Public transit in South Africa can be a bit of a nightmare. Many South Africans have had to depend on the ubiquitous taxivans, which are often overcrowded, dirty and driven recklessly.
But the continent's first rapid rail service, built to ease traffic congestion in South Africa's economic heart, is changing that.
The Gautrain links Johannesburg, the country's economic and business hub, and Pretoria, its political capital. With speeds of up to 100 mph, it is a smooth, swift, clean and chilly ride (complete with American-style air conditioning). And it's a safe ride, which is particularly important for a place like Johannesburg, known locally as Joburg, which has had a reputation for crime.
Meeting all of these challenges was no easy task for the operators of the $3 billion rail system. As one friend puts it, "If the Gautrain gets a name for grubbiness or crime, it's dead on the spot."
Clearing The Congestion
The idea behind the Gautrain was to get people using cars off the roads and onto public transportation in order to ease congestion.
For example, the drive between Joburg and Pretoria should take a little more than an hour. But it takes double that or much longer if you're stuck in traffic, which is often the case.
The Gautrain (pronounced HOW-TRAIN), which derives its name from Gauteng province, home to both Joburg and Pretoria, began service just before another first for Africa: the 2010 World Cup soccer championship hosted by South Africa.
The train network, with a stop at O.R. Tambo International Airport, has since expanded, and more stations are to come, says Kelebogile Machaba, a spokeswoman for Bombela Concession Co., which operates the Gautrain.
Early on in the project, there was considerable criticism about the planned network and fears that it would simply serve a rich elite, doing little for poor South Africans, because of the price of tickets.
And it's true that not everyone can afford the $18 one-way ride to the airport from downtown Joburg. But a taxi costs easily twice that amount.
Officials say the Gautrain is carrying up to 40,000 passengers daily on average, and in some ways, it's become something of a victim of its own success. It's mostly a commuter line, and hundreds, even thousands, of additional parking spots are needed at some stations.
The 2-year-old network has already reached nearly 100 percent capacity during peak hours. And the Gautrain's hours of operation are limited — from 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Many complain that's too short, especially for those riding to and from the airport. But concerns about security late at night likely account for the early closing time.
Despite the drawbacks, there are plenty of fans, including banker and regular Gautrain user Michelle Madden. On a recent day she was taking the 30-minute trip from Johannesburg for a meeting in Pretoria. She says she loves the train.
"It's convenient and it's very smooth, it's easy," she says.
She used to take taxis or buses, which she says were "terrible and dirty." She praises the cleanliness of the Gautrain, with its immaculate royal blue and gold livery.
"The buses are disgusting and have chewing gum all over the floor and the seats, and they have chicken bones under the chairs. It's disgusting," Madden says, laughing.
The Gautrain has strict rules: no chewing gum, no eating, no drinking.
Cheerful and polite, Chabalala Casper is one of about 400 security personnel patrolling Gautrains and stations.
"No one [is] allowed to eat or drink here. Even chewing is not allowed. Even water is not allowed to drink, ma'am," he says. Passengers say fair is fair because this keeps the trains clean.
I heard one tale of a woman who had to swallow everything — gum, drink and all — in a heartbeat when she realized that the guard moving with alacrity along the train's aisle was heading for her.
Another Satisfied Customer
First-time rider Refilwe Edith Seabi hops on the train in Pretoria. As someone accustomed to traffic jams, she has high hopes for her ride to Joburg, where she is taking her sister Girlie for shopping — and she's timing the scheduled half-hour ride.
"Because sometimes Johannesburg to Pretoria, it will take me two hours because of the traffic," Seabi says. "So, I want to see today what time I'm going to board it and what time I'm going to arrive."
Seabi is elated and a little bit on edge.
"I'm very much excited. ... But I'm anxious about its speed," she says with nervous laughter.
With a twinkle in her eye, as she leans back into a royal blue, upholstered Gautrain seat, Seabi says she has heard the train ride is comfortable.
She visibly relaxes as the train picks up speed, whizzing past cars on the roads.
As the Gautrain glides into Johannesburg's Sandton Station, Seabi smiles with satisfaction. It's bang on time.
"Yes," she tells me. "I'll certainly be taking the Gautrain again. Definitely."
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.
Africa has its first high-speed rail service. It was built in the economic heart of South Africa to ease congestion. Passengers describe it as swift, safe and reliable.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton hopped on board to try it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HIGH-SPEED TRAIN)
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Welcome aboard Gautrain.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL TONES)
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Train to O.R. Tambo International Airport.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Here starts my ride on the Gautrain that covers both Johannesburg, which is the economic and business hub in South Africa, and Pretoria which is the political capital. We're going down, right down, into the bowels of the Gautrain.
What's exciting about it is it's the speediest train in Africa. It really is a first. And let's see how the ride will be and what other people think about the Gautrain. Here goes.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Attention please, passengers for O.R. Tambo International Airport, please change trains at Marlboro.
KELEBOGILE MACHAKA: Visitors that are coming outside of South Africa, they are amazed because they do not expect to see a system that is on par with the best of the best in the world, such a world-class project.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kelebogile Machaka is a spokeswoman for the Bombela Concession Company, which operates the Gautrain.
You have to put the Gautrain into context. South Africa's existing national Metrorail system is like most rundown railways across Africa, dating back 50-plus years. They need a radical upgrade.
STATION ANNOUNCER: Train approaching, stand back from the platform edge.
QUIST-ARCTON: In rolls the Gautrain with its immaculate royal blue and gold livery. It came online just in time for another first for the continent, the 2010 soccer World Cup championship hosted by South Africa. The network, with a stop at the airport, has since expanded, with more stations to come, says Machaba, the Bombela spokeswoman.
MACHAKA: The Gautrain is primarily aimed at taking people that are using cars off the roads and into public transport, to alleviate the congestion on the major roads.
QUIST-ARCTON: Early in the project, there was criticism about the nearly $3 billion network and fears the Gautrain would simply serve a rich elite, doing little for poor South Africans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)
QUIST-ARCTON: Not everyone can afford, say, the $18 one-way ride to the airport from downtown Johannesburg. But a taxi costs easily twice that. Officials say the Gautrain is carrying up to 40,000 passengers on an average day. And that includes banker and regular Gautrain user Michelle Madden.
MICHELLE MADDEN: Love the train. It's convenient and it's very, very smooth. It's easy.
QUIST-ARCTON: What did you do before?
MADDEN: Bus, taxis, and it was terrible and dirty. This is very clean.
QUIST-ARCTON: Madden is taking the 30-minute trip from Johannesburg for a meeting in Pretoria.
MADDEN: I think it's wonderful because the buses are disgusting. The buses have chewing gum all over the floor and the seats. And they have chicken bones under the chairs and it's disgusting.
QUIST-ARCTON: Cheerful and polite, Chabalala Casper is one of about 400 security personnel, patrolling the trains and stations served by the Gautrain.
CHABALALA CASPER: Yah, clear. No one allowed to eat or drink here. Even chewing is not allowed. Even water, not allowed to drink.
QUIST-ARCTON: You heard him. The Gautrain's rules are strict. But passengers say fair is fair because this keeps the trains spotless.
First-time rider Refilwe Edith Seabi hops on in Pretoria. She's impressed.
REFILWE EDITH SEABI: Normally, the traffic, I know it because sometimes, Johannesburg from Pretoria, it will take me two hours because of the traffic. So I want to see today what time I'm going to board it and what time I'm going to arrive.
QUIST-ARCTON: She's bringing along her sister Girlie for a spot of shopping in Johannesburg. But Seabi is a little nervous.
SEABI: I'm very much excited and a bit anxious. And it's the first time.
QUIST-ARCTON: So what are you expecting?
SEABI: I'm expecting comfort. But I'm just anxious about its speed.
QUIST-ARCTON: A speed of up to a hundred miles an hour. But once she settles into the Gautrain's upholstered seats, Refilwe Seabi relaxes visibly and smiles.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: The next station is Centurion.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.