A high-speed rail network linking cities in the Yangtze Delta took a step closer to completion this week when Shanghai started work on a line to Hangzhou. The 29.7 billion yuan (HK$33.7 billion) connection, expected to be completed by next year, will join up with direct routes already being built between the two cities and Nanjing. A large-scale groundbreaking ceremony officiated by Shanghai mayor Han Zheng and city party chief Yu Zhengsheng was held on Thursday. Reports of the ceremony dominated local media yesterday. The start of the Shanghai-Hangzhou project coincides with the announcement by Shanghai officials that the city is also investigating the possibility of extending its subway network into towns in neighbouring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The move would further increase infrastructural integration of this important economic region. The link from Shanghai to Hangzhou is expected to cut the journey for the 160km route from 78 minutes to 38 minutes. The 251km Nanjing-Hangzhou link is expected to take around 50 minutes, a drastic reduction from the 5? hours it takes now. The trip from Shanghai to Nanjing will be cut from two hours to one. Gu Jianguang, professor of public administration at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said improving infrastructure in the Yangtze River Delta was an integral step in the region's economic development. 'Improved rail links are essential to increase the flow of both people and materials throughout the delta,' Professor Gu said. 'It may increase competition between Shanghai and other cities in the region, but it will also allow for more development of the region as a whole.' Sun Zhang, professor from the communications and transport department of Shanghai Tongji University, said more rail links were needed to reduce pressure on roads. 'Compared with China's economic growth, the country's railway development has somewhat lagged behind,' Professor Sun said. 'Germany's GDP is close to our country's, but the density of railways is more than 13 times as much as that in China, so I think we are in crucial need of railways. 'It is also proper for us to invest more money on it during this economic slowdown.' Shanghai is carrying out a massive expansion of its metro network, partly in preparation for the World Expo next year. More than 100 new stations are being built, and there are plans for the system to criss-cross the city with 510km of track by 2012. A city official said the government was investigating extending this to include peripheral towns such as Kunshan in Jiangsu and Jiaxing in Zhejiang. The city has also pledged to build a controversial high-speed maglev line linking its two airports, Pudong to the southeast of the city and Hongqiao to the west. This line is to be completed in time for the expo, but the municipal government said last month it was still investigating the route. Question marks still hang over the project following demonstrations by residents concerned about potential health effects.