More than halfway through the 15-year Gautrain concession period, Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) CEO Jack van der Merwe says he is pleased with the operation of the 80-km rail system.
“Looking back at building the Gautrain there are positives and negatives. A positive is that we have an operator that really delivers. We have 98.6% punctuality and 99.5% availability. As a Gautrain passenger you know that you have a better chance to arrive at your destination on time than when you use your car.”
The Gautrain system is managed by the Bombela Concession Company, within which French rail company RATP plays a significant role in keeping the Gautrain on time.
If there is one thing Van der Merwe would have done differently when putting together the Gautrain public-private partnership (PPP), it would have been in the construction phase of the project.
“Contractually you do one PPP in your life time,” says Van der Merwe. “You are building something that will stand for 100 years. I started work on this project in 1997, when I travelled to Germany with then Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale. This is my 21st year on the train.
“Looking back, I think that litigation sometimes overshadowed the project,” notes Van der Merwe.
“You have two streams: Building the train and operating the train. The big money lies with building the train, which means any problem with the civil works can easily eclipse the operational aspect of the project, which is, by far, the more enduring one.”
Following a rather protracted legal and arbitration process, the GMA and Bombela only reached final settlement on a number of construction-related disputes, such as water ingress in the Rosebank tunnel and delays owing to site availability, in late 2016. The train started operations in 2010.
“With the expansion of the Gautrain, we aim to make all civil works, up to formation height, available through a normal tender process – not a PPP,” says Van der Merwe.
“It will be a normal engineering, procurement and construction contract. Everything from formation height and upwards – the ballast, track, power, stations and rolling stock – will go out on concession. This will reduce the dominance of construction over the role of operations.
“Litigation turns PPPs into a minefield and we believe this strategy will prove its merit.”
The proposed 150 km expansion of the Gautrain system is currently awaiting Treasury Authorisation 1 (TA 1), which is only expected some time in the latter half of 2019.
“National Treasury hasn’t sent the project back to us, which is good news,” says Van der Merwe. “We have been asked to test various fare scenarios, including lowering the price to increase ridership. However, this has to weigh up against the increase in cost of providing infrastructure that can handle a significant increase in ridership.
“When testing these scenarios it is, however, still taken into account that the Gautrain is aimed at reducing congestion on the roads, and that it, therefore, targets existing car owners and not other public transport users.”
Gautrain ridership currently hovers around 60 000 people on a weekday.
A tweaking in the bus system has seen the addition of specially marked and dedicated 22-seater minibus taxis that operate feeder and distribution services from the Marlboro, Rhodesfield, Centurion and Pretoria stations.
A similar service is planned for the Hatfield and Rosebank stations.
The minibus taxis are much smaller than the large, undersubscribed Gautrain buses operating from the stations, as per the concession agreement.
“We would like to see a major growth in bus passengers coming from this minibus service,” says Van der Merwe. “This year we’ll also talk to corporates currently running their own buses from stations to rather surrender that to the Gautrain minibus service.”
When looking at parking facilities, the construction of additional parking at the Centurion station has been completed.
“The next station in need of additional parking is Rosebank station,” explains Van der Merwe. “We aim to build two new floors on top of the existing parking structure.”
He says Hatfield station will also, eventually, receive additional parking.
A tender for an upgrade to the current signalling system, due out this year, could, in future, see dedicated trains operate on the congested Centurion-Sandton route.