IF transport officials in South Africa's Gauteng province had shown any doubt that their plan to build a standard-gauge railway to connect Johannesburg, the country's economic heart, to Pretoria, the capital, would be successful, the dream would have faded away like the plans to build an underground metro or a light rail transit system or a monorail from downtown to the suburbs.

As it was, critics, including senior railwaymen and transport analysts, had a field day when the project was announced by Gauteng's then-premier, Mr Mbhazima Shilowa, in February 2000. The project - soon dubbed "the Shilowa Express" - would run way over budget, they said. A standard-gauge railway would be an orphan in a country whose entire rail network was 1067mm gauge. Commuter and mass transit railways never achieve the passenger numbers that their backers say they will. Passenger railway systems are ever-deepening financial sinkholes.

Gautrain1Some observers looked at the proposed route, which runs from the edge of Johannesburg and across the affluent northern suburbs to Pretoria, and remarked that Gautrain would be a railway for the rich, all of whom already had their own transport. Nobody would use it, they said, because Johannesburgers love their cars. Homeowners along or near the proposed route objected vigorously - the train would be an eyesore and the value of their homes would plummet. In a country where wasteful government spending and corruption were becoming increasingly prevalent, many believed Gautrain would, at best, be a vast and expensive white elephant.

Certainly, without South Africa's successful bid to host the Fifa 2010 soccer World Cup, the project might indeed have stumbled on any of these obstacles. But Fifa was adamant: to host the tournament, South Africa would have to jack-up its urban public transport, of which the Gautrain project suddenly became a critical, flag-waving component.

With the carrot of the World Cup dangling in front of sports-mad South Africans, Gautrain was suddenly easy to sell to the country. The railwaymen and transport analysts still groused, with one remarking to me in 2003 that the project was "nothing more than the Gauteng transport department's retirement scheme."

Nevertheless, the provincial government forged ahead, and the project went out to tender. A 20-year public-private-partnership agreement was awarded in 2006 to the Bombela Consortium whose principals included Bombardier, RATP International, local construction firm Murray & Roberts and local banks.

Bombela operates the system on behalf of the Gautrain Management Agency, the provincial government department tasked with making sure the project runs properly and is in line with the province's broader transport plans.

Construction started in September 2006. With the World Cup just four years away, Bombela had to work fast. Construction focussed on the key 25km link between OR Tambo International Airport and Sandton, one of Johannesburg's two major commercial districts, and Midrand on the north-south line between Johannesburg and Pretoria and the site of the railway's depot and maintenance facility.

It was a near run thing: the final test runs were carried out in the first week of June 2008, even as international football fans were arriving in their thousands for the World Cup.

Six years later, Gautrain has both confounded its sceptics and proved them right, at least in part.

The cost for the 80km network ballooned from its initial projection of Rand 7.1bn ($US 447m) to Rand 27bn by the time trains started running over the full network in 2012. Some of that overrun was caused by lengthy delays in completing the final section from Rosebank to Park, where engineers battled to stop groundwater pouring into the tunnel.

Gautrain has also struggled to lure people onto the feeder bus system. A fleet of 35 and 55-seat buses is designed to offer a seamless connecting service on 35 routes radiating from all 10 Gautrain stations. In practice, people shun them in favour of driving themselves to stations and parking there, or walking.

There has also been voluble criticism about Gautrain's running times. The first train from Sandton to the airport is at 04.50 - making it impossible for passengers who have very early flights to use the train - while the last trains depart from each terminus at around 21.00 which means the system is irrelevant for people who work in the evenings or who arrive late at OR Tambo International.

An annual subsidy from the Gauteng government - Rand 1.1bn in 2015 - keeps fares competitive, but they are still higher than many commuters can afford: a single journey from Sandton to the airport - Gautrain's premium service - costs Rand 142, while a single journey from Pretoria to Park is Rand 68.

In spite of these shortcomings, Gautrain has earned itself a loyal ridership with 65,000 passengers using the trains every weekday. The Electrostar EMUs cover the 50km between Johannesburg and Pretoria in just 35 minutes whereas the same trip by car takes nearly an hour, and longer at peak times. The ride to the airport is just 15 minutes, half the time it takes by car off-peak.

There are also stern rules governing passenger behaviour and uniformed security guards patrol station platforms and travel on trains to make sure people obey them.

"You can't eat, drink, chew gum, shout or sell stuff," journalist and regular Gautrain user Mr Carlos Amato wrote recently in the Sunday Times newspaper. "Sanctimonious PA announcements hector you about illicit travel cards. The platform benches are a triumph of vindictive design: angled to prevent sitting, in order to prevent the crime of lying down."

Yet despite the petty rules and the security guards blowing their whistles when passengers overstep the yellow line set back from the platform edge, people love the railway. "It's safe, it's smart and it works," Amato said.

As its popularity grows, so does overcrowding. Peak-hour trains are often jam-packed, causing frustration among commuters. The short-term solution will be to add a further 12 four-car trains, the supply of which, along with a new maintenance depot, is the subject of a recent Rand 3.2bn tender from Bombela.


In the longer term, however, Gautrain Management Agency will have to ensure that it can cope with the transport demands of a province which will be home to an estimated 19 million people by 2037. The urgent trick now for the agency will be to forge ahead with its 25-year Integrated Transport Master Plan (ITMP25) which envisages extension of the system to Gauteng's rapidly-expanding population centres to the south, west and east of the city.

As well-meaning as that scheme is, it also reveals some of Gautrain's inherent weaknesses, chief of which is that it runs the risk of existing exclusively for those who can afford to use it.

"Generally it's been very successful for middle-class users," said Mr Guy Trangos, a researcher for Gauteng City-Region Observatory. "One of the challenges is that as it expands, it becomes more attractive to middle-class passengers and doesn't need to drop its prices."

The great risk, says Trangos, is of Gauteng reverting to a two-tier transport system - one for the rich, the other for the poor. Already private gated communities are springing up along the proposed new routes, all selling the attraction of being close to a Gautrain station.

"It could end up with the middle classes having their own public transport system," Trangos said.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Gautrain must compete with the private minibus taxi industry which ferries millions of commuters every day in a vast fleet of 15-seater vehicles and whose safety and reliability varies widely.

Gauteng government's early hopes were for the minibus industry - which is governed by various powerful taxi associations - to be the railway's feeder network along with Gautrain buses and a bus rapid transit system modelled on those in Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia.

Negotiations stalled at an early stage with matters not helped by Gautrain's determination to stick to its plan to operate its own feeder network. The BRT service is finally running following long delays - some caused by taxi bosses threatening violence against bus drivers for "stealing" their customers - but proper integration with Gautrain services remains a chimera.

"A huge opportunity was missed with the taxis," Trangos says. "They should have been brought in earlier as part of an integrated transport system."

Another hurdle for Gautrain will be how to open up its stations so that they attract people to the system by becoming vibrant commercial hubs. Right now, the stations are austere, sterile places, designed for vehicle access at the one end and train service at the other.

Trangos looks to the London Underground as an example of how stations should work. "Tube stations open up onto a street or public spaces, creating a hub that people want to get to," he says.

With the right planning on future station design along with better integration of other transport modes, including the Metrorail commuter trains operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), Gautrain could become a railway used by everybody instead of Gauteng's

That would go a long way to diluting criticism over its hefty subsidy, money which the Automobile Association said in April could have been used to fund the entire annual cost of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project.

The matter has also caused a small ruckus in Parliament with the Portfolio Committee on Transport saying it was "concerned" that Gautrain's subsidy was three times bigger than that received by Prasa which operates nationally and carries many more passengers than Gautrain.

"The [subsidy] is the elephant in the room. What do we do?" committee chairperson Ms Dikeledi Magadzi says.
Whatever the answer, it is clear that Gautrain needs to grow. Some 532 people move into Gauteng every day.

"Our [South Africa's] legacies all come to the fore when it comes to public transport," Trangos says.

Gautrain, however, has the opportunity to do it differently. And, as current inhabitants of the city note, the future citizens of Gauteng will not thank them if they get it wrong.