China's first high-speed railway has opened linking up the southern cities of Canton and Shenzhen and cutting the length of the journey by nearly half, official media reported.

The 91-mile-long railway, which opened to traffic this week, is the first step in the government's plans to build high-speed railways to boost the country's railway modernization drive, the official China Daily reported.Construction on the project began in October 1991. Passenger trains can now run as fast as 99 mph, officials said.

With the opening of the new railway, a trip between Shenzhen, which straddles the border with the affluent British colony of Hong Kong, and Guangdong's provincial capital of Canton, is reduced from 2 hours to 70 minutes.

Initially, only two round-trip journeys will be made each day between the destinations. However, plans are to eventually schedule 60 round-trip journeys per day, compared to the present rate of 32 trips daily.

Besides upgrading the double-track railway, a third track was laid for cargo transportation and lower-speed passenger trains, the report said.

Officials in southern China say the railway will contribute to the economic development of the Pearl River Delta, a flourishing area north of Hong Kong and the Portugese enclave of Macao, the report said.

The delta is a magnet for foreign investment and is the site of scores of foreign-funded factories.

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