Africa's first high-speed train

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.”

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.”