Gautrain uses social media to spread its message

It’s official: Twitter is taking over the world. Chances are good that either you or someone you know has a page on the social networking site and Tweets regularly.

Yes, “tweet”, meaning to post a short message on your page. This is just one example of Twit-speak, the Twitter lexicon that is (unfortunately, some say) redefining the way people prefer to do things online: usually by substituting “tw” or “twe” for the first syllable of a word.

Like Twtvite (pronounced twit-vite). It’s not just another term to add to the Twitter vocabulary, it’s also an application that allows Twitterers and other social media users to invite their followers to an event, usually known as a “Tweetup” (meet up).

One of the largest such gatherings in the country was held last Saturday. The Gautrain, which has been extremely active on both Facebook and Twitter (it has 2 702 fans on Facebook and 1 442 followers on Twitter), invited their “Tweeps” (yes, that would be Twitter-peeps) to a Tweetup-on-rails.

About 200 excited fans gathered at the Gautrain depot in Midrand at 10am on Saturday. Clutching glasses of fruit juice and plates full of complimentary breakfast buffet food, they wandered around the demarcated area in the big storage shed, examining the models of four Gautrain stations that were on display, and taking pictures of each other next to one of the Gautrains. People recognised each other from Twitter or Facebook, and enjoyed the chance to poke and be poked in person.

Throughout the morning many of the attendees were on their phones, Tweeting away (@Gautrain, #tweetuponrails). There was wi-fi internet available and a large screen kept the Tweets rolling over as they flooded in.

Jack van der Merwe, Gautrain project leader, gave a short talk to the assembled Twitterati. He explained that any plan to relieve traffic congestion that centred on personal vehicles (for example, the expansion of the highways) would have a lifespan of approximately three years before the situation would deteriorate again.

“In Los Angeles they have 20-lane highways, and the worst traffic in the world. Public transport must be at the heart of relieving congestion,” he said.

Van der Merwe also warned about the new toll roads coming to Gauteng next year, saying a Pretoria-Johannesburg daily commuter will pay about R1 000 a month in toll fees.

Construction on the Gautrain began in September 2006. The Sandton-airport link, which includes the Rhodesfield and Marlboro stations, will be ready by June 8, three days before the Soccer World Cup gets under way. By the end of March next year the full line should be up and running, from Hatfield in Pretoria to Johannesburg Park Station. It is estimated that the Gautrain system will transport more than 100  000 people each day.

A feeder bus system, along with the new municipal BRT buses, will provide transport to and from the stations. A single card, pre-loaded with credit, will be used to pay for parking at the station, the Gautrain, and the feeder buses. A prototype of the card was shown to the people at the Tweetup, the first time any members of the public had seen it. A monthly ticket will also be available at a discounted rate to regular travellers.

For those worried about safety, Van der Merwe announced that they are bringing back the Railway Police and will have South African Police Service members on each train. The stations will have CCTV cameras with heat scanning for night intruders.

Although the trains are still in the testing phase, and so are not open to the general public, a special arrangement was made, and the Tweeps got to ride the train. The catering staff were invited too.

The Gautrain is air-conditioned, quiet, and feels surprisingly smooth considering it has a travelling speed of 160km/h. The Tweeps cheered as it hit top speed — and then got back to Tweeting about it.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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