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High-speed train gives South Africa a lift

The 100-mph Gautrain makes its inaugural runs from Johannesburg to the airport. For riders the first day, sub-Saharan Africa's only such transport is a symbol of their country's progress.

June 09, 2010|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A passenger takes a picture of fellow riders alongside the new Gautrain, sub-Saharan Africa's first high-speed rail line, shortly after its launch in Johannnesburg.
A passenger takes a picture of fellow riders alongside the new Gautrain,… (Alexander Joe / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa —

South Africa's fast train was so new when it carried its first passengers Tuesday that it wasn't quite finished. Builders had left string tacked to a wall in the underground station in upscale Sandton, and their notes were still scrawled on walls. There were patches of rough unfinished concrete, paint drips and the earthy cement smell of a building site.

But it didn't matter. For South Africans, the Gautrain (pronounced how-train), traveling at 100 mph and linking the area's airport with Sandton, is a powerful symbol of modern Africa, and their country's advancement and preparedness for the World Cup beginning late this week.

An oft-repeated proud South African mantra that the country has world-class facilities suddenly seemed real as passengers glided down escalators so new they squeaked, to the sleek tiled platforms below.

The section linking Sandton to the airport opened Tuesday. When it's finished, the nearly $4-billion Gautrain linking Pretoria, Sandton, Johannesburg, the airport and other locations will have 10 stations, three of them underground, and nearly seven miles of underground track. It's not exactly the sprawling Paris Metro, but there's nothing else like it in sub-Saharan Africa.

Critics contend that the Gautrain will turn out to be a white elephant. They believe the money could have been better spent upgrading transport infrastructure for poor blacks.

The train isn't affordable for the poor: It costs nearly $6 a day for people from Alexandra township to get a bus to a nearby Gautrain station and then go onward to Sandton and back.

But despite the debate, the excitement of the Gautrain's launch seized the country's imagination. People rose at 4 a.m. to be among the first passengers. They tweeted from the train, took cellphone photos, uploaded video and crowed that it was "the most beautiful train in the world."

Nearly 11,000 people clambered aboard the Gautrain on Day 1, mainly eager South Africans taking an hour or two off work for the trip, like children trying out a new Christmas gift.

The jubilant mood took hold the moment customers escaped the lines, bearing the gold plastic cards that serve as tickets.

The train ride from Sandton to O.R. Tambo International Airport took 15 minutes, less than half what it might have taken by car.

There was heavy security in the carriages. (South African commuters sometimes burn trains in protests over poor services or other issues.) Rules were posted prominently: no gambling, begging, loud noises, shouting, fighting, informal trading or similar disturbances.

Spokozi Meyoli, 35, a manager in a government department, exuded excitement as she bought her tickets from a machine. Assistants hovered around helpfully, intercepting anyone who hesitated for more than a second or two.

"We are just using it for fun and to be part of history," said Meyoli, of Pretoria, with her 3-month-old son, Esinaso Moribe, and her brother Monezi Meyoli, 27. "We wanted to be among the first, that is all.

"It's 2010," she added. "Everything is happening. We wanted to have the experience so we can tell the story."

However, she acknowledged that she probably would not be able to afford to use the train regularly. She was not likely to pay the more than $25 for a return ticket from Pretoria to Johannesburg, even to save traveling time, when her small, ancient Japanese car would get her back and forth for a fraction of the cost.

"It will be for the elite," she said.

But if the train substantially cuts traffic between Pretoria and Johannesburg — a 45-minute drive that stretches to about two hours during peak traffic time — it could be worthwhile for South Africa's economy, she added.

Vusi Ndaba is a member of South Africa's black middle class. A computer programmer with his own consulting firm, he lives in Sandton, though he grew up in Alexandra township. He took a trip Tuesday with colleagues from his firm to try out the train, have lunch at the airport and return to Sandton.

He has traveled to Europe and New York, where he found Westerners voiced insulting stereotypes about Africa.

"The typical idea is about underdevelopment — all the Afro-pessimism," he said. "I think [the train] is symbolically significant. It's a natural progression to have infrastructure that changes people's lives."

Ndaba said poor workers had long had to make their way from Alexandra to Sandton by taxi or even on foot to fill service jobs.

"Alexandra and Sandton have always been close, but the traffic has always been one way. I am hoping that this will make Alexandra more accessible and make the traffic go the other way. I certainly plan to use it to visit my mother in Alexandra."

As the train pulled into Sandton station, one white-haired Afrikaner woman burst into joyful applause.

"Come on, give it a hand!" she shouted. Everyone joined in, clapping and laughing.

No one cared whether a little noise broke the rules.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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