A ride on the Gautrain
Today was our wedding anniversary, so Val took a day’s leave, and we went for a ride on the Gautrain, South Africa’s newest and fastest passenger train service, which opened between Rosebank in Johannesburg and Hatfield in Pretoria last month. A small section, between the airport and Sandton, opened last year at the time of the football World Cup.
We drove to the new parking garage next to Hatfield station – the cost is added to the price of the train ticket. It was nearly full. It was about 10:00 am, and we had to park on the top floor. A good sign, we thought — people are clearly using the train.
We bought tickets, and a card which records the cost of the tickets and admits you to the train. It cost R128.00 for the return trip — Hatfield to Rosebank, Rosebank to Sandton, and Sandton back to Hatfield. That’s nearly 12 Euros, or $US 16.24. Clearly this train is not intended for the hoi polloi. It’s a middle-class thing.
The first stop is the Pretoria central station. There is no through running there – the driver goes to the other end of the train and it goes out backwards. Since we were travelling in off-peak time there were only four coaches, and they seemed to be about 80% full.
On the way to Centurion the line runs alongside the freeway, and the train is clearly travelling faster than the cars. It goes through Centurion on a high viaduct, but on the train there is no sensation of height.
At Marlboro Station passengers going to the OR Tambo Airport are asked to change trains, and thereafter the train goes underground. We got off at Rosebank, the temporary terminus, until the line opens to Park station in Johannesburg. We were curious to see what the Rosebank station was like, to see if the train could be used to go to the Metropolis in Houghton. Unfortunately, though the bus to Highlands North goes quite close to the archbishop’s house, it is almost exactly halfway between the fairly widely-spaced bus stops. I was also rather surprised that no bus appeared to go the the Johannesburg Hospital, a few kilometres up Oxford Road. In my experience hospitals attract lots of visitors, so that seemed to be a surprising omission.
We wandered into the nearest shopping mall, called The Zone, for a cup of coffee, and immediately found ourselves in an alien culture, indicated by the printing on the paper that covered the windows of the many empty shops.
On the positive side, there was a rather nice fountain in the middle of the alley, not surrounded by parapets and such, and thus appealing to the younger generation to go and play in the water, not always with the approval of their elders. There were also paving stones with interesting quotations from various people, but no matter which way you were facing, they always seemed to be upside downm. But the entire place seemed to be filled with nothing but clothing shops and restaurants, mostly those of the bigger chains, where the food is entirely predictable.
Rosebank Station is under Oxford Road, which is the main street, with entrances on either side.
We went back to the station and got the train to Sandton, which took 4 minutes (and cost R19.00, again, not an encouragement for ordinary people to travel on the train). But comparing the four minutes with the time it would take to drive through the traffic find a place to park makes it look a bit different.
We were also impressed with the helpfulness of the staff in the stations. They all seemed uniformly polite and eager to help. Also interesting was that most of the station staff seemed to be male — security guards, guides, cleaners etc. But when you got to the platforms, most of the train drivers were female. But that may just be an isolated impression from a couple of stations and a couple of trips.
Sandton station was interesting because it is probably the deepest in the whole system, and so there are several levels of high-speed escalators to get passengers up and down.
We went to have lunch at Pappas Restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square, near the station. The restaurant used to belong to Fr Athos Papaevripaides (perhaps it still does, but I’ve heard he has gone to Cyprus permanently). But the food was still good, and we had kleftiko lamb as our anniversary celebration. It was the first time I had been there since the erection of the controversial statue of Nelson Mandela — newspapers had given the impression that it was grossly out of proportion, and almost that it towered over all the buildings in the square. Actually it seemed to fit in rather well.
The restaurant is also a good place for people watching, and a great variety of people pass through the square. There are the men in ties and shirtsleeves, probably workers in nearby offices on their lunch breaks. Others wwearing name badges, probably attending a conference somewhere in the vicinity. As in Rosebank, children playing in the fountains, boys rushing in to embrace the jets, girls being more circumspect. A middle-aged woman with a ZCC badge, and a red skirt halfway to her ankles, probably working in one of the shops or restaurants, but I suspect behind the scenes. A much younger woman following her, short mini skirt, big earrings, no doubt a dedicated follower of fashion, heading for one of the clothing shops. Tourists stopping to have their photos taken in front of the Mandela statue, a party of schoolgirls on an outing.
We left about 2:30 to go back to the station for the journey home.
Again the train was well-patronised, and we noticed the signs at the entrance to the station: no eating and drinking: fine R700. The fine sounds a bit steep, but it must save a fortune in cleaning bills. And the journey times are really too short for people to need to eat on the trains.
Quite a number of people on the train had tablet computers, or kindles, or whatever — another indication that it is mainly patronised by the rich.
We pulled into Pretoria station, and again the train reversed for the short leg to Hatfield, where we said goodbye to it at 3:17, after a pleasant day.
We went up to the top of the car park, and it was still full of cars, and it was an interesting thought that if they hadn’t been standing there, they would probably have been clogging up the roads between here and Johannesburg.
So it was a pleasant day out, a nice train ride, and the train was impressively fast, quiet and well run. It was a nice way to spend a day off, nice to see that the train is well-patronised, unlike the Metroblitz of 25 years ago. It’s good to see rail travel working well.
But there is also a negative side to it.
I think how good it is to see new railways being built. But the 80 km the Gautrain adds to the rail network must be balanced against the hundreds of kilometres that have been abandoned and neglected — see here Notes from underground: Deteriorating transport infrastructure.
My blogging friend Cobus van Wyngaard also went for a ride on the Gautrain, and his post points out some other negatives. If you want to know something about the history of it, see Notes from underground: Building bridges for the Gautrain, and the Wikipedia article is also quite interesting, and gives some of the technical details.