MADRID — Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and King Juan Carlos opened Saturday the country's fourth high-speed rail line, making the country the European leader in the technology.
The 438-kilometre (272-mile) route will slash travel time between the Spanish capital and the Mediterranean port of Valencia, Spain's third-biggest city, from four hours to just 90 minutes.
The project, built at a cost of 6.6 billion euros (8.8 billion dollars), brings cash-strapped Spain's high-speed rail network to 2,056 kilometres.
It places Spain ahead of the 1,896 kilometres of high speed rail in France and 1,285 kilometres in Germany, home to Siemens, the world's largest manufacturer of high-speed trains.
Zapatero says the new route, which will take paying passengers from Sunday, "increases confidence and shows the world that Spain is a prosperous country."
The king said that it enabled Spaniards "to look beyond the crisis and economic difficulties."
The Spanish economy slumped into recession in late 2008 due to the collapse of a property bubble that has caused the unemployment rate to soar to 20 percent, the highest in the euro zone.
It posted zero percent economic growth in the third quarter and Madrid has introduced tough austerity measures in a bid to reduce chronic debt.
Economists say the country is too small in population to make a high-speed network viable, but the government says it creates jobs -- 136,000 for the Madrid-Valencia line -- and cuts carbon dioxide emissions.
Further lines are planned or under construction that would boost Spain into second place globally with 5,525 kilometres of high speed tracks, behind China the world leader with 13,134 kilometres but ahead of pioneer Japan with 3,625 kilometres.
Spain's first high-speed line was opened in 1992 between Madrid and Seville, timed to coincide with the Expo 92 world fair being held in the southwestern city.
Services followed in 2007 linking Madrid to the northern city of Valladolid and the southern city of Malaga, followed by a line to northeastern Barcelona in 2008.