THE build-up to South Africa hosting the World Cup was rather like expending lots of respiratory energy on blowing up, very gradually, a huge balloon. It was at its optimum throughout June and into July, but for me burst when the new working week rolled around on July 12.

But what does this now mean for South Africa's commuter transport industry after that 30-day euphoric national experience? Besides an economically and psychologically prescribed dollop of post World Cup blues, where do South Africa's passenger services really lie now?

As the country's first rapid rail project, the Gautrain commuter rail service aspires to be a transport trend-setter. The first phase, which links Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport with Sandton, opened just three days before the World Cup kicked off and all went well during the 30-day extravaganza, with hopes high that the Rand 25 billion ($US 3.28 billion) project will fulfil its early promise and become an everlasting piece of the World Cup's legacy.
However, Gautrain has often been publicly criticised as an elitist folly, aimed at impressing a few forlorn arrivals at the airport and serving the well heeled. Crucially it serves only a very small segment of the commuting population, failing to reach the region's townships whose residents largely have to rely on minibuses to get to and from work. And while Mr Jerome Govender, CEO of Bombela Concession Company, which operates Gautrain, was euphoric about the 400,000 passengers who used the new link during the tournament, he was realistic that ridership is likely to shrink and the extent of the service's true economic viability would only become clear in the coming months.

Another major question raised during development was why Gautrain is 1435mm gauge and not 1067mm "Cape" gauge used on Southern Africa's existing railways? Experiments during the mid-1980s proved that high speeds could be attained on 1067mm gauge track, and choosing the Cape gauge would surely have created opportunities for integration with other rail service providers.

As local transport editor, Mr Milton Webber, commented after riding Gautrain: "If I had been dropped off at the station blind-folded and only opened my eyes once inside, I would have believed I was somewhere in Europe." This says it all - a Eurocentric patch affixed to an African transport fabric.

With Gautrain increasingly visible to peak-time Gauteng commuters, the University of Johannesburg's public transport guru Dr Vaughan Mostert, says that the mere act of throwing infrastructure at a transport problem is not necessarily a commitment to solving these difficulties.

He argues that such moves are unlikely to turn around a history of weak management of the existing public transport network and that the very pressing needs of both urban and rural South Africa will be better served by addressing the government's estimated Rand 75 billion road maintenance backlog and improving rail connections.

Urban rail services were upgraded temporarily for the World Cup and many of the thousands who descended on stadiums and fan parks used public transport to get there. For many home supporters this was the first time they had used Metrorail's urban commuter trains and municipal bus services.

Executive director of transport for Gauteng province, Ms Lisa Seftel, says that these new transport experiences must surely have contributed to perceptual changes. However, will there be a long-term change of mindset in a society that has historically been strapped into its cars because of the lack of sophisticated, efficient and user-friendly commuting options? Taxis still rule in terms of fare, availability and versatility, if not always being terribly safe.

Time-wise, Metrorail is more commuter-friendly than the Rea Vaya bus system in Johannesburg - the service does not extend beyond Soweto and stops at 18.00 - yet commuter rail services are a victim of South Africa's crime problems and therefore can be unpredictable people-movers.

Theft of cables makes up 70% of the incidents of theft and vandalism across the whole rail network, with around 20km of copper cable currently lost a month to criminal gangs. Spending on security has increased dramatically with Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) looking to invest Rand 500 million on security alone in 2010-11. But while security on Metrorail services might have been beefed up during the World Cup period, it is not deemed sustainable in the long-term.

All too sadly, I believe that South Africa's mediocre public transport system is here to stay. Transport minister, Mr Sbu Ndebele, of course, made all the right political utterances post World Cup, but the prevailing thought seems to be that we can relax now the show is over. While it is hoped public transport networks will go from strength to strength, South Africans will have to see it before they can believe it, a prospect only likely a long time after the event of 2010.