Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

Gautrain, one of the world's newest high speed rail systems

To begin my time in Johannesburg, I was able to travel from my house in Cape Town to my hosts’ apartment in Johannesburg without stepping in a car. Traveling to and from the airports on either end, I took advantage of Metrorail, Cape Town’s Airport Shuttle, Gautrain, and a Gautrain feeder bus. Riding Gautrain, Gauteng Province’s new high speed rail line, for the fifteen minute trip from O.R. Tambo International Airport to Sandton was quite enjoyable.

The following day, I sat down with Dr. Paul Vorster, CEO of ITS South Africa. He shared his insights on the history of transport in South Africa and its relation to new developments like intelligent transportation systems and high speed rail. He compared the inauguration of Gautrain to the arrival of the first Ford Model T in Cape Town’s harbor. By itself, each event accomplished relatively little, but they both signaled an impending paradigm shift. In his words, “South Africa is busy with a transport revolution,” and Gautrain is leading the effort to make public transportation “sexy” to discretionary riders (car owners).

Gautrain’s focus on attracting relatively wealthy car owners was an issue raised by many of the project’s critics, who questioned the logic of spending R28 billion (R3 billion of which was paid by concessionaire Bombela) on a project for people who already owned cars when so many of the country’s non-car-owning households face serious mobility constraints. Dr. Vorster’s response would be that congestion, especially along the Ben Schoeman freeway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria, is crippling the economy; if Gautrain gets the stock exchange president to his office on time, he can spend more time creating jobs and less time sitting in traffic. Gautrain is not in itself a comprehensive mobility solution, but rather a “strategic intervention” that can help catalyze a public transport mindset for the whole country. Indeed, one-time critics of the project, such as Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin, have recognized this paradigmatic value of the project:

Transport Deputy Minister Jeremy Cronin hoped that the Gautrain would change mindsets around public transport. He also hoped that this would encourage the public to choose rail instead of road transport. “Indeed this event has presented an opportunity that we can all draw lessons from. It has generated the energy and drive that this country will need,” said Cronin who also enjoyed a ride on the train.

Gautrain has become a luxury brand, with one of the hotels in Sandton even being named The Gautrain Hotel. High-end redevelopment around Sandton alone is valued at about R25 billion. Thousands of passengers have been able to appreciate Gautrain’s sleek looks, smooth ride, automated fare collection, dedicated security, and convenient 12-minute headways during peak hours. While the airport link has been well-utilized, the associated feeder bus services have not been. This may change when the full 50-mile link to Pretoria and Hatfield begins revenue service at the start of July. The video below gives an entertaining and informative overview of the project:

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