How democracy changed the course of Gauteng transport

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Nthambeleni Gabara still remembers Gauteng before the dawn of democracy in 1994 as a province that lacked a convenient, safe and reliable public transport system. 

During that era, the majority of people used to depend on overcrowded commuter trains as well as the famed ‘Zola Budd’ – a township slang term for minibus taxis.

Minibus taxis were known for their speed, just like Zola Budd, a South African-born British Olympic track and field competitor.

Today, all of that is history as the public transport system in Gauteng has gone through a complete makeover, which was set in motion from the moment Tata Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of the Republic.

With the revamping and modernisation of public transport and roads, Gauteng residents now enjoy a number of options, including the world-class, high-speed train - the Gautrain.

Whether on rail or road, there’s no denying that over the last 20 years of democracy and freedom, it’s become so much easier for Gauteng residents to go from point A to point B. All this is good news for the intensively economically active province, ensuring that people are able to move with ease from their homes to work and wherever else they may need to go while in the process of conducting business.

The Gautrain

Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets of Jo’burg and Pretoria is an all too familiar scene. Motorists have become accustomed to spending hours on the road, much to their frustration. Yet, another unintended consequence of heavy traffic volumes which lurks under the tarmac is the degradation of road infrastructure -- not to mention the damage to the environment from the vehicles’ emissions.

In the midst of what might be an untenable traffic situation in the long-term as the province’s population continues to grow, enters the Gautrain. Elegant in design, with an operating speed of 160 km/h, this dream machine reduces the travelling time between Jo’burg, Pretoria and OR Tambo International Airport.

Modeled on international best practice, the train has a bus feeder network system, which complements the existing public transport and commuter rail services in transporting passengers to and from stations within a 15-km radius.  

The feeder buses are linked to the City of Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, enabling commuters to transfer seamlessly between municipal buses in their suburbs and Metrorail trains.

Since it started operating at Park Station in Johannesburg, there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for the Gautrain and its bus services.

Gauteng Transport and Roads MEC Ismail Vadi says Africa's first world-class, modern rapid rail service has already cut the number of cars on the busy N1 Ben Schoeman highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg.

“The Gautrain is one of the biggest projects undertaken by government in the last 20 years, and we are very proud as the Gauteng Provincial Government that we were able to pull that off successfully.

“The latest figures of people using the Gautrain daily has increased from 42 000 to 52 000, meaning 1.2 million people are using the Gautrain every month.

“We are quite convinced that this growth in still going to continue,” he said, adding that the number of commuters on the bus feeder network has also increased. 

“When we started, those buses were always empty and some people were asking me why I am running empty buses. But the fact is, the system was not fully functional and now that it is fully operational, we now have 350 000 people using the Gautrain buses on a monthly basis,” Vadi told SAnews in an exclusive interview.

The Gautrain started operating in June 2010, few days before the kick-off of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Another achievement, which is also an added benefit to Gauteng residents, is the intermodal connectivity of the Gautrain with Metrorail at the Pretoria, Centurion, Hatfield and Park Stations.

Vadi singled out Park Station’s intermodality as an excellent example of what a future system should look like because there is Rea Vaya, Metrorail, Gautrain and the taxi rank.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is currently constructing a modern upper food court at Park Station, which will house popular restaurants, retail shops and banks.

The upper food court, which is not far from the Gautrain station precinct, is scheduled to be completed in October. It will transform Park Station into a super development similar to OR Tambo International Airport in the East Rand.

Bus Rapid Transit

In the inner-city of Johannesburg, red stripes have been painted in the middle of almost all the Rea Vaya bus lanes in order to alert motorists to refrain from using the lanes dedicated for buses.

Rea Vaya (loosely translated as ‘we are going’) is turning four in October. The BRT service began operating on 30 August 2009 in Soweto, with its first trunk route running between Thokoza Park in the southwest of Jo’burg and Ellis Park in Doornfontein, on the eastern skirts of the city.

The celebrations will also mark the pre-launch of the second trunk route, which will operate over 18.5km between Noordgesig in Soweto, Empire Road in the city, and Parktown.

It will run through the Johannesburg CBD, where it will meet the Phase 1A trunk route. It will also include feeder and complementary routes travelling from Yeoville, Roodepoort, Soweto, Cresta and Parktown.

Vadi described Rea Vaya as a project in the making, proving to be a great success, as currently there are 40 000 passengers using it daily.

“We are planning to extend the BRT over our three metropolitan cities, namely the City of Jo’burg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.

“When the three systems are completed, we would have close to 1 000km of a rapid bus transit network in the Gauteng Province City Region. However, for now, the cities are still planning within their boundaries. We are talking to them as to how do we connect these BRT systems…” he said.

In Tshwane, the construction of the Tshwane Rapid Transit (TRT) bus system, A Re Yeng (which means ‘let’s go’), is currently underway. The first phase of the project is the inception phase, running from the CBD to Hatfield, where operations will commence in April 2014.

The next phase of the system runs from Rainbow junction to Menlyn via Pretoria North, the CBD and Hatfield to the CBD. The system will commence operations in October 2015.

The entire system is set for operation by 2016 or 2017.

Vadi said their focus has been on City Deep, where they have already started to upgrade the entire road network as well as repairing the exit to the M1 and N3 to improve mobility for trucks.

The area will double its capacity in the next seven years to reach full capacity following the setting aside of R1 billion by the Gauteng Transport and Roads Department, South African National Road Agency (Sanral) and City of Johannesburg.

Inland port

The MEC, who had been relaxed on his maroon office leather couch for most of our interview, suddenly sat up straight as he started talking about the next big plan for transport in the province.

His excitement was tangible, but not unwarranted, as he spoke about the ambitious inland port.

“We’ve already started planning for a very large inland port just off the N3, near Heidelberg and Vosloorus.

“It is a very big project and it will become one of the biggest inland ports in Africa from what I understand. It will be linked to the upgrading of the port network in Kwazulu-Natal.

“We are looking at a new logistics hub, which will be the major hub for Gauteng.”

Vadi said actual construction work will begin around 2017. “What we are doing at the moment is more planning and preparatory work, which also covers the environmental impact assessment.

“We are also looking at upgrading the highway network, while Transnet is looking at the rail linkages.”

A lot is riding on the multi-billion project, which is a partnership between the public and private sectors. Although there are no actual figures of how many jobs are going to be created, Vadi estimated that about 20 000 jobs will be generated in the construction phase of setting up the hub.

OR Tambo International Airport

While a lot of development has taken place in ground and rail transport over the last 20 years, Gauteng’s air travel plans are definitely no pie in the sky.

With Gauteng being an extremely crucial seat of economic growth and development not only in the country but the continent, the importance of having a world-class airport to keep up with all the travellers who come to Gauteng cannot be understated.

As the biggest and busiest airport in Africa, Vadi said OR Tambo airport is ranked amongst the best in the world in terms of style, ambiance and the quality of experience. However, the airport still needs to be given a facelift.

“What is very good about OR Tambo now is that we’ve also created an intermodal facility -- we’ve connected air and rail through the Gautrain.

“In the next 15 to 20 years, we will begin to develop the area around the airport to ensure that it reaches the standard of major world airports, which have been transformed to offer a wider range of services to air passengers such as cinemas, theatres, museums, food courts and tourism centres.

“We want passengers to go to the cinema to watch a movie or go to the museum or theatre while still waiting for their flights,” he said.

Cycling, pedestrian lanes

From the air and back to the ground, Vadi unpacked plans that go beyond motorised transport. Although cycling might not be a major mode of daily transport in South Africa, there is a significant culture of cycling as a sport. It’s big enough to make authorities try to push its use beyond the name of sport.

“We are pushing non-motorised transport very strongly… People say it is not safe. Yes, it’s true, but you have to redesign your streets [like] the Europeans and Chinese, who have dedicated lanes for cycling and pedestrians.”

The MEC painted a picture of what a future trip from our Pretoria offices to his office in the heart of Jo’burg might pan out.  

“Next time when you come to interview me, you must … take the Gautrain from Hatfield station, alight at Park station, hire a bike and ride safely to my office. It’s just four kilometres. Do the interview, take the bike back and get onto a train back to Pretoria.

“We are not yet there, but we are moving towards that direction. People will see the City of Johannesburg launching a number of new cycling lanes.

“Tshwane is running late as they were hoping to launch new cycling lanes in October and they will be closing four major roads in the city centre, turning them into pedestrian and cycling lanes as part of their upcoming TRT system,” he said.

As part of Transport Month, Vadi will unveil a new cycling lane in Mamelodi in the City of Tshwane.

The event will forego the usual pomp and ceremony that comes with launches. It will instead be linked with an exercise and wellness day, which will see the MEC cycling 25km with the Mamelodi Cycling Club.

“Our theme for Transport Month will be more about promoting public transport in this province… We will also unveil the new design of the Vereeniging Train Station, which will also link the bus and taxi industry in the area,” he said.

Fatal crashes, corrupt officials

With all the grand plans to take transport to even greater heights, the MEC noted one aspect that underpins development in the sector – safety.

The province has experienced a spike in fatal road crashes. Vadi said a number of measures were being put in place to mitigate this, and what better place to start than regulating driving schools.

“We will be doing this to intensify our fight against corruption because people are paying bribes to get driver’s licences, but they are not fit to be on our roads.

“Appealing to motorists without implementing aggressive enforcement is a waste of time, so we will be taking a no-nonsense approach to all those who violate our traffic rules.”

Vadi said young South Africans were the most reckless drivers in the world compared to their contemporaries in 18 other countries, according to a study conducted by an international tyre company.

“Our young drivers are most likely to skip a robot; they are most likely to ignore a stop sign; most likely to speed; and most likely to be texting and talking on the cell phone while driving.

“It is not just taxi drivers who are aggressive and reckless on our roads. Most motorists don’t seem to realise that a car can be an instrument of death,” the MEC said.

Transport Master Plan

Vadi recently unveiled the province’s 25-year plan for the development and integration of transport, the Integrated Transport Master Plan (ITMP25). 

The main focus of this master plan is to make rail the backbone of public transport. It supports the development of a “super rail corridor”, which includes the Mabopane-Pretoria, Pretoria-Germiston-Johannesburg, and the Johannesburg-Soweto corridors.

A major component of the Prasa Rail Corridor modernisation initiative is the revitalisation of the ageing train fleet. 

As part of modernising the rail system in the country, Prasa is set to introduce an electric high-speed train fleet in 2015, which will offer faster journey times and greater reliability.

Vadi knows very well that good roads play a significant role in economic development as well as ensuring the easy movement of both goods and people.

His department is embarking on an on-going process of upgrading dilapidated roads well as building world-class freeways.

As testament to this, Africa’s most famous beltway -- the Johannesburg Ring Road -- can only be found in Gauteng.  

The road is composed of three freeways that converge in the city, forming an 80-kilometre “loop”: the N3 Eastern Bypass, which links Johannesburg with Durban; the N1 Western Bypass, which links Johannesburg with Pretoria and Cape Town; and the N12 Southern Bypass, which links Johannesburg with Witbank and Kimberley.

There is no disputing that the face of public transport in Gauteng has gone through a major transformation through the introduction of Rea Vaya, the Gautrain and the revamped OR Tambo airport. Just like MEC Vadi, I have no doubt that in the next five years, the face of public transport in Gauteng will once again change for the better.

Seems like not even the sky is the limit. -

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