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Family members stand for a photo in Hong Kong"s West Kowloon Station early on Sunday morning, minutes before boarding the first Vibrant Express train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen North Railway Station in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. ROY LIU/CHINA DAILY

Connection to vast inland network called "extraordinary gift" for nation

The much-awaited Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, or XRL, got off to a smooth start on Sunday in what could amount to a big bang in the evolution of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.

Top officials from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong had thrown their weight behind the impressive engineering feat, which allows Asia"s financial center direct access to the country"s massive 25,000-kilometers of high-speed railways-the largest network of its kind in the world.

"The XRL, as its name suggests, is part and parcel of a package of broader efforts to tie Hong Kong more closely than ever to the Bay Area and the rest of its mother country," Hong Kong"s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said at a summit in the city on Sunday. "The distance between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, never far from the outset, is about to get even closer."

Lam expressed her belief that the gigantic infrastructure project heralds the arrival of a new lifestyle for passengers to and from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

A living example is Minister of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang, who was scheduled to wrap up a business trip in Hong Kong on Sunday and was eager to take the bullet train to Guangzhou to get a taste of the highly anticipated service.

The trains-dubbed Vibrant Express-which have begun running between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, made their maiden journeys to the mainland from the swanky, newly built West Kowloon Station starting at 7 am on Sunday.

Hailing it as "the fresh beginning of a new life", Hong Kong"s Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said the new line is a cross-boundary infrastructure mega project that "every Hong Kong resident should take pride in".

More than eight years in the making, the 26-kilometer project comes as "an extraordinary and meaningful birthday gift" for the country"s National Day on Oct 1, Lam, the chief executive, said at an event on Saturday.

"It"s a well-timed debut as the world"s second-largest economy commemorates the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking reform and opening-up policy this year, offering a historic opportunity for Hong Kong people to see for themselves the economic, social and technological development miracle on the Chinese mainland," she said.

Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People"s Government in the Hong Kong SAR, said the launch of the high-speed rail link and the co-location arrangement-which allows passengers to go through both Hong Kong and mainland customs clearance procedures at West Kowloon Station-shows that the "one country, two systems" principle has been consistently enriched and developed.

The transportation link, which cost about HK$84.42 billion ($10.8 billion), is run by the city"s sole train operator, Mass Transit Railway Corp.

It is Hong Kong"s first high-speed train and will slash travel time to Guangzhou by more than half to 47 minutes, as well as connect passengers from Hong Kong to 44 destinations on the Chinese mainland, including Beijing and Shanghai.

"This is definitely an unbelievable experience, traveling from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in no more than 20 minutes," said a 36-year-old passenger who gave his name as Feng Yan, adding that he is a big fan of high-speed trains and has been a collector of railway tickets for years. He traveled from Beijing to catch the first high-speed train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong and witness the historic moment.

Frederick Ma Si-hang, chairman of MTR Corp, expressed high hopes for the line. "As one of the milestone infrastructure projects since Hong Kong"s return to the motherland in 1997, the Vibrant Express trains have what it takes to go even farther, planting their footprints across every corner of our country," he said.