South African rapid rail moves forward, with delays

JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's first high speed rail line is an unusually bold and expensive undertaking for the country. But the plan has hit a few snags.
Written by Dave Mayers, Correspondent, Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG -- South Africa's first high speed rail line is an unusually bold and expensive undertaking for the country, coming in at just over $3 billion. More than a decade in the making, the Gautrain is the first system of its kind on the African continent, and local expectations are that this is a big step towards making Johannesburg a world-class city. The initial optimism surrounding the project has been tempered slightly by a string of delays in the final leg of construction.

The train, named after the province that includes two of South Africa's most important cities, was envisioned as a program to improve the country's infrastructure ahead of the 2010 World Cup. This is a project of an aspirational South Africa, the continent's first member of the BRICS emerging economies.

Riders use a cash-free smart card system and are whisked over 93 miles of track between Johannesburg, Pretoria and the international airport that serves them both. The journey between the two cities takes 38 minutes, which on many days, cuts commutes in half. Everything about the system is sleek, from the golden British-built trains to the adds that push the Blackberry and iPhone Gautrain apps. The train even has its own twitter handle.

Along with the hype and fanfare, the two-year rollout hasn't been without its hiccups.  Two separate instances of cable theft in August knocked the train out of service during rush hour. Now, months before the link with Johannesburg's main train station is set to open, seeping water has again derailed plans.

Copper theft is not new to South Africa, and has bedeviled the country's other rail systems for years. The ability of these latest thieves to bypass the Gautrain's dedicated security force and make away with crucial signaling wire has given officials pause. "[Copper theft] is a massive countrywide scourge that Gautrain cannot resolve on its own," spokesman Eroll Braithwaite told Mobility Magazine.

In a country with official unemployment hovering around 25 percent, it's unclear if there is any realistic way to deter the thieves. Gautrain officials have kicked around ideas ranging from replacing copper wiring with fiber optic cables to creating "tiger wire" -- a mix of copper and strands of aluminum that would make reselling the metal much more difficult.

Even without these measures, the Gautrain hasn't seen another cable-related interruption since August. Nearly all of the originally planned train stations are now up and running, and more commuters are ditching the road in favor of rail everyday. The line between O.R. Tambo International and Johannesburg's ritzy Sandton section is the longest running and most established Gautrain route.

The provincial head of transportation Ismail Vadi said, "Since it started operations [in 2010], the airport line has moved 3.3 million passengers. This has been beyond our expectations, with the line showing tremendous growth and being very viable financially."

Officials are hoping that growth will continue after the train's final connection with the large transportation hub at Park Station in downtown Johannesburg. The station was supposed to open by the end of 2011, but construction has been delayed into early next year because of problems with water leaking into the tunnel dug beneath the city.

Once the line is completed, the government expects the train to be moving 100,000 people a day.

Photo: Henti Smith/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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