The Swiss city of Basel will soon only be three hours away from Paris by rail, as the French begin work on a new high-speed line between nearby Mulhouse and Dijon.
Switzerland is contributing €66 million (SFr100 million) to the project, which took over 16 years to get off the ground despite being given a high priority by the European Union.
A ceremony on Monday will mark the official launch of the Rhine-Rhône extension of the French high-speed network. Approximately 140 kilometres of rails will have to be laid and the new line should be operational in 2011.
For the time being, the tracks will only cover the distance between Dijon and the Belfort area.
But the famous TGVs (train à grande vitesse) travelling along the line at a speed of 320 kilometres per hour will still put Basel just three hours away from the French capital, instead of nearly five now. Passengers leaving from Zurich will also gain two hours.
Travellers from northwestern Switzerland will be able to benefit as soon as next year from shorter trips to Paris with the arrival of the eastern branch of the TGV network in Strasbourg, north of Basel. The journey should only take three-and-a-half hours.
Travel time from Basel could even be cut to as little as two-and-a-quarter hours if all the planned improvements between Paris and Mulhouse – which is just across the border from the Swiss city - are carried out.
Western Switzerland as a whole should in fact benefit from the upgrade to the French rail network.
However, it could some time before this goal is reached since it is still dependent on future funding decisions.
"The regions that contribute to the project have funding problems to deal with, so we have to go ahead with something more modest," said Thierry Zuttel, secretary-general of the Rhine-Rhône TGV association.
The project will be completed in stages and fresh funding will have to be found each time. The work that begins this summer has been estimated at around €2.5 billion.
The Alsace, Burgundy, Franche-Comté and Rhône-Alps regions have pledged €719 million for this first stage, while the Swiss authorities have promised €66 million.
Switzerland is also providing funding for other TGV connections, including SFr40 million for the line between Vallorbe on the French border and Dijon, and another SFr165 million for the Geneva-Bourg-en-Bresse line.
Construction of the Rhine-Rhône line took 16 years to actually get underway despite being selected as a priority project by the EU.
One hindrance was the actual time – six years – that it took the Swiss to decide how much funding they were prepared to give. It was only last year that parliament accepted the credit, even though the French and Swiss governments had signed an agreement in 1999.
swissinfo with agencies
The Swiss parliament accepted in March 2005 SFr1.09 billion to connect national railways to the European high-speed network.
Swiss connections to the TGV network are managed by Lyria, a company owned by the Swiss Federal Railways and the French national railways.
TGVs connect Paris to Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Neuchâtel, Zurich and Brig.
In 2007, a new Paris-Strasburg-Mulhouse-Basel-Zurich will go into service, cutting travel time to the French capital by two hours.
Switzerland is also connected to the German and Italian high-speed networks.
The Swiss are the biggest users of railways after the Japanese, travelling 1,739 kilometres on average per person.
The Swiss Federal Railways carried 275 million passengers last year.
100 million passengers travelled on the TGV network last year.