Gautrain Rapid Rail Link: The fast-train to socio economic development

Transportation can radically change lives for the better. Certainly the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link service had that very much in mind at its conceptual stage and is delivering on that theory in practice.

GautrainThe Gautrain Rapid Rail Link system covers approximately 150 kilometres of dual track and includes 10 stations currently, and providing 2 services operating between Johannesburg and Pretoria and Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport. Passenger figures have risen to an average week day number between 45,000 and 50,000 people.

Of course the project was carried out on a massive scale, causing disruption but creating a vast number of jobs – which was always the intention. The Gautrain Rapid Rail Link is a Public Private Partnership which is owned by Gauteng Provincial Government, with Bombela Concession Company (Bombela) holding the 20-year Concession to design, build, part-finance and operate the system.

Bombela manages the client (Gauteng Provincial Government) interface and provides an integrated solutions approach for this PPP project, led by an experienced executive team, promising passengers a state-of-the- art transport system.

Working in Midrand, for the Gautrain Management Agency – which represents the local government on the venture, is Dr Ingrid Jensen, Executive Manager Reputation and involved with the system for the past 11 years:

From the beginning of the project it took 6 years to complete planning and the tender process and in 2006 construction began on the project, which took 5 years to complete. One of the routes takes passengers from OR Tambo to Sandton and this was opened 3 days before the FIFA World Cup began in 2010.

Construction took place on a green field site and in addition to building the rail track, required construction of numerous bridges and via ducts.

There were three main drivers for the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link:

The first was the opportunity to stimulate socio economic development through job creation and the transfer of skills, as well as the development of women and youth; secondly the project is a special development project – an urban sprawl management project if you like. We have lots of space in Gauteng but it will not last and it was felt that we needed to do something to develop the land in a more economical manner.

The third consideration was that this is a transport project and the project was designed to develop the economy and help manage urban development.”

The R25.2 billion project was funded from a number of sources, with the Gauteng Provincial Government contributing R13 billion, R7 billion provided by the National Treasury, R3.2 billion from the Concessionaire and the balance delivered by the banks.

Jensen says that the “return” on this enormous investment comes in the shape of job creation and enhanced lives:

During the construction phase, there were 35,000 jobs created directly. We estimate that today there have been 93,000 jobs created directly and indirectly, with opportunities for many service industries like taxi drivers, who have opened new taxi lines to transport passengers from the train stations to their destinations.”

Jensen’s own organization is roughly 50-members strong, while the Bombela Commissionaire employs approximately 2,500 people.

The Gautrain Management Agency plays a monitoring function with the Commissionaire but we also get involved in the whole process of integrating public transport in Gauteng,” she confirms.

The construction phase of course impacted on many people and created a huge challenge for the team responsible. Jensen says that communication played an enormous part in building support and cooperation with communities affected:

We worked in collaboration with local government to create effective communication channels and our message was to thank people for their patience while we worked to move Gauteng forwards through this project,” she recalls.

Maintaining business as usual was a huge challenge and there were road blocks and road closures but also lots of noise and construction vehicles. In one area there were 250 truck trips in one day, in a residential area, so it was vital that we achieved community buy-in,” she continues.

At the same time, such a large scale project is bound to have some impact on the environment and Jensen says that a number of “search and rescue” exercises took place to ensure that local flora and fauna on the green field area was safely relocated before work began on the rail lines.

Of course a rail line has an added environmental benefit as it reduces the number of cars on the roads – and Jensen is quick to point out that residents in Gauteng have a love affair with automobiles.

At the same time, it was identified that mobility is the key to future economic growth in the Gauteng region. It is expected that an additional 2 million job opportunities can be created in Gauteng during the period 2005 to 2025 should the economy of the Province grow at an average annual rate of between 4.5 and 5 per cent, with the local population expected to grow to around 3.5 million people by 2025.

In response to the increased connectivity provided by the Gautrain (and also as a result of the high economic growth Gauteng has enjoyed in the past few years), areas around Gautrain stations are already developing into high-density mixed use areas which will drastically change the urban landscape.

Property values have escalated at areas along the route and several new land developments are in the planning phase such as high rise office towers, hotel developments, residential apartment blocks and various forms of retail and commercial uses.

Indeed, the newly-created stations were designed with the general theme of the native Acacia tree, underlining the sense of local community, as Jensen explains:

“In South Africa a tree in a community is a gathering place for the community – it is like a node in a village and we see Gautrain stations as nodes in the relevant areas.

The public response to the service has been fantastic and if anything, our success has created our biggest challenge: space on the trains, which become crowded in the morning and afternoon rush hours.

We run monthly reports based on daily interviews with customers on our system and ways we can improve it and there is also a monthly Net Promoter Score of 97 per cent, which is a phenomenal score, based around a number of important variables such as the cleanliness of the trains and their punctuality.

People do have to stand at present and whilst we will need to conduct feasibility studies before we can justify adding bigger carriages or running more trains, we are also trying to educate people in regards to their right to a seat. Behavioral change does take time and people do acknowledge that it is better to stand on a train than to not have a train at all.”

The Gautrain Rapid Rail Link is already having a big impact on its surrounding area. A new urban form has already started to take shape near Gautrain’s stations. In the far future, these high-density cores will stimulate additional high-density developments thereby changing Gauteng’s city form to be more conducive to public transport. It will increase economic mobility within the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni triangle.

High-density city areas will enable future Gautrain riders to conveniently live, work and shop along the route. As the density increases at nodal areas along the Gautrain route, Gautrain patronage will increase providing a strong backbone for public transport in Gauteng.

In the meantime, Jensen says that the success of the project has lead to possible plans for expansion:

We are currently undertaking feasibility studies to extend the rail line to 5 additional stations – with one station in Modderfontein already planned, including platforms. We hope that construction work for this could be operational within the next 3 years and parking facilities at the existing stations are already being expanded,” she concludes.