Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday inaugurated India's first bullet train project — a $19 billion (Dh69.8 billion) line in the home state of Indian leader Narendra Modi which is intended to revitalise the country's vast but dilapidated railway network.
The initiative is seen as emblematic of fast-warming relations between New Delhi and Tokyo, who are seeking to combat China's growing influence.It is also a new beginning for a rail transport system plagued by accidents and chronic delays.
Using Japanese trains and technology, the line will link Ahmedabad to India's financial capital Mumbai and is scheduled for completion by the end of 2023.
The 500 kilometre journey between the two cities will be cut from eight hours now to just over two hours when services start.
"I hope to enjoy the beauty of India through the windows of the bullet train with Modi on my side when I come to India in a few years," Mr Abe said at a ceremony in Ahmedabad. "It marks the beginning of a new chapter in ties between India and Japan."
Mr Abe's visit follows a recent border standoff between India and China in a disputed and strategically important area of the Himalayas. The two prime ministers both hailed the strengthened ties between their countries.
"The Indo-Japan relationship is not just about bilateral trade. It has developed into a strategic and global partnership in the Indian-Pacific region," Mr Abe said.
— Giant step for India —
Mr Modi has pledged to invest billions of dollars to modernise India's creaking railway system that remains the main form of travel for millions. The bullet train is one of his pet projects.
"Today India has taken a giant step in fulfilling a long cherished dream," he said to loud cheers from the audience. "The bullet train project will bring great speed, great development and great technology to the country."
The new train with a capacity to carry 750 passengers is a bright hope for the world's fourth largest network by track length. However, much of it dates from the British colonial era.More than 22 million passengers commute daily on about 9,000 trains across the network despite frequent accidents and delays.More than 200 people have already died in trail derailments this year, including one last month in which 23 were killed in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
Japan is a pioneer in high-speed rail networks and the project is a joint venture between Indian Railways and Japan's Shinkansen Technology. The punctuality and zero-accident record of the ultra-efficient Shinkansen is a source of great pride for Japan.The train has a top speed of up to 350 kilometres an hour -- more than double the maximum speed of the fastest trains operating in India.
Japan, which is providing 85 per cent of the cost of the new train link in soft loans, will also facilitate transfer of technology through training of local engineers.
The two leaders were are also tipped to sign several bilateral agreements at the annual India-Japan summit on Thursday.
it is also believed that Japan was likely to take up the sale of ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft that India has been interested in for several years.
The aircraft is expected to boost India's maritime capabilities against a more assertive China.
On Wednesday, Mr Modi welcomed Mr Abe at the airport with his traditional big hug before the Japanese premier and his wife changed into Indian dress.
The two leaders are known to have a strong personal rapport that has accelerated crucial ties between two of Asia's biggest democracies.