/ 7 June 2010

‘What witchcraft is this? It’s the Gautrain’

The speakers were unanimous: the Gautrain is an amazing South African achievement that will revolutionise our transport system. The official launch of the rapid rail link took place at a black-tie event at Gallagher Estate on June 5.

For many it was an emotional evening, the culmination of years of hard work.

“It’s a celebration,” Gautrain official Ingrid Jensen told the Mail & Guardian. “It’s a celebration not only for the people who worked on it and made it possible, but also for the people from the community.”

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe told the guests that the Gautrain was the product of cooperation between three spheres of government, referring to the Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and City of Johannesburg metropoles. “This is proof that abundant benefits can be harnessed if metros are not competing with each other,” he said. “Even though the location of the project is in Gauteng, it belongs to all. It has created a feeling of national pride … South Africans can achieve the impossible when we put our minds to it.”

The Gautrain will bring public transport commuting to the workforce that relies mainly on single occupancy vehicles to get to work. The South African National Roads Agency is spending billions on upgrading the freeway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, the most congested stretch of road in the country. It will recoup its losses by implementing toll fees on road users, which could see the average commuter spending about R1 000 a month on toll fees alone.

“The Gautrain will be the backbone of a modern transportation system, and the foundation of a more reliable transport system,” Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane told the guests. She praised the jobs that the Gautrain had created, both directly and indirectly, and the stimulus it had given to entrepreneurship.

Project leader Jack van der Merwe and the national soccer team were mentioned by all the speakers. Van der Merwe, who has been with the Gautrain since the beginning of the project, was congratulated on his achievement in the face of all the doomsayers while everyone wished Bafana Bafana good luck for the Soccer World Cup. “We hope they will make us proud as the Gautrain project has made us proud,” said Mokonyane.

After dinner the cast of the musical African Footprint performed several numbers, including a tap-dancing tribute to Bafana Bafana. The guests were then bussed to the Gautrain Midrand depot, where they rode the Gautrain to Sandton, OR Tambo, and back to the depot.

Mokonyane officially opened the four stations on the airport route: OR Tambo, Rhodesfield, Marlboro and Sandton.

As part of the Gautrain’s active social media presence, fifteen of their Twitter followers were invited to attend the launch. Social media manager Maritha Pritchard explained that they had been selected according to specific criteria: “Not just the number of their followers, but also things like how long they’ve been tweeting, and their previous relationship with the Gautrain on Facebook and Twitter,” she told the M&G.

“The future of commuter rail in Johannesburg is here, and it’s awesome. Experience it from Tuesday the 8th for yourself,” tweeted Craig Nicholson. “On the bus (and a nice bus too) heading to Midrand and then OR Tambo. Without a car. What witchcraft is this? It’s the Gautrain,” tweeted Francois Janse van Rensburg.

A set of stamps commemorating 150 years of railways in South Africa will be released by the post office shortly. The Gautrain opens to the public on June 8.