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Africa's first high-speed train

South Africa builds state of the art train for World Cup and beyond.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Forget taxis that get stuck in Johannesburg's dreaded traffic jams. Forget minivans that pack in passengers like sardines.

South Africa will soon have the Gautrain — Africa's first high-speed train that will link Johannesburg and Pretoria to the international airport. Foreign visitors flying into Johannesburg for the World Cup can expect to be met by slick new trains that will whisk them from the airport to the city’s posh Sandton area in a zippy 15 minutes.

Despite earlier reports that the airport rail link wouldn’t open until midway through the soccer championships, it now looks certain to launch in May, with enough time to finish testing and be ready to meet the thousands of fans arriving in June for the soccer tournament.

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But the big question is will the Gautrain — as this expensive rail project is known — find success beyond the World Cup?

The Gautrain — a composite of Gauteng province and train — is a transit experiment, the first of its kind in Africa, will have a top speed of 100 miles per hour and is intended to help transform Johannesburg by getting car-loving commuters onto an environmentally friendly rail system.

The airport link is the first phase of the $3.25-billion project that will by mid-2011 see Johannesburg’s downtown connected by high-speed rail to Pretoria, the nation's capital 38 miles north. Greater Johannesburg has a population of 10 million and Pretoria has 2.3 million. The two cities are rapidly sprawling towards each other and the new train is expected to further the urbanization along the transport corridor.

O.R. Tambo International Airport is the busiest in Africa, serving 17 million people a year. The Gautrain will be the first rail linking the airport to the two cities.

When journalists were taken on a recent test ride of the Gautrain, the computer ticketing machines and turnstiles were in place at the airport and the gleaming new trains pulled out from a platform still under construction at the terminal. The train moved swiftly along the rails.

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Bombardier, the Canadian transportation company that is part of an international consortium behind the project, says it is pushing hard to get the train tested and running smoothly ahead of the June 11 start of the World Cup.

Gautrain spokeswoman Barbara Jensen said that “chances are good” for the project to open ahead of the World Cup, and an announcement about the official opening date will be made on Feb. 22.

Ticket prices have yet to be announced, but according to David Barry, vice president of Bombardier Transportation’s subsidiary in South Africa, the airport link will be a premium service and more expensive, while the commuter rail service will be priced to get people out of their cars.

The Gautrain is selling itself to commuters as being a high-tech, environmentally conscious and fast way to travel through Johannesburg. Security on the train and at its stations has been emphasized — a priority in this crime-heavy city. Promotional material bills the Gautrain as “a golden thread that connects Africa to the world.”