Smooth first ride for Gautrain

4 February 2009

Residents of South Africa’s Gauteng province are probably tired of the excessive rainfall over the past week, but the “Gautrainers” – the group of people invited for the first official ride of the country’s high speed train, the Gautrain – were excited by the sudden downpour on Tuesday.

In Africa, rain denotes a blessing.

Some 150 invited guests and journalists gathered at the operational control centre and depot at Midrand, Johannesburg to ride the Gautrain for the first time, in a ceremony the officials named iFikile Ekhaya – welcome home.

They have waited for seven years, since late 2001, when the high-speed train concept was punted for Gauteng, to step aboard the R25-billion Gautrain, which is being manufactured in England.

While listening to the officials giving speeches, the thunder boomed outside, forcing the controller to increase the sound level on the mike. Then the rain beat down on the large warehouse depot where the event took place.

The southern wall of the depot opened and the sleek, gold, four-car Gautrain burst through, amid loud cheering. The rounded aero-dynamic engine has been especially designed for the Gautrain, the “fastest electro-star in the world”, said the chief executive of the Gautrain Management Agency, Jack van der Merwe.

Inside, the coach resounds in blue and gold – the tall-backed seating is a rich royal blue, with blue and gold spotted carpet, with two stripes running up it, and with the gold Gautrain logo emblazoned on it.

The train silently moved forward, no sound, no surge or jolt to push passengers back into their seats, and reached a speed of 80km with ease. People on the road below the elevated track stopped to take pictures with their cellphones. People inside the coach looked around in wonder.

The Gautrain fleet will comprise 96 rail cars, running initially in four-car sets, which will reach speeds of 160kph.

Golden train’

Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile said: “Our golden train is finally where it belongs. This is the beginning of a dream that has now come true. We are getting an efficient public transport system that is safe, reliable and efficient.”

He thanked Joburg residents, particularly those living along the construction sites of the Gautrain, for their patience and tolerance of the inconvenience.

“This is the birth of a new legacy in public transport in South Africa and in Africa.” He said that the Gautrain would establish a new standard of trains that arrive and depart on time, and allow passengers to travel in a safe and clean environment. The train from Sandton to the airport would take 12 minutes, he confirmed.

As he spoke, the rain started thundering down again. “It’s raining again; it means we are truly blessed.”

‘Dream on wheels’

Ignatius Jacobs, the provincial MEC of public transport, roads and works, called the Gautrain “this dream on wheels”. He couldn’t stop beaming.

Dave Barry, the vice-president of Bombardier Transportation, spoke about passion. “The passion that we can sense now on the project is fantastic.”

He said that the transport of the train up from Durban harbour in early December 2008 was delayed along the way because people wanted to touch and photograph the train each time it stopped. “That passion is being felt by everyone in Gauteng – people are stopping on the motorway to take photos with their cellphones.”

Barry added: “The time is right for trains.”

Jerome Govender, the chief executive of Bombela Concession Company, said: “Having seen the train in Derby was very exciting, but having seen this train on our track, man, was really exciting.”

Fifteen of the cars are being manufactured in Derby in England. The remaining 81 cars are being flat-backed into crates and shipped to Durban, for assembly in Nigel on the East Rand.

Tunnel

Rosebank and Killarney residents will be pleased to know that the tunnel boring machine has finished its work of constructing a tunnel from the Rosebank station site in Oxford Road, through to Parktown, from where the normal cut and cover method of tunnel construction resumes. It took the machine a year to cut a 3km tunnel. It will now be dismantled and disposed of.

“It is a relief for me and the residents of Oxford Road,” said Govender. A mishap occurred along the road in July last year, when a large hole opened up in the road, causing weeks of detours around the site.

In late October 2008, the tunnel between Sandton and Marlboro merged, a major milestone.

Govender said that procuring some 40km² of land in a city the size of Joburg was a major feat for Bombela. Building and construction on this size of land is also a major undertaking. “That’s something to celebrate.”

Testing and commissioning

The enormity of the construction task has now moved to a new challenge – testing and commissioning. Before opening for general use, each train will be subjected to rigorous testing. This involves applying progressively more onerous tests on all systems, from brakes and power, to air-conditioning and communications. Each train will complete some 3 000 kilometres on the test track before being passed for operation.

Once the train has been tested, the personnel involved in its operation have to be trained, including undergoing disaster and emergency simulations.

“The outcomes of the testing and commissioning and system integration processes are measured against strict technical criteria to ensure compliance with all design and safety requirements,” according to a Gautrain statement.

That compliance involves ride comfort, journey time and environmental compliance, among other criteria.

The Railway Safety Regulator has to issue to safety permit, or a licence to operate, before the Gautrain can begin operating.

“We give you a train with modern technology to ensure safety for all of you,” concluded Govender.

The Gautrain will operate between Johannesburg, Tshwane and OR Tambo International Airport. The route between the airport and Sandton will be ready for the 2010 World Cup.

The train will be supplemented by a dedicated bus fleet which will comprise 125 buses running some 36 routes, covering 26 000 kilometres every day.

More information can be obtained from the Gautrain website or from the Gautrain toll-free number, 0800 Gautrain (0800 428 87246).

Source: City of Johannesburg