Public transport as an economic enabler

Worth the effort: the value of the rail system to the economy of Gauteng and the country is huge

Worth the effort: the value of the rail system to the economy of Gauteng and the country is huge

There are few infrastructure projects in South Africa that compare to the Gautrain in terms of size and technical complexity. Designed, built, operated, maintained and partially financed by the Bombela Concession Company, the Gautrain has become a symbol of pride for South Africa and a catalyst for significant ancillary economic development in the areas that it serves. Indeed, the value of approved development projects in Sandton alone (and for which the Gautrain may be considered to be the catalyst) exceed the capital cost of the entire Gautrain system.

Since its opening just three days ahead of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 the system has transported over 40-million train passengers and is consistently punctual more than 98% of the time — world class by any standard. Train as well as bus patronage levels have shown consistent growth since inception, with average weekday train ridership at about 55000 passengers a day and bus ridership at about 22000 passengers a day. 

Since inception only two passenger-related contact crimes have been reported in the system. Statistically, this makes the Gautrain one of the safest public spaces in the country.

A recent independent survey conducted by Catalyst Research has indicated that passengers rate the Gautrain’s services very highly, with key criteria such as train punctuality, value for money, safety, and security and cleanliness all rated at well above 90%. In terms of cost per passenger-kilometre the Gautrain also offers far better value than most private cars, especially when vehicle maintenance and toll fees are included.

As a public-private partnership, the Gautrain is probably the best example in the last 30 years in South Africa of how the public sector conceived a development vision and how the private sector invested in and delivered it, and is now being held accountable to operate it efficiently. 

One of the most frequently asked questions regarding public transport is whether it should run at a profit. Taxpayers should indeed be highly vigilant to ensure that their tax contributions are put to the most efficient and beneficial use possible. But they should also avoid the simplistic assumption that individual public projects should necessarily be profit centres in their own right. Public transport projects, like schools and hospitals and sewage works, are not implemented primarily to make profits; they are implemented so that civilised society can function efficiently. In this sense they are essential enablers to the greater economy. 

Published data on 62 passenger train systems around the world reveals that only six operate where the farebox revenue covers the operating costs. All six are in Asia and each carries well in excess of a billion passengers a year. The London Underground (which carries in excess of 1.2-billion passengers per year) covers only about 50% of its operating costs through farebox revenue, while the Gautrain (at only 14-million passengers a year) covers about 60% of its operating costs.

Imagine shutting down the London Underground simply because its revenue doesn’t cover its operating costs — it’s ludicrous. London would grind to a halt within hours, as would its economy and shortly after that, the economy of the entire sub-region. On the contrary, the London Underground is an essential enabler to the regional economy. It is not a profit centre in its own right and no thinking person expects it to be. 

As John F Kennedy once said when commenting on how the United States had attained such economic pre-eminence: “Wealth does not create infrastructure; infrastructure creates wealth.”

The development of the Gautrain has brought many benefits to South Africa. Bombela is contractually obligated to achieve defined socio-economic development targets not only in Gauteng, but in South Africa as a whole. These targets — all of which are independently verified — have been consistently exceeded in respect of broad-based black economic empowerment, job creation, local skills development and capacity building. 

It is estimated that by the end of construction, Bombela had created or sustained approximately 34 800 local direct jobs and an estimated total of 121800 direct, indirect and induced jobs. These individuals also benefited from exposure to state-of-the-art technologies and methodologies imparted by Bombela’s international partners.

The benefits have continued into the operational phase of Gautrain, with thousands of direct jobs ranging from security guards to train drivers to highly skilled maintenance technicians being created. Considering the knock-on opportunities afforded to the myriad of companies who supply the Gautrain with diverse goods and services, the economic benefits of the project are indisputable. 

Expansion of the Gautrain system is unquestionably in the interests of the people of Gauteng, where high congestion levels are hampering economic growth. Rapid urban development is likely to place ever- increasing patronage demands on the Gautrain as well as other forms of public transport. By contrast, the use of private cars is likely to become ever more difficult. 

A detailed assessment and analysis of the current transport network in Gauteng was done as part of the Province’s 25-year Integrated Transport Master Plan (ITMP25) unveiled in August 2013.

Key to the ITMP25 is the prioritising of public transport, with rail being the backbone of the transport network. The proposed extensions will enable a shift from private vehicles to public transport that will reduce congestion, enhance efficiency and promote sustainability. 

The proposed rail network will ultimately consist of two links. The first is a link to the Durban/Johannesburg High Speed Rail project proposed by the national department of transport. The second is a rapid rail link including Gautrain and its extensions for high mobility corridors.  These extensions are: a link from the existing Gautrain Park Station to Westgate in the Johannesburg CBD; a link from the existing Rhodesfield Station to Boksburg; a rapid rail link from Naledi in Soweto to Mamelodi via either the proposed Gautrain Samrand Station or the existing Gautrain Midrand Station; and link from the existing Gautrain Sandton Station to Randburg.

It is understood that the first phase of the feasibility studies for these extensions will commence during 2014.  With the time estimated for completion of the feasibility and environmental studies it can be anticipated that construction might commence in four to seven years.  Funding methods and timeframes for the extensions themselves still have to be developed for approval. Even an estimate of costs is difficult to obtain at this time, since the scope of the proposed works is as yet very undefined. 

Errol Braithwaite is operations executive of the Bombela Concession Company