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Jul 30, 2010

Gautrain beats all ridership expectations in first month

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The Gautrain carried more than 400 000 passengers in its first month of operation.

The first phase of the rapid rail link started ferrying paying customers between OR Tambo International Airport and Sandton on June 8, in time for the FIFA World Cup kick-off on June 11.

“We expected a third of this number, so the additional passengers were a very nice surprise – it was a fantastic compliment for us,” says Bombela CEO Jerome Govender.

“We are also proud that we carried these pas- sengers without major incident.”

Bombela is building and operating the Gautrain for the Gauteng provincial government. The completed project will link Pretoria, Johannesburg and the airport by 2011.

Despite the good showing at the turnstiles, Govender believes passenger numbers for the first month of operations are bound to be skewed by the World Cup and the long school holidays, and that it will only be possible to gain a clear idea of the rail link’s normal traffic over the next three months.

He notes, though, that it bodes well that the system carried “a good mix” of regular commuters and “curious folk” during its first 30 days.

A sleep-deprived Govender and his team were a regular sight on the Gautrain as it started opera- tions.

They test-drove the system for hours on end, assisting commuters and ironing out operational issues as they stepped off one train and onto the next.

It was especially weekends, when Gautengers on holiday made use of the Gautrain for family outings, that presented the biggest challenge.

“Until the first day of operation, all knowledge is really only theoretical,” muses Govender. “Ridership levels are all just desktop studies until you open the gates.”

More than 40 000 people showed up at the four operational Gautrain stations over the first week- end, literally queueing for hours to buy their gold cards and get on the 160-km/h ‘fun ride’.

Trains had to be rescheduled from 30-minute intervals to eight-minute intervals to cater for demand that weekend, and Bombela was forced to exercise careful crowd control on the platforms to make sure no one was trampled. Bombela deployed nearly every team member on its payroll to handle the throngs of people.

On one of his many Gautrain rides, Govender ran into a large family from Lenasia.

Like so many South Africans, it was obvious that it was the first time they had made use of a train.

As they failed to press the button to open the doors at the Marlboro station, Govender rushed to assist, but they still missed their stop. He then helped the family to make a round trip, returning to Marlboro station by way of Sandton.

“As I helped them off, the grandmother of the family asked me: ‘So, are you the conductor?’” Shrugging his shoulders and laughing, he replied: “Yes, I am. We all did all kinds of jobs this past month.”

It was good to see people use a train for the first time,” says a much more relaxed Govender than the man Engineering News ran into on the first day of operation.

And, if the holder of a master’s degree in urban planning and an MBA from Wits had to do it all again, what would he do differently?

Govender says Bombela has received many suggestions from the public on how to improve the Gautrain experience.

“One thing we can do immediately is to improve signage, especially at Sandton. A lot has been done already, but we can do more.”

Another suggestion has been that the Gautrain should operate earlier and later than the current 05:30 to 20:30 time slot, especially as many flights at OR Tambo International Airport depart and arrive before and after these hours.

“But we can’t simply implement this, we have to have discussions with the Gautrain Management Agency (the Gauteng government body), as they really are our regulators.”

Govender adds that it would really only be prudent to change the system once there is a reliable operational pattern evident – and one that falls within a “normal” period of the year.

While the Gautrain has raked in ticket sales, the Gautrain bus system, carrying people to and from the stations, has had less success, but, once again, Govender believes it is premature to pronounce a judgement on its future.

“People still need to [get to know] the bus system.”

Meanwhile, construction on phase one continues, with work on the Sandton station only to be completed by the end of the year.

Bombela rushed to ready the first phase for operation in time for the FIFA World Cup.

After negotiations with government failed on securing additional funding to accelerate the pro- ject so that phase one would be ready for the global sports event, Bombela made a new, no-cost proposal to have a somewhat scaled-down first phase operational on June 11 – hence, the incomplete Sandton station.

Contractually, the first phase had to be ready by the end of June, but Bombela argues that the end of 2010 was a more likely date for this to happen, owing to what it says was the late handover of land from the Gauteng government for project construction.

“It was inconceivable for Bombela not to have the project ready for the World Cup,” notes Govender.

“Our team worked round the clock to make it happen, and we are very proud that we were able to do it. I think the Gautrain added to the world-class experience football fans from around the world had in South Africa. It took a superhuman effort, but we did it. It became a personal mission for each and every one of us to achieve this goal.”

Govender emphasises that the initial success of the Gautrain cannot be attributed to any one person or organisation “but that it was the collective effort of many organisations and contractors and hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals to whom I am very grateful”.

He adds that many elements had to come together to achieve a June 8 ribbon cutting. Apart from construction work, the project also had to receive the final sign-off from the Railway Safety Regulator, and the Independent Certifier.

And now that phase one is operational, what does Bombela have to achieve next?

Govender says phase two, the link between Pretoria and Johannesburg, has to be ready to open in April next year, and is currently running roughly one month behind schedule.

“We’ll go through a process to see how to deal with this.”

Also, to ensure phase two opens with equal applause and public enthusiasm, Govender and his team have to make sure phase one remains an operational success.

“We need to keep on building confidence that the Gautrain is safe and reliable. We have to keep the trains on time; we have to keep the pressure on. One month’s success does not mean we have been successful. Our challenge now [is greater]. We have to deliver phase two, and operate phase one successfully.”

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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