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Gautrain in South Africa: Setting new benchmarks [free access]

August 1, 2010

Gautrain, South Africa’s first high-speed passenger railway line, has commenced operations. The railroad system running through Gauteng province is a pioneering example of rail-based transportation in a country which has seen little development in commuter rail. In fact, it is being touted as one of the largest and costliest railway projects globally, figuring among the world’s best in similar infrastructure initiatives such as the Canada Line Rapid Transit, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the London Crossrail and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Link.


The project, conceived to decongest the Pretoria-Johannesburg traffic corridor, put its first phase into operation just in time for World Cup 2010.  Current operations include a dedicated airport service between Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport, a commuter service between Sandton and Rhodesfield and a dedicated feeder and distribution bus service to and from the Sandton and Rhodesfield stations.




Public transport facilities in Gauteng province are predominantly road-based, comprising taxis and mini-buses. The use of commuter rail is insignificant leaving buses as the only means of mass-transit available to the Gauteng population. However, the lack of a safe and reliable bus service has forced the majority of public transport users to rely either on taxis or shift to personal vehicles over time.


Gauteng, being one of the most densely populated provinces in the country, has a population of approximately 10 million, one-third of who are public transport users. About 70 per cent of this one-third use taxis as the chief mode of conveyance, clearly indicating the high dependence on exclusive modes of transport in the province.


In the absence of a reasonably efficient system of mass transportation, the population’s growing mobility needs have driven the shift towards personalised means of transport. Consequently, the number of private cars and taxis has gone up sharply, causing heavy congestion on some of the major inter-city routes in the province, especially the Pretoria-Johannesburg route. Currently, the Pretoria-Johannesburg corridor experiences traffic of nearly 300,000 cars per week, with a traffic growth rate of 7 per cent per annum.


In order to ease the growing congestion and give commuters a viable and efficient alternative to road transportation, the Gauteng provincial government conceptualised the Gautrain rapid rail link. Given the modest land requirements for the railroad’s construction and its distinct environmental advantages over other forms of transport, Gautrain is viewed as a cost-effective and environment-friendly solution to the increasing mobility challenges in the province. 


The project


Gautrain involves construction of an 80-km high-speed passenger railway network comprising two routes. One of these is the north-south line connecting Pretoria and Hatfield Johannesburg while the other is an east-west line from Sandton to the international airport. Besides offering commuter rail services, the east-west line also offers a dedicated airport service from Sandton. 


Apart from the three anchor stations of Pretoria, Johannesburg and the international airport, the railway network will have seven other stations. The system is being designed to operate trains at a maximum speed of 160 to 180 km per hr and is expected to reduce travel time between Pretoria and Johannesburg to less than 40 minutes from the current two hours.


A key feature of Gautrain is the system’s exclusive feeder bus service that ferries passengers to and from stations, eliminating the use of personal vehicles to access the rapid rail system. Moreover, in order to develop an integrated multi-modal transportation system in the province, there is an increased focus on linking Gautrain to other modes of public transport such as taxis, buses and the metrorail system. 




The project, recognised as one of Africa’s largest public-private partnership (PPP) initiatives, is being developed by the Gauteng provincial government in partnership with the Bombela Concession Company (Bombela), a 50-50 joint-venture between South Africa-based engineering, contracting and construction company Murray and Roberts Limited and its international partners, which include Canada-based Bombardier, France-based Strategic Partners Group and RATP Développement, South Africa-based J&J Group and the South African investment bank, Absa Capital. The consortium is responsible for designing, building, financing (partly) and operating the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link under a 20-year concession agreement with the provincial government. The PPP also includes a range of social and economic obligations to support the economic development of Gauteng province by attracting strategic private investments and generating significant employment.


Bombela has subcontracted works on the system to two organisations. The first of these, involving the supply of trains and control systems, has been handed over to Bombardier. The scope of Bombardier's contract is to deliver an integrated rail system which encompasses track work, power supply and distribution systems, communications, automatic fare collection, project management, and systems engineering and integration as well as their testing and commissioning. It also includes the supply of railcars for the system and installation of the CityFlo 250 signalling and control system designed by the Bombardier Engineering Centre of Excellence in Plymouth.


The second and major segment of the works, comprising design and construction of Gautrain’s civil works, is being handled by the Bombela Civil Joint Venture comprising companies in the consortium itself. UK-based Atkins has been appointed to work on three of the eight detailed design packages for the system. The remaining five were awarded to local design consultants as part of the project's contractual obligation to assist in the development of the local economy, people and businesses. Atkins is thus responsible for the design of 15 km of tunnels, three underground stations, and seven emergency/ventilation shafts, and for the route alignment for the entire system.




The ZAR24 billion railway project has five sources of funding. These are financial assistance from the central government via the Department of Transport, contributions from the Gauteng provincial government, private sector equity, private sector borrowing and debt from the provincial government.


So far, private sector funding for the project has been mainly through equity in the form of shareholders’ funds. The equity made available by shareholders in the Bombela consortium (which holds a 20-year concession agreement with the provincial government) covers approximately 20 per cent of total project cost. Of the remaining 80 per cent, 71 per cent is provided by bank syndication and 9 per cent is through floating-rate mezzanine funding.




The Gautrain high-speed network, which involves construction of 15 km of tunnels and about 11 km of bridges, is being built in two phases. The first phase involving construction of the line between Sandton and the international airport is almost complete while the second phase which is construction of the Johannesburg-Pretoria link is currently underway.


Construction work on the first phase of the project began in September 2006 and the line was completed and commissioned on June 8, 2010, ahead of the initial contractual completion date of June 27, 2010. With the completion of the project’s first phase, about 20 km of the route has become operational of which 5 km including Sandton station is underground or in tunnels.


As part of the first phase works, construction of the Marlboro, Rhodesfield and international airport stations have been completed. Currently work on Sandton station is ongoing and expected to be completed by end-2010. In addition, the operations control centre and train and bus depot facilities have been completed.


The second phase involves construction of two underground, one elevated and three at-grade stations at Rosebank, Johannesburg, Midrand, Centurion, Pretoria and Hatfield.  This phase of the project is slated for completion in June 2011.


An innovative system design has enabled significant cost savings in Gautrain’s construction. The use of ventilation fans instead of air-conditioning in the underground tunnels has not only helped trim power costs but also reduced the carbon footprint of the system. Moreover, the two-level design of the underground Sandton station has helped cut eight months from the construction period while providing significant cost benefits.


Rolling stock


Services on the high-speed railway system are operated using a fleet of Bombardier-manufactured Electrostar electric multiple unit (EMU) trains. Bombardier has been contracted to supply 24 four-car trains for the system. The first 15 railcars are to be manufactured and assembled at Bombardier’s plant in Derby, UK, while the remaining 81 units will be supplied as kits, with parts that can be assembled locally by South Africa-based railway equipment manufacturer, Union Carriage and Wagon's plant in Nigel. So far five four-car EMUs have been deployed on the operational airport link and another 19 will be added.


The EMUs have been designed with an upgraded traction package to cope with steeper gradients, heavier potential loads and hotter climatic conditions. The trains will also feature a passenger information system and two closed-circuit television cameras for each car.


Safety and security measures


Gautrain maintains a high standard of security in operations. To ensure the safety of passengers, the railway network is planned to be equipped with more than 650 closed-circuit television cameras on trains and stations. In addition, Gautrain security officers and transport police from  the South African Police Service are planned to be deployed to maintain strict vigilance. In order to deter crime and prevent unwanted entries and vandalism, a 2.4 metre high security fence is planned to be erected and monitored on-screen.


Railway signalling is one of the most critical components in the safe operation of the system. The fully computerised signalling system on the network minimises accident risks by preventing head-on collisions between trains. Also, the broader track-gauge reduces the possibility of derailment at higher speeds.


Safety features on trains include an onboard automatic train protection system that constantly monitors the movement of the train. If the driver does not reduce speed sufficiently, the system automatically instructs the vehicle to apply controlled brakes.


Ticketing technology


Gautrain’s fare-collection system employs a contactless smartcard that uses a smart chip and is based on radio frequency identification (RFID). The ticketing system is being built by France-based Thales Group and its local partner, Stimela Infrastructure Management. The ZAR100 million contract requires Thales to design and deploy a contactless e-ticketing system at all Gautrain stations, including the international airport. The solution will also be interoperable so that commuters can use the same contactless smartcard for different services such as the Gautrain feeder bus service and the Metrorail.


Bright future


Positive reviews of the first-phase operations of Gautrain have built confidence among the stakeholders of the project. In its first month of operation, the system recorded passenger traffic of 400,000, almost three times the expected number.


Gautrain has had a positive impact on the economic development of the region.  The system is being viewed as an integral part of Gauteng’s development and one of the key growth drivers in the region. It was estimated that during the construction stage Gautrain would create 93,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs while the operation of the link was projected to create over 3,000 jobs per annum. Latest updates from the Bombela consortium reveal that these targets have been exceeded. As of May 2010, the project had created a total of 94,900 direct, indirect and induced jobs.


Thus, Gautrain with its long-term vision of creating a culture of public transport, is expected to transform regional mobility in Gauteng and set the stage for similar developments across the country.


(1 South African Rand [ZAR] = 0.2667 USD)