Already running late, but it may revive stifled cities

Posted On Thursday, 07 July 2005 02:00 Published by
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A winning bidder has been announced. Now for the tough job

By Sibonelo Radebe

A winning bidder has been announced. Now for the tough job     
It has been described as an engineer's dream pandering to politicians' vanity.

The plan to build a multibillion-rand Gauteng rapid rail link, Gautrain, has taken off, placing Johannesburg and the surrounding areas on a radical change trajectory that some compare with the discovery of gold in 1889. 

Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa removed a veil of uncertainty over the process last weekend by finally announcing a preferred bidder to lay out Gautrain's infrastructure, ensure the train is up and running by 2010, and manage and maintain it for 15 years thereafter.

The winning consortium, Bombela, is also expected to devise a bus transport system to feed Gautrain stations.  Bombela has equal foreign and local presentation.

The local interests comprise construction group Murray & Roberts (M&R), with a 25% interest, and empowerment partners called Loliwe, which hold the other 25%.

The other 50% is shared among international partners, including French construction group Bouygues Travaux Publics, rail and bus group RATP International and Canadian-based transport operator Bombardier. 

Gautrain, the biggest public-private partnership initiative ever seen in SA, is a bold and ambitious plan seeking to convert a car-crazy public into users of mass public transport.  With rail tracks linking Johannesburg, Pretoria and Johannesburg International airport, Gautrain plans to ferry up to 100 000 people a day.

At a speed of up to 160 km/h, it will cover the distance between the Johannesburg and Pretoria city centres in about 35 minutes. The route will have 20 km of tunnel section. 

The Gautrain plan has been around for some time but at first was widely viewed as a nice-to-have project backed by futuristic theories about Johannesburg's exploding population and resulting traffic congestion. 

The gridlock traffic is here. It's a situation well captured by Shilowa: "We no longer have peak hours in Gauteng. Every hour is peak hour," he says. 

Traffic levels in major roads around the province are reaching unbearable levels. The M1 linking Johannesburg and Pretoria records more than 120 000 vehicle trips a day. Its traffic levels have in the past 10 years been growing by 7%/year.

Average speed has dropped to 90 km/h and could soon hit 40 km/h. 

One commuter who finds Gautrain an attractive proposition is Xolani Xundu, an official in the department of local government who lives in Johannesburg and works in Pretoria.

Previous employment and social engagements have rooted his life in Johannesburg. "If, by tomorrow, there were to be an efficient, secure and reliable form of public transport as envisaged by the Gauteng project, I would definitely leave my car at home and hop on to the train," says Xundu. 

It's the same for Joice Huma, who travels from her home in Pretoria East to the BMW head office in Midrand. Huma is, however, concerned about the time it would take to get from the Gautrain station to her destination. "If that was sorted out I'd have no problem whatsoever," she says. 

Apart from addressing traffic congestion, the Gautrain project has been presented as a major economic catalyst. A report by Brait economist Colen Garrow says the project promises to add about R2,6bn to Gauteng's GDP during the five years of construction and create up to 70 000 desperately needed jobs. 

A further 1 800 people are expected to be employed during the implementation phase to operate and maintain the service.  By capturing 20% of the current population of motor vehicle users (perhaps an optimistic figure) within the vicinity of its tracks, it will significantly reduce the levels of carbon monoxide emissions, which are damaging the environment.

The shift from road to rail transport is likely to reduce traffic accidents and medical costs, resulting in savings of about R15,3m/year. Brait estimates total cost savings at R933m/year. 

Property economist Francois Viruly believes Gautrain will have a significant impact on spatial development in and around Johannesburg. The city has experienced a random expansion out of the central business district which has put a strain on its service provision. 

Traffic congestion in the northern part of Johannesburg is partly the result of a poorly planned development frenzy, Viruly says. Narrow roads allocated in the initial phases of development cannot cope with increasing population density in the new CBDs, such as Sandton. 

"For the first time in many years, traffic-related issues are influencing development," says Viruly.  He says Gautrain stations are likely to spark more open and mixed-use property developments similar to Melrose Arch.  When the Gautrain idea first emerged about five years ago the cost was estimated to be about R7bn. Now it is estimated at much more than that; figures of around R10bn-R13bn are being bandied about, which means the Gauteng government will have to contribute through its budget.  It is in this area that Gautrain has attracted strong criticism. 

"Gauteng needs a practical, unglamorous solution, not an engineer's dream pandering to politicians' vanity," said Anthony Diepenbroek, then president of the SA Property Owners' Association, four years ago .  Diepenbroek has not been alone in criticising the plan. Prominent organisations, including the SA Chamber of Business , have expressed reservations over its viability.  To this day there are serious concerns that Gautrain will fail to get sufficient passenger numbers and will therefore be derailed by financial problems. 

The source of this concern is that the Gautrain plan has neglected high-density residential areas like Soweto, Mamelodi and Tembisa, located far out of reach of its stations.  The line between Johannesburg and Pretoria runs through nodes like Rosebank, Sandton, Marlboro, Midrand and Centurion. The line from the airport stops only at Rhodesfield and then connects via Marlboro. 

The other major concern is that Bombela will not meet the 2010 deadline. Infrastructure layout, which is expected to take about five years, was initially scheduled to begin in 2003 and the train to start running by 2008.  Come 2010, Gauteng may look like a huge construction site to the millions of soccer fans who will be flocking to SA. That has the makings of a public relations disaster, says UK-based consultant John Carlisle. 

"My firm was a partner on the great Hong Kong metro extension. This world-class, 12,5 km rail extension project took nearly four years to build and cost R23bn.

The 80 km Gautrain line is budgeted at R12bn (revised up) and has to be delivered in less than five years.  "Gautrain has all the hallmarks of an adrenaline-driven disaster," says Carlisle.  Conflating the success of the 2010 World Cup with the Gautrain was a big mistake, says Carlisle. SA needs an efficient transport system, not the Gautrain, he says.  

Publisher: Financial Mail
Source: Financial Mail

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