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Finnish, Russian leaders ride new fast train

The president of Finland and the prime minister of Russia zipped along Sunday on a new high-speed train linking Helsinki and St. Petersburg, becoming among the first passengers to use the new service.

The French-built train, with a top speed of 135 miles per hour (220 kilometers per hour), cuts the travel time between the two cities to three and a half hours. The 250-mile (415-kilometer) trip previously took more than six hours, including a stop at the border.

It is the first high-speed rail link between Europe and Russia, Finnish Rail VR spokesman Otto Lehtipuu said on the train as it sped toward Russia's second city.

He was among 200 people who boarded the train in Helsinki with Finnish President Tarja Halonen. The Russians, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, hopped on in the Russian border town of Vyborg for the final leg of Sunday's inaugural trip.

"It was super. It was very fast. We didn't even have enough time to talk," Putin told reporters when they arrived in St. Petersburg.

Putin, who was then president, and Halonen set the joint project in motion in 2001, and major rail upgrades have been carried out during the past five years.

Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin said he hoped foreigners taking the train to St. Petersburg would soon be able to visit for up to 72 hours without having to obtain a Russian visa, a privilege now extended to passengers on cruise ships.

Yakunin, who is close to Putin, said the prime minister has agreed to consider the proposal. Lehtipuu called the initiative remarkable.

The two rail companies hope to carry 250,000 passengers on the route in 2011, 25 percent more than this year, Lehtipuu said.

The trains, built by French engineering company Alstom SA, will initially run twice daily from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, to be increased to four departures from each city by May.

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Associated Press writer Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.