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Mar 06, 2009

Gautrain CEO speaks on deadlines, costs and ticket prices

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After 11 years on the Gautrain payroll, its jovial project head, Jack van der Merwe, can quote figures from the rapid rail link project in quickfire succession, and without the benefit of notes.

He’ll tell you that the Gautrain team is working on 53 sites simultaneously, that it will take 38 minutes to travel between Johannesburg and Tshwane once the system is operational, and that Electrostar Gautrain will be able to run at 160 km/h.

The Gautrain Management Agency CEO, who travelled to Germany in 1997 with the then Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale to “buy a train”, as the politician quipped, indeed has all the numbers at the tips of his fingers – but explains that it doesn’t mean that they are all set in stone.

Once a distant target, 2010 has become a very impatient next year.

The Midrand–Sandton–OR Tambo International Airport link of the Gautrain is to be completed in 2010, and the second phase of the project, inclusive of the links between Sandton and Johannesburg’s Park station, and Midrand to Hatfield, in Tshwane, is to be completed by April 2011.

“We’re working on a lot of sites. Some of these are ahead of schedule, and some are behind. In general, we’re still within the timeframe we have set ourselves,” says Van der Merwe.

He notes that all the big civil works on the 15 km of tunnels, as well as on the viaducts, should be completed by the middle of this year. Building work on the ten stations is set to continue.

“We’ll break down the precast yard in the middle of the year, replacing it with the bus depot and maintenance yard,” notes Van der Merwe.

“This year we’ll be moving away from the heavy civil works, into the electrical and mechanical work.”

The Gautrain will use 125 buses to feed commuters to and from the train stations.

The orders for these buses – all expected to be produced locally – will be placed before March this year.

Tracklaying on the 80-km route is also set to continue this year.

“We need to finish the 7-km test track first, running from the train depot up to Midrand station, so we can do dynamic testing on all of the trains.”

The Gautrain rolling stock of 96 rail cars is based on the Electrostar series.

The first 16 rail cars, plus the body shells for the complete fleet, are being manufactured at the Bombardier plant in Derby, in the UK.

These body shells and some of the major components for the remaining 80 rail cars are then shipped to Murray & Roberts subsidiary Union Carriage & Wagon, in Nigel, on the far East Rand, for final assembly.

The first train has already arrived from Derby, and is undergoing testing at the depot.


The question now is, with all of this still in the pipeline, will the Gautrain be completed in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup?

The R25-billion rapid rail link has never been a World Cup project, emphasises Van der Merwe.

The project was announced in 2000, and the World Cup was awarded only in 2004. In other words, it preceded the sports event by a number of years.

However, despite this, pressure has been mounting from various quarters in South Africa for the first phase of the rapid rail link to be completed in time to ferry soccer fans from the airport to Sandton. Testament to this are the many public declarations by Gauteng provincial government officials that the project will be finished in May 2010, instead of the contracted end of June 2010.

However, the World Cup kicks off on June 9.

“Look, the thing is we can make it,” says Van der Merwe, “but we’ll have to sit down by the middle of this year with Bombela and look at what must be accelerated, and what this involves.

“Yes, it would have a cost implication, but there is no number available yet.

“We’ll see whether it’s worthwhile to spend X amount of money to finish in time for the soccer World Cup. If the cost is too high, government will have to go to a plan B, which may include bus transport from the airport to Sandton.”

Van der Merwe says the Gautrain still carries the price tag of R25-billion, “plus a little bit for escalation”.

“Inflation is running much higher than the 3% to 6% band we predicted – but, no, it’s not billions more, as has been reported in the newspapers.”

Van der Merwe notes that the rapid rail link is a 100-year project, and that the aim is to have it operating for this period, rather than chasing a ribbon-cutting event for May 2010.

“We can’t compromise on safety, or standards, or anything like that.”

That said, Van der Merwe is optimistic that the actual construction of the airport link will be concluded by the end of this year – “maybe one or two months into next year”.

“So, the train will be running up and down the track by then.

“Maybe the train will even be able to run up to Tshwane by the middle of next year.”

However, warns Van der Merwe, having the train running does not mean the system has been completed.

There are still many outstanding operational issues, such as ticketing, safety, security, signalling, communications, and electrical and mechanical work to be wrapped up.

The Gautrain is a public–private partner- ship between the Gauteng provincial government and Bombela, a consortium consisting of international partners Bombardier and Bouygues Travaux Publics, and local stakeholders Murray & Roberts, black economic-empowerment company Strategic Partners Group and the J&J Group, as well as Absa Bank.

Bombela has been contracted to build the Gautrain over a five-year period, and to then operate the system under a 15-year concession agreement.

R12, R20, R80 A TICKET?

There is a lot to be said of the carrot-and-stick approach when it comes to public transport, explains Van der Merwe.

The carrot is that the Gautrain will offer a luxury option, as well as speed and safety.

“This makes it a viable option to travel between home and work.”

The stick part is the congestion on Gauteng’s roads.

“You don’t have to ask anyone who travels between Tshwane and Johannesburg about the delays they experience every day – nobody can calculate the duration of a trip anymore,” says Van der Merwe. “However, you can count on the fact that the Gautrain will take 38 minutes.”

However, there is another potentially bigger knopkierie on the table, he notes.

“The Gauteng freeways will be tolled from 2010. I don’t think the public has internalised this yet.

“Yes, there will be extra capacity on the highways, but all these new lanes will be high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Single car users will not be allowed to use them.”

Van der Merwe says the 50c to 60c toll payable for each kilometre from October next year means toll charges between Johannesburg and Tshwane for a daily commuter will run at around R1 000 a month.

“That is going to make an impact on the perceived cost of motoring.”

The Gauteng government has provided Bombela with a pricing envelop noting that Gautrain ticket prices should be more expensive than existing public transport – “which is subsidised, so it won’t be difficult” – but lower than the perceived cost of motoring, explains Van der Merwe.

Toll fees increase the perceived cost of motoring substantially, he adds.

A Gautrain pricing regime drawn up a few years ago determined that it would cost R12 to travel between Sandton and Rhodesfield stations, around R20 between Johannesburg and Tshwane, and R80 between OR Tambo International Airport and Sandton stations.

“There will be monthly, six-monthly and yearly loyalty cards, so we’re talking roughly R800 a month. I, myself, live in Pretoria and commute to Johannesburg every day, and it costs me R2 500 a month on diesel. Taking the Gautrain would be a bargain for me. It will be a solid economic proposition.”

The reason the airport link will be more expensive is that it will be a nonstop service, offering more spacious carriages to accommodate luggage.

“R80 is still cheap. The Heathrow (airport) express in London costs R225.

“If you land at OR Tambo today, and you take the taxi or the bus to Sandton, depending on the time of day, it can cost between R300 and R400,” says Van der Merwe.

However, the current Gautrain price regime was determined when the fuel price was still R4/l, and not the current, roughly, R7/l.

Will it really be this low when the Gautrain starts operating next year?

“We still have to finalise the prices – but we think it will remain around the order of R800 a month if you’re a regular user.”

Parking and Gautrain bus fares will be included in the pricing.

Van der Merwe adds that several Sandton companies have already requested buying tickets in bulk for their employees as part of an incentive scheme.


The current Gautrain system includes ten stations: Hatfield, Pretoria, Centurion, Midrand, Marlboro, Rosebank, Sandton, Johannesburg, Rhodesfield and OR Tambo International Airport.

However, it is possible to add stations to this system, says Van der Merwe.

“What we’ve done is to design four internal stations in addition to the current system, to be built as and when required.

“We have also designed the end stations in such a manner that the system can be extended.”

Van der Merwe says there is a 15-year concession period during which Bombela and the Gauteng government can go out and design new stations, should they wish to.

“Or, when we enter a new concession period, we can again go out on a ‘design, build and operate” tender.”

The four internal stations are centred on big property developments, says Van der Merwe. They are in Modderfontein, Allandale, in Centurion near the South African Mint, and beyond Hatfield, near the N4/N1 crossing.

“We can consider a station wherever there are 20 000 to 30 000 housing units being built,” says Van der Merwe.


Will there be an adequate number of people taking the train to make it an economically viable project?

Current passenger projections are that there will be 165 000 passenger trips a day, says Van der Merwe. However, this study was also done prior to the plan to toll the Gauteng freeways, and new results are expected soon.

“Gauteng is a small province. It covers only 1,46% of the country’s land area, yet generates close to 40% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and 10% of Africa’s GDP,” says Van der Merwe.

“As Gauteng keeps on growing, there will always be more demand to move people, goods and services.

“You’re just buying time by improving transport systems. We’ll always be asking for more capacity.”

The Gautrain will make use of 24 four-car train sets.

Each four-car train set will be able to carry between 400 and 500 passengers.

“But, should it become necessary, we can easily increase the capacity,” says Van der Merwe.

“The beauty of a heavy-rail system is that we can put more trains on the already existing track – there is no need to widen it to add capacity, as is the case with roads.”

During peak times, he notes, it is possible to link two or three trains, increasing capacity to 800 to 1 500 people a train. Then, in theory, it is possible to run a train every two-and-a-half minutes, which means 25 trains an hour.

“This means we would be able to carry 37 000 to 40 000 passengers [in each] direction every hour,” says Van der Merwe.

The 24 train sets will require around a hundred train drivers.

Does this mean Metrorail and Transnet may lose some of their drivers?

“It’s an open market. We’ll see who applies,” says Van der Merwe. “However, it is not our intention to steal drivers, but rather to grow the pool of drivers.”

All drivers will be trained on a train simulator.


Bombela opened an office in London to source international engineering skills for the project.

“They brought back 51 South African engineers who had worked abroad, of whom 17 were black,” says Van der Merwe.

“It shows you, if you give an engineer a challenge, something he feels proud to do, he’ll come back.”

Van der Merwe says his hope is that the skills base generated by the Gautrain will move on to South Africa’s other large infrastructure projects, such as Eskom’s new-build power stations.

Van der Merwe is a civil engineer by training. Even though he can trace back his involvement in the Gautrain project to 1997, he was only allocated to the project on a full-time basis for the last nine years.

“If all goes well, I’ll spend another five years on the project.

“So, it will end up at about a third of my professional life.”

Despite all the years spent on one project, Van der Merwe still describes it as “magic”, a word he uses often whenever talking about the Gautrain.

Standing in front of the actual Gautrain at the Midrand depot, he says he still “has to pinch himself to make sure it’s real – that it is really, finally, happening”.

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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