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Africa's first high-speed train

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

But Vaughan Mostert, a senior lecturer in transport economics at the University of Johannesburg, questions the project and thinks the focus should have been on providing better service on the city’s existing but highly disorganized and outdated network of buses and trains, before shelling out for new infrastructure.

“It is really not an appropriate solution to the problems that we face,” he says. “Against the cost of putting in the system, the benefits or the amount of cars that it is going to take off the road is hardly worth the effort.”

Mostert thinks that the Gautrain’s long-term success will be hindered by the lack of a supporting public transit system — for example, a properly planned feeder system that will take people to the Gautrain’s 10 stations. While there will be a network of 125 “luxury buses” taking passengers to stations from the surrounding suburbs, Mostert thinks it’s not enough.

What Johannesburg city really needs, he says, is an official transit authority to oversee all public transportation in the city and develop a comprehensive plan with official routes and schedules, a common practice in North American cities. Currently public transport in Johannesburg is “a disjointed, uncoordinated, irrational service, run by a multitude of different operators,” says Mostert.

Despite traffic-clogged city roads in Johannesburg, commuters continue to drive their near-empty vehicles to work and back. Getting them to park their cars and ride the Gautrain is supposed to be one of the selling points of the project.

“It is not energy efficient to carry an average of 1.3 people in a car,” says Gautrain publicity material, which also points out that train travel is one of the most carbon-friendly forms of transportation.

Those who can’t afford a car — the majority of the population — take the ubiquitous minibus taxis, emission-spewing white vans that race around the city, cutting off other drivers and stopping anywhere to pile in more passengers.

A new bus system, the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit, was launched in August but has failed to meet expectations, in part due to sometimes violent resistance from the minibus taxi lobby. The BRT features low-emissions buses, modern stations and an extensive network, although it has already been scaled back in Johannesburg’s suburbs. News that expanded BRT routes would be added next month has brought renewed calls for strikes by the taxi industry.

According to the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which was involved with the planning of the BRT, 63 percent of Johannesburg residents do not own a car. Among those who don’t drive a car, about 70 percent take a minibus taxi.

During the World Cup, many South African cities will offer Park 'n Ride shuttle services to World Cup venues, although in Johannesburg fans will be charged up to R100 ($13) for the service. On non-match days, fans may be stuck having to take taxis to get around.

“People from Sweden or from Germany or England or North America or Japan will expect a little bit more than what they're going to get,” Mostert says about public transportation during the World Cup. “We must be ready for some embarrassment. But you could say that we will probably muddle through somehow.”