A French-designed train began operating South Korea’s first high-speed rail service in April 2004.

The 185mph KTX train cuts 90 minutes off the 250 mile journey from Seoul to Pusan.

Passengers welcomed the train, which they saw as a source of national pride.

"It is amazing our country has this kind of technologically advanced transit system," said Lee Jae-gul, a college student. “I’m proud of it."

The £7billion project should cut motorway traffic, and free capacity on other rail lines to allow more freight.

Eventually two lines will serve Pusan, Mokpo and cities along the route.

The journey time will be cut further to just under two hours once high-speed tracks are completed all the way to Pusan by 2010.

Officials say the service will also persuade people to switch from short-haul flights.

"With the beginning of the KTX service, the transport system of South Korea will be reorganised," Song Seung-Myoung, public relations director for the Korea Train Express, told Reuters.

Train conductor Kim Ok-kyun, an 18-year veteran of the state railroad, said he had been doubtful the KTX project would be completed. "But it is all done and we launched service today. It is wonderful."

Officials said they eventually expect about one million people a day to use the service.

The train, which is a quarter of a mile long and can carry 935 passengers, uses the same technology as France’s TGV train network. It was built by Alstom.

"Its effects on our life and economy will be enormous," said Choi Yeon-hye, a professor at the Korean National Railroad College.

He said he expected the KTX trains to boost the economy as Japan’s bullet trains had done so.

Information from Reuters