By Duncan Mackay

President Lee_Myung-bak_at_groundbreaking_ceremony_for_railway_June_1_2012June 1 - South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak today celebrated the groundbreaking for a controversial high-speed railway designed to make it easier to travel to Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

The new 120-kilometre tracks are designed for a maximum speed of 250 kilometres per hour, and expected to cut travel time between Seoul and the eastern coastal city of Gangneung.

The new lines will link the central city of Wonju, about 90 kilometers southeast of Seoul, to Gangneung via Pyeongchang, and will be connected to existing railways running past Seoul to the western city of Incheon, where South Korea's main gateway airport is located.

After being awarded the Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), South Korean Government were forced to deny claims that they had promised to build a direct bullet train between Incheon and Pyeongchang that would cut travelling time to just 68 minutes.

But the new railway, which is due to completed in 2017, means visitors can travel aboard KTX high-speed trains from Incheon International Airport to Pyeongchang without having to transfer trains on special direct services, officials said.

"The Wonju-Gangneung railway is a core transportation route of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and a core infrastructure that will determine the success of the Olympics," Lee said during the groundbreaking ceremony held at the railway station in Gangneung.

"Athletes and tourists arriving from around the world can get from Incheon International Airport to the Olympic Stadium in just one-and-a-half hours on special trains."

Lee claimed the railway will also greatly boost tourism in Gangwon Province and its construction is expected to create some 20,000 jobs in the province alone, and some 44,000 jobs nationwide, and yield economic effects worth a total of 8 trillion won (£4.4 billion/$6.8 billion/€5.5 billion).

Pyeongchang 2018_railway_groundbreaking_ceremony
"By the time of 2018, we are expected to fully join the ranks of advanced nations with our per capita national income exceeding $30,000 (£20,000/€24,000)," Lee said.

"The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be a sports festival declaring the Republic of Korea is not only an economic power, but also a truly advanced nation with sports and cultural capabilities."

Among the dignitaries who attended the ceremony were Jin Sun Kim, the President and chief executive of Pyeongchang 2018, and Moon Soon Choi, the Governor of Gangwon Province.

"We have taken the first significant step to fulfilling our bid commitment of efficient and effortless travel to Pyeongchang," said Kim.

"We sincerely thank the Government and the Korean people for their unwavering support."

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