French race towards tunnel service: The 140-mile first stage of the cross-Channel rail link has been inaugurated with a 186mph train from Paris

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THE FIRST section of what will eventually become the high- speed rail link between London and Paris was inaugurated yesterday, at least a year before the opening of the Channel tunnel and probably at least a decade before its British equivalent is finished.

Services on the 140-mile line, between Paris and Lille, will start on Sunday and the remaining 70 miles to Calais will open on 26 September. While in the UK, Waterloo International station, which will serve the Channel tunnel trains, was completed on Monday without hope of seeing a train for at best 15 months, the French have concentrated on building the lines rather than the stations.

At the Paris terminus, Gare du Nord, the French president, Francois Mitterrand, had to dodge the builders' rubble littering the uncompleted forecourt while at Lille, the new TGV station, Lille Europe, is but a hole in the ground and not expected to open until passenger services from the tunnel begin, probably late next summer.

Anxious that nothing should go wrong for the opening of the pounds 1.7bn line, four trains were laid on to shepherd guests for the inauguration from Paris to Lille - one for the press, one for security staff, one for the president's entourage and one just in case.

The ride, which took one hour 20 minutes, 45 minutes less than the conventional train, was extremely smooth, only disturbed by a couple of small detonators placed on the line by commuters protesting about the rise in fares being introduced along with the faster service.

While the signalling on the dedicated line is fed electronically into the train, since the drivers could not be trusted to see lights at that speed, rather quaintly the train is seen off from the station by a man blowing a whistle.

A few minutes out of Paris, the driver announced that we had reached the top speed of 300km per hour (186mph), well under the maximum of 515kph reached on a test run, but which SNCF reckon is the most cost-effective and safe cruising speed.

In the cab, the driver sits so hunched over a horizontal steering wheel, which is actually a throttle, that he can hardly see outside, but that is irrelevant since he only receives instructions through his on-board computer. Each time he is sent a message, it is accompanied by a deafening hooter to ensure that he has not fallen asleep.

The view from the window is more exciting than from any ride in EuroDisney. The train dismisses the contours of the steep gradients with consummate ease, its speed maintained at the same level by computer.

There is suddenly a loud bang as we hit a pigeon, which disintegrates on impact. The driver dismissively says: 'That's the second one we've hit today.'

These trains are only slight variants of those which will be run by Eurostar, the consortium of British, French and Belgian railways, through the Channel tunnel next year. The Eurostar trains have to be narrower to cope with the tunnels in the UK. They also have to be able to be powered by the third rail and different overhead voltage used by BR.

TGV Nord Europe is the third high-speed rail line in France after TGV Sud Est, to Lyons, which opened in 1981, and the TGV Atlantique, which goes to Bordeaux. In that time there have been no passenger deaths.

Not quite everything is as rosy in the French garden as they like to boast. Yesterday the train had to go over a section of old track because the new one between Arras and Lille is not completed, the organisation of the celebrations was chaotic and protesters had to be suppressed by posting policemen on every bridge.

In Lille, there is another mishap as the train arrives at the wrong platform and leaves a few minutes late without some of the press party.

More seriously, French newspapers are warning that the new government is less sympathetic than its Socialist predecessors to extending the TGV to its planned 3,000km network. Liberation warned that choices would have to be made between the 16 new schemes in the pipeline, even though so far the TGV has exceeded expectations and more than paid for itself.

A proposed bypass for Lille, expected to be built by the end of the century, would allow trains to travel from London to Paris in two and a quarter hours, if a high-speed rail link is built in Britain, compared to three hours when the service opens next year.

Despite these potential problems, France is building a rail network that will see it happily into the 21st century while Britain is stuck with its 19th century railways. As Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP and acting chair of the Commons' transport committee, put it at the launch: 'I am very impressed. It makes my heart bleed to see how far behind we are. This really illustrates the gap.'