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Mind the gap: The Gautrain turns 10

On 8 June 2010 – some 10 years ago – the 80km Gautrain rapid rail system with its first 10 stations was launched.


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The engineering marvel not only eased crushing traffic, but it also helped Johannesburg to partially fulfil its brand mandate to be a “world-class African city”.

Jozi finally gets a metro

The Gautrain rapid rail system is Johannesburg’s metro, its subway, its underground — though, like New York and London, much of the system is above ground or even elevated, save for the 15 kilometres between the Marlboro portal and Park Station. It is to Johannesburg what BART is to San Francisco and MARTA is to Atlanta. And, unlike most other urban centres (except for maybe San Francisco), what is particularly smart about the Gautrain is that it does not just serve Johannesburg.

It extends into Ekurhuleni (for all intents and purposes part of Johannesburg, but separated for administrative purposes, as Greater Johannesburg would be too large to administer as a single city).

Of course it also serves Pretoria, hence its naming as the train of Gauteng. This was a particular stroke of genius, to ease the traffic burden on the N1 between the two cities.

Planning the Gautrain

Like the Johannesburg Ring Road, whose planning began in the 1940s, a metro system for the city was actually planned as far back as the 1960s.

Urban legend has it that the ground under Johannesburg was too porous to handle the drilling and tunnelling, honeycombed with mine diggings as it was. But aside from one unfortunate sinkhole in Oxford Road, where the road collapsed during construction (nowhere near the old mining activity), Gautrain and Joburg have taken to each other like a duck to water.

Planning began in earnest in the early 2000s, and by 2006, Parliament gave the go-ahead for the estimated R26 billion price tag. Rumblings and mutterings were heard around the country as non-Gauteng taxpayers were peeved that they should be saddled with the bill for a system they would never use.

Credit must go to the government, however, for their forward thinking and planning: if Gauteng was contributing a third of national GDP to the country (it still does), but the country’s economic engine was being clogged up by traffic congestion, then surely the country could put aside the budget to ensure that the engine was given an overhaul, for the benefit of all.

Gautrain’s planning and construction took place before and apart from the Soccer World Cup in 2010 — although the coinciding times did much to bolster confidence in the country’s hosting of the event.

Even so, no assurances were made that the system would be ready in time for the soccer spectacular. It took some sweet talking from national government to province (part owners of the Gautrain) — and some financial incentives — to try and have something up and running.

The airport line between Sandton and OR Tambo was opened to the public just two days before the opening match at Soccer City. A nation brimmed with pride. The north-south commuter line between Hatfield and Rosebank opened just over a year later in August 2011, while the last leg between Rosebank and Park Station — delayed because of water leak issues in the tunnel — opened a year after that, in 2012. In the interim, buses ran commuters from Rosebank into town. But the project was finally done, and it was every bit the flagship that so many hoped it would be.

The brains of the operation

Credit has to go to the people behind the project, too many to mention all of them here.

These included, but are not limited to, Mbazima Shilowa, then premier of Gauteng, who was so enrapt with the undertaking that it was dubbed the Shilowa Express; Jack van der Merwe, project manager for Gautrain, who has also been enlisted to build phase 2; and Dr Barbara Jensen, who was tasked with integrating the communications of the brand.

With its witty out-of-home advertising (one of the billboards proclaimed, “Quit smoking the M1”), consistent use of the navy blue and gold corporate colours on all collateral including trains and buses, and the generous application of its logo and slogan (“For people on the move” — a clever double entendre if ever there was one), Gautrain’s clear and compelling communications have made it distinctive and given it great brand awareness.

A world-class system

Arguably, Gautrain is unremarkable when compared to other systems around the world. It’s not the longest — that honour would belong to Shanghai, which has been on a building binge of note to match the growth of the Chinese economy. It’s not the oldest — that honour would belong to London, which opened its underground in 1890, a mere four years after Johannesburg was founded (incidentally, London’s system housed residents underground as bomb shelters during the Blitz in World War 2).

It’s not the busiest — that honour would belong to Tokyo, where professional “pushers” shove people onto the train to pack ‘em in, before the doors close. It’s not the most opulent — that honour would go to Moscow, where chandeliers and artwork hang in the train stations. And it’s not the most famous — that honour undoubtedly goes to New York, whose subway system has had the starring role in many a movie set in the city.

But there can be no doubt that Gautrain is world class. It’s clean, neat and tidy, a product of good planning and the Singapore-esque draconian application of the rules — no eating or drinking, no gum, no loud noise, no helmets, no bikes unless they are in bags, no rowdy behaviour, no vagrants and hawkers — the list goes on.

For this reason, it was accused of being elitist, but the initial vision of an integrated transport system for all who can afford it, has become a reality, as attested to by its 30 million-plus annual users.

Mind the gap!

From a social perspective, it’s interesting to see how users have adopted the ways of London: as a train disgorges its passengers at a station — Sandton in particular — the people rapidly move up the escalators to exit. The slower ones keep left, the faster ones pass right. It’s the rule of the road, but one can’t help wondering if this interesting little slice of life came about because it naturally would, or because enough locals have been to London and learnt it there.

And although the “train approaching, stand back from the platform edge” announcement in Gautrain stations is possibly a little less eloquent than the “mind the gap” one in London, the Gautrain would be at home in any international city. It reeks of professional, far more than the New York subway system — possibly because it’s so much newer.

Moreover, Gautrain is revolutionary and forward-thinking, being one of the very few metro systems in Africa (it was only the second in Africa after Cairo, and the only other one is in Algiers, which opened in 2011). It’s also one area where Johannesburg pipped Sydney to the post — a stripe it can wear with confidence.

The first line of Sydney’s metro system only opened a year ago, in May 2019. But Jo’burg probably needed it more — there are no navigable waterways on the Highveld, so like Los Angeles, the city is heavily dependent on the car. LA’s own metro system was built for the same reason — to address that.

Future developments

Phase 2 planning for an extended Gautrain is already underway, and if the new vision is realised, the service will cover larger parts of Greater Johannesburg, including the East and West Rand, and bigger portions of Pretoria.

The extension of the Gautrain system includes an airport line that will connect Lanseria and OR Tambo (including a possible link to the proposed midfield terminal there), service from Boksburg in the east to Krugersdorp in the west, and a link between Soweto in Johannesburg and Mamelodi in Pretoria.

The system has had a positive effect on areas near the stations, with a 200% increase in the price of properties in some cases — confirmed by the frenzy of building activity that is currently taking place. Aside from Rosebank and Sandton, numerous other reports suggest that the biggest benefactors have been Braamfontein and Centurion.

Over time, however, it is likely that most of the areas close by will draw benefit, and as it expands, there can be no doubt that the Gautrain rapid rail transport system is on par with the best in the world.