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Oct 12, 2012

Bombela ponders capacity, extended hours as Gautrain enters year three of operation

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Gautrain ridership has seen average growth of 5% each month since May, with between 37 000 and 40 000 people currently using the train each day. The highest daily number to date stands at 42 000 train passengers.

These numbers “are significantly higher than we anticipated at this stage of the operation”, says Bombela Concession Company (BCC) executive Errol Braithwaite.

The Gautrain system is operated by the Bombela Operating Company (BOC), a subcontractor to the BCC. The BOC is lead by French transit specialist RATP Development, a member of the company responsible for, among others, operating the Paris Metro train system.

The Gautrain is a public–private partnership between the Gauteng government and the South African–Canadian–French BOC.

Following the opening of the Pretoria to Rosebank leg in August last year – adding to the OR Tambo International Airport to Sandton route that opened in 2010 – Gautrain ridership has grown steadily and is now 60% higher than it was 12 months ago.

The final link in the system, connecting Rosebank station to Park station in downtown Johannesburg, opened in July this year, following engineering work to reduce water ingress into this tunnel section’s drainage system.

Gautrain bus ridership currently stands at between 13 000 and 14 000 people a day, which is more than 100% growth from August 2011.

“Considering that all of this growth reflects not only a simple purchasing decision, but a fundamental change in consumer behaviour and, recalling the initial scepticism of the market, it is clear that the project has been exceptionally successful at gaining market traction,” says Braithwaite.

Recent fuel price hikes and the threat of tolling on Gauteng freeways have also acted as incentives for commuters to swap their cars for the Gautrain.

However, it has not all been plain sailing for the Gautrain system since it first opened its doors in June 2010. The BCC has seen its share of challenges since the start of operations, such as cable theft, with the future promising even more, especially in terms of peak capacity.

Bus Punctuality
An independent survey conducted for Bombela each month by Catalyst Research indicates that users rate the punctuality of the Gautrain, as well as how clean, comfortable and easy to use it is, at well above 90%, on average, from July 2011 to June 2012.

The lowest-rated factors were bus punctuality and value for money. However, these were still rated at 89% and 91% respectively.

These figures are also despite illegal strikes by bus drivers in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and a series of cable thefts and electrical problems which halted the train in its tracks in 2011 and 2012.

Braithwaite explains that highly publicised events – such as cable theft, which potentially stop operations for a few hours at a time – have led some members of the public to believe that there “are doubts about the reliability and punctuality of the Gautrain”.

“The truth is that BOC has consistently operated the service at an average monthly punctuality of nearly 99% since inception. This is comparable to the best systems anywhere in the world. It is, however, a reality that delays will and do occur from time to time. We fully appreciate that this is a huge inconvenience to commuters.”

Braithwaite says the dispute with bus drivers following their illegal strike has been addressed through due legal process by the bus operator, MegaExpress (a subcontractor to the BOC), and that the copper cable theft issue has also received attention.

“With input from the national key-point unit of the South African Police Service, we implemented some focused security inter- ventions following the thefts. We also engaged with representatives of the second-hand metals industry, and appointed additional special patrols to guard the reserve at night.

“Since we have done this, there have not been serious disruptions. But we cannot say the problem is resolved,” warns Braithwaite. “You will never be able to say that. We will forever remain a target.”

Safety and security on board the Gautrain and at its stations seem to be to passengers’ satisfaction.

Since starting operations in June 2010, zero passenger-related contact crimes have been reported on the Gautrain system – streets around stations are outside the Gautrain’s jurisdiction and are excluded – with 34 property crimes on the books, primarily from vehicles left unlocked in the parking areas.

Capacity Conundrum
It is a stated objective of the Gauteng government to ramp up the Gautrain system to a daily ridership of more than 100 000 train passengers a day.

However, Braithwaite says: “Based on the current timetable and ridership patterns, if every train from 05:30 to 20:30 ran at full capacity, we would still only move about 79 000 people a day. That sort of take-up would be unprecedented anywhere in the world”.

How does this discrepancy arise then?

Braithwaite says that part of the answer lies in the ridership patterns which were expected while the project was still being conceptualised.

Project planners expected selling a seat between Johannesburg and Pretoria more than once during a single journey. In other words, passenger A rides from Hatfield to Centurion, and passenger B then takes his or her place from Centurion to Rosebank.

However, people seem to prefer longer, more expensive trips and, thus, there is limited seat churn. (Revenue, and not only ridership, should also serve as an important indicator of the success of a subsidised system but, unfortunately, nobody is talking fare box income when it comes to the Gautrain.)

Besides, even at 40 000 passengers a day, it appears capacity is fast becoming an issue on the Gautrain, especially during peak hours.

The Gautrain system owns 24 train sets of four cars each, and runs these in different configurations at 12-minute intervals during peak periods.

“Current ridership patterns indicate that the system already operates close to capacity in the peak-flow direction during peak times – such as southwards from Centurion to Rosebank in the morning – but there is still capacity in the counter-flow direction during peak times, as well as across all routes in off-peak periods,” notes Braithwaite.

“We are considering several strategic interventions to fill the available seats, promote modified ridership patterns and grow the overall patronage. For instance, we would like to see employers and employees perhaps implementing more flexible work hours. If you can travel off-peak, you should. We have also formulated proposals to the Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) to incentivise passengers to do that.”

The Gauteng government’s GMA oversees the Gautrain system.

Braithwaite says capacity has already been increased three times during the morning and afternoon peaks on the north–south line this year, adding roughly 30% of capacity to the system during this time. Monday morning capacity on the airport line was increased on September 3.

“During peak periods, roughly every second train is now an eight-car train.”

Sometimes, he says, all a passenger looking for a seat has to do is wait a few minutes for the next train. Also, passengers complaining about a lack of seats should remember that the Gautrain was designed with 30% standing capacity, in accordance with international practice on similar rail commuter systems.

Running the trains at closer intervals to further increase capacity also has its limits, adds Braithwaite, as the current signalling configuration allows for ten-minute train headways at best.

The BCC is scheduled to have completed an updated passenger-demand forecast by August next year, which should give it a better idea of what to expect going forward.

“We need some historical data on a fully operational system to build a more reliable forecast,” notes Braithwaite.

Interesting trends noticeable to date are that the Gautrain carries more people to the airport than from it, more people on a Friday than any on other days of the week – there is, in fact, a slow build-up from Monday – and fewer people during Easter and Christmas holidays.

The user profile is roughly 54% female, 43% black, 39% white, 8% coloured and 9% Asian. Those aged between 35 and 49 are the Gautrain’s biggest customers, at 40%, with those between 25 and 34 second, at 35%.

Bus Routes Changing
Rumours surfaced in the past months that the BCC was looking for smaller, more nimble buses to run the Gautrain routes. However, “as things stand, we are focusing on optimising what we have”, says Braith-waite.

This means Gautrain passengers will see some route and system changes from the middle of October, subject to municipal approval, but the large golden and brown buses will not disappear.

One big change already implemented is that some of the long articulated buses from the Pretoria city centre have been moved to rather service the Johannesburg city area.

This comes on the back of the strong morning peak from Centurion into Johannesburg, where a large number of passengers requires dispersal – as opposed to the originally expected influx of passengers to the Pretoria city centre station.

“We see distinct feeder (towards a station) and distributer (away from a station) travel patterns among bus passengers,” adds Braithwaite. “These patterns reverse in the afternoons.”

New Gautrain bus routes will include a route past the University of South Africa, towards Groenkloof, from the Pretoria station, as well as a second route from Rhodesfield station, this one past the airport to Emperor’s Palace. Some Rosebank routes will be somewhat curtailed.

While several people have commented that the Gautrain buses appear empty most of the time, Braithwaite says it should be borne in mind that the Gautrain is primarily a commuter service with distinct and busy morning and afternoon peaks. Demand between peaks is naturally much lower – as is true for any public transport service.

“It’s the reason that you see far fewer mini bus taxis and metro buses on the roads between 09h00 and 14h00. Metrorail and Gautrain train services and even domestic flight services are no different. The fact is that 13 000 bus passengers are carried every day and that bus user numbers are steadily growing.”

Longer Operating Hours?
It is a regular feature on customers’ wish-lists for the Gautrain to operate longer than the current 05:30 to 20:30 on weekdays and weekends, and especially on the airport line.

However, longer operating hours mean less maintenance time.

“Engineering hours are vital. Safety and reliability rely on proper maintenance,” says Braithwaite. “Engineering over-runs can result in severe impacts on the service.

“We also have to weigh the benefit of attracting the additional passengers against the cost of providing fully staffed trains, operational centres and stations for longer shifts.”

That said, though, Braithwaite says the BCC has made proposals to the GMA to tweak operational hours to better accommodate passengers, but this still requires approval from the provincial authority.

“We think the service can start at five and end at nine on the airport line without too much cost.”

The BCC has also made proposals to the GMA to operate the entire system to 23:00 on Friday and Saturday nights, and then perhaps start only at 09:00 on Saturday and Sunday mornings, thereby capturing a different passenger market pursuing leisure activities.

“We look forward to engaging with the GMA on these and other proposals designed to increase ridership and better respond to customer needs,” says Braithwaite.

Kiosks on the Cards
Advertising space on the Gautrain system is managed by a joint venture (JV) between the Strategic Partners Group and Continental Outdoor Media. Revenue is shared between this JV, the GMA and the BCC.

This three-way revenue agreement also covers other noncore business opportunities within the Gautrain system, such as WiFi, retail and the provision of car rental outlets.

All these services are certainly on the cards, says Braithwaite.

“We have already done the planning and identified the locations of kiosks to do business within the Gautrain stations. They would typically sell newspapers and cellphone accessories – certainly no chewing gum!”

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter

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