Friday, July 15, 2011

Living the loopy Gautrain dream

South Africa has many things to be proud of, including a peaceful political transition, many famous scientists and musicians, breathtaking natural wonders and, most recently, the hosting of the 2010 World Cup.
However, if you speak to many South Africans, at least those living in and around Johannesburg, it seems that the Gautrain surpasses all these monumental achievements.
The 80 km mass transit railway system that can quickly ferry passengers between the airport and Sandton City, and soon a range of other destinations, seems to be loved as much as biltong and Castle Lager.
The Gautrain must be the only train in the world that has a Facebook page with some 10 000 people “liking it” and a Twitter page with some 7 000 followers. The Heathrow Express going between Heathrow Airport and London, which has carried over 60- million people since its launch in June 1998, does not even have a Facebook page.
Against this backdrop, my concerns about people who feel they can be ‘friends’ with a train on Facebook aside, I felt compelled on my last visit to South Africa to take a trip on the famed Gautrain.
There is no doubt the train is comfy, fast and what my grandmother would have called swanky. The stranger part of my journey, however, concerned my attempts to leave the train when I finally got to my stop at Rhodesfield after visiting Sandton.
As I attempted to leave the train, I was told I could not as the compartment I had entered was for people travelling to the airport only. Oddly, I, along with six others, had to watch as other people metres away left the train and we were held prisoner in our luxury compartment.
A bolshie security guard inhospitably informed me that an announcement had been made about the fact that the compartment I was in was for airport-bound passengers only. Of course, I protested, saying that, although I looked stupid, if such an announcement had been made I would have moved compartments. I then resigned myself to the fact that I was trapped. I said I would proceed to the airport (next stop in two minutes) and there swap compartments and travel back to Rhodesfield and get off.
To my amazement, I was told, in no uncertain terms, and now surrounded by four security guards, that I could not do that. The only option was to go to the airport and then travel back to Sandton (passing Rhodesfield) and change compartments there, and then return once again to my stop. At this point, I gave up, convinced I was in the Twilight Zone.
So I – and the other six detainees – settled down for another trip to Sandton, a quick carriage change (a walk of 3 m) and a second return journey. Finally, after travelling back to Sandton and then again to Rhodesfield, I was let off the train.
Needless to say, my Gautrain experience left me with mixed emotions. On one level, I was pleased to finally be off the train as I had feared a slow death in my plush seat, as I travelled endlessly up and down between the airport and Sandton. I figured I would have starved to death in the end as the fines for eating on the train were set at R700 and I only had R200 on me and a half-eaten peanut bar.
On another level, my enthusiasm for the project did not wane. It is great to come from a country like South Africa, which sometimes tries the impossible, quirks and all. The Gautrain is a symbol of what Africa should strive for, notwithstanding the need for a little flexibility at times and recognition that, given the challenges South Africa faces, progress is not always going to be as easy as moving from point A to point B.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 July 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.