Ahmedabad (India) (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday inaugurated India's first bullet train project -- a $19 billion line in the home state of Indian leader Narendra Modi.
The initiative is a major step toward reviving India's accident-prone delapidated rail network but is also seen as emblematic of fast warming relations between New Delhi and Tokyo. Both want to combat China's growing influence.
The line, using Japanese trains and technology, will link Ahmedabad to India's financial capital Mumbai and is scheduled for completion by the end of 2023.
The 500 kilometre (310 mile) journey 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," Abe told a ceremony in Ahmedabad.
"It marks the beginning of a new chapter in ties between India and Japan."
Abe's visit comes just after a border standoff between India and China in a disputed and strategically important Himalayan area. 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," said Abe.
- Giant step for India -
Modi has pledged billions of dollars for modernising 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," Modi 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 spot for the world's fourth largest network by track length.
More than 22 million passengers commute daily on some 9,000 trains across the British colonial-era network despite frequent accidents and delays.
Trail derailments have already killed more than 200 people this year, including one last month in which 23 died 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.
Japan proudly hails its ultra-efficient Shinkansen for its punctuality and zero-accident record.
The train has a top speed of up to 350 kilometres (217 miles) an hour -- more than double the maximum speed of the fastest Indian trains.
Japan, which is providing some 85 percent of the cost of the new train link in soft loans, will also facilitate transfer of technology and training of local engineers.
The two leaders also signed 15 bilateral agreements as part of the annual India-Japan summit in diverse areas including civil aviation and science and technology.
The premiers welcomed efforts to develop industrial corridors for growth in Asia and Africa. These will be rivals to China's so-called One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative.
Infrastructure linking different countries and regions must show "respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law and environment", the leaders said in a joint statement.
India has opposed China's multi-billion dollar building of roads, ports and other infrastructure. It particularly highlights one corridor from China to Pakistan which passes through Kashmir, a territory disputed by India and Pakistan.
On Wednesday, Modi welcomed Abe at the airport with his traditional big hug before the Japanese premier and his wife changed into Indian dress.
The leaders are known to share personal camaraderie that has accelerated crucial ties between two of Asia's biggest democracies.