The first high-speed rail service on the African continent kicked off this morning, just in time to zip World Cup fans between Johannesburg’s airport and the suburb hosting the tournament.
Construction of the first phase of Gautrain, named after the Gauteng Province it runs through, was accelerated last year so that the link would be operational for the start of the World Cup on Friday.
Still it was open to question whether the route between O. R. Tambo International Airport and Sandton would actually be ready for the soccer tournament, which is expected to attract half-a-million fans over 30 days of competition. But a certificate to operate the system was issued yesterday after several weeks of successful tests.
The line is less a true intercity railway than a souped-up transit system running at 100 mph. Top speeds have been dampened by the decision to locate stations every four to eight miles along the line.
Nevertheless, the gold-and-blue-trimmed Gautrains have caused a sensation in a country where conventional train service is slow and public-transit investment was banished for decades under apartheid policies intended to keep blacks and whites apart.
Today most middle-class South Africans drive everywhere, clogging the main highways, while the poor depend on mini-buses and foot power. To lure South Africans to the new service, the government has developed elaborate security measures, including closed-circuit cameras in the stations and trains.
The rail line slashes the travel time between the airport and Johannesburg from an hour by road to less than 15 minutes. The second phase, connecting Johannesburg with Pretoria, will be opened next year and will cut an hour from the present highway time.
The project is being constructed as a private-public partnership between the provincial government and a consortium that includes Canadian trainmaker Bombardier, South Africa’s ABSA Bank, and French contractor Bouygues.
The consortium has a 15½-year concession to operate the rail line after construction is completed in 2011.
Photo credit: DazMSmith