960-mile network of high-speed train lines radiating north, west and south — but not east — of Paris.

"For two decades we were the victims of Paris-centrism. They'd tell us the line wouldn't be profitable and couldn't be paid from public funds alone because not enough people would travel between Paris and Strasbourg," said Strasbourg's deputy mayor, Pascal Mangin.

"That is such an insular way of thinking. They never realized people would travel beyond France on this line, to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland," he said.

Eventually, the $4.3 billion project found backing from 22 partners that included the EU, the governments of France and Luxembourg, train operators and French regional governments.

Alternative to flying
Trains on the new 252-mile line reaching Strasbourg via Reims, Metz and Nancy are expected to travel at speeds of up to 199 mph, compared to a maximum of 186 mph for current TGV trains.

The line will also greatly cut travel time from Paris to such places as Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany and Zurich, Switzerland, making trains a real alternative to flying.

It will not, however, affect the slow, cramped commute that many EU officials have to make every month from EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to attend parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg.

The new line is part of what planners foresee as a network of high-speed railways stretching from Barcelona in northeastern Spain to Budapest in Hungary. Plans are to create two high-speed axes that meet in Strasbourg: one running Paris, Munich, Vienna and Budapest, the other linking Hamburg, Frankfurt, Lyon and Barcelona.

The EU has earmarked $27.5 billion to finance trans-European rail networks, much of it to five priority transcontinental links that are due to be completed by 2015.

For Strasbourg, the TGV is bringing hopes for more tourists, better business opportunities and a possible development boom.

"TGV is the talk of the town and everybody is waiting (to see) what it will do to the prices. So far we haven't registered a major increase, but let's wait for the trains to roll in," said Florent Fischer, an agent at the Foncia real estate agency.

During a recent tour of Strasbourg's 19th century rail station, which is being covered by a spectacular glass-and-steel arch as part of an $81 million makeover, France's top railway executive marveled at the landmark building — which she was seeing for the first time.

"I've been to Strasbourg before — by plane. I didn't realize this railway station was so beautiful," said Anne-Marie Idrac, head of the SNCF rail company.