Gautrain arrives in time for World Cup

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg

  • Published

Africa's first high-speed train has started running - just in time for fans travelling to South Africa for the World Cup, which starts on Friday.

Costing a massive 24bn rand ($3bn; £2.1bn), South Africa hopes that its revolutionary rapid transit system will bring some much needed change to its outdated and sometimes unreliable transport system.

Its top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph) - a long way from the world's fastest trains but still far superior to the locomotives chugging along most of the rest of the continent's tracks, which mostly date from the colonial era.

Although the Gautrain was not intended to be a World Cup project, the local authorities and constructors Bombela were anxious to get the main route ready in time for the football extravaganza.

Large crowds turned up to ride on the train's inaugural trip. Narcizo Makwakwa took the train from Sandton to the airport "just for a joy ride".

"After this, I am going to work but I had to see it. I couldn't wait for the past seven years for this, it is beautiful," he told the BBC.

Gaillard Rossouw said the train was the only way he could make it from Johannesburg to the airport for his early morning flight back home to Durban.

"It took me 15 minutes to get here, this is awesome."

A rocky road

Just one section of of the line has been finished - between the OR Tambo international airport and central Johannesburg.

The next section of the line will link Johannesburg to the national capital, Pretoria, 50km (31 miles) away in 40 minutes.

Currently, driving between the two cites in Gauteng province can take up to two hours in peak-hour traffic.

Construction on the Gautrain began in September 2006 and will be finalised in June 2011 when an additional 10 stations, covering approximately 80km (50 miles) are completed.

Close to 100,000 direct and indirect jobs have been created by the construction of the Gautrain, with more than 25% of those going to locals.

Still this high speed system has seen its fair share of controversy.

Critics have argued that it would only benefit the elite.

They said the billions spent on the ambitious project should be used to improve the existing transport system, which includes the old Metrorail network, responsible for transporting two million people daily, instead of beginning a new one.

The Metrorail trains are mainly used as a link between townships including Soweto and Johannesburg.

In contrast to the luxurious Gautrain with its air-conditioned coaches, people are often crammed into the Metrorail's carriages, where muggings have become a common problem.

The trains also sometimes prove to be unreliable - either arriving late or not being available due to strike action, as happened recently, stranding hundreds of thousands.

Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin once expressed concerns that the Gautrain might become a scapegoat for disgruntled Metrorail commuters.

But opposition parties were more concerned that like many of the country's roads, the Gautrain would ultimately be neglected.

"The government is unable to properly maintain and rehabilitate the existing 23,000 km of tarred roads," Democratic Alliance transport spokesman Stuart Farrow said in 2005.

"How is the public then expected to believe that 20bn rand spent on the Gautrain is in their best interest?"

Smart card

Initial estimates for the project were 7bn rand, before rocketing to more than 20bn.

The operational route includes four stations and bus services between the affluent Sandton suburb and the airport.

It will offer a cheaper alternative for airport transfers from Sandton and Johannesburg which on average cost 300 rand ($40; £27.32) but will now cost just $13.

Although offering the benefits of speed and additional safely, it will prove to be more expensive for people looking to commute between suburbs in Johannesburg and in Pretoria, whose costs are currently minimal.

At the moment minibus taxis and Metrorail are the preferred means of travel for many but over the years concerns have been raised about the minibus industry which remains difficult to regulate.

Traffic between Johannesburg and Pretoria is currently growing by 7% each year. If the Gautrain is as efficient as South Africans have been made to believe, it will certainly be useful to those looking to save time while commuting between the commercial districts.

It will operate between 05:30 and 20:30 weekdays, running every 12 minutes during peak times.

This public transport service will include dedicated, exclusive bus services to transport passengers to and from stations.

Commuters will access all services by means of a contactless smart card - the Gautrain Gold Card, which can be topped up with money.

The Gauteng provincial government says this will "revolutionise" how people use the transport system and argues that it will aid economic growth.

New Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the project was "long overdue". He was transport minister when the project was announced in the Gauteng provincial legislature in 2002.

"For too long the people of Gauteng were hoping and dreaming about the day when our public transport systems are on par with the rest of the world," he said on Saturday.

South Africa's hard-pressed commuters - as well as the world's football fans - will be hoping the comfort and speed will prove to be worth the wait.

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