South Africa's First Rapid Rail Link Starts in Time for Soccer's World Cup

Africa’s first rapid rail line began operating today between Johannesburg’s main airport and business district, three days before the soccer World Cup opens in South Africa.

The Gautrain started running at 5.30 a.m. local time today, making the trip from O.R. Tambo airport to Sandton, Johannesburg’s commercial center, in 15 minutes, about the same as London’s Heathrow Express, which runs to Paddington station, and at least two-thirds quicker than by car. When completed in April, the line and its bus system will have 10 stations and link Johannesburg with Pretoria, the capital.

“I’m scared using this new wonderful train,” Johannes Makgobathe, a 27-year-old police officer, said before his first trip on an underground train. “We must have this for the whole country, why just here?”

South Africa’s government promised in August the Gautrain would be ready for the soccer World Cup, the first ever to be held in Africa. The rail line will also help Africa’s biggest economy build a modern public transportation system, said Mike Schussler, Johannesburg-based director of Economists.co.za.

“We now have a base for expanding public transport in the future,” Schussler said in an interview. “If it is managed well it will become a very important part of our economic system.”

Bombela Concession

The Bombela Concession Co., which is made up of six shareholders including Absa Ltd., paid for 13 percent of the 25.2 billion rand ($3.2 billion) project and has a 15 ½-year concession to recoup the investment, Gautrain spokeswoman Barbara Jensen said. The project owner, Gauteng’s provincial government, paid for the rest, she said.

Murray & Roberts Holdings Ltd., South Africa’s second- largest construction company by sales, Bouygues Travaux Publics SA, a French builder, Bombardier Transportation UK Ltd., SPG Concessions Ltd., and J&J Group are Bombela’s other stakeholders, according to its website.

Work on the line, which was approved in 2006, was delayed by public opposition and environmental approvals. Labor unions have opposed the venture, saying it won’t benefit the poor because it doesn’t reach residential areas where they live and is too expensive. The length of the network is 80 kilometers (50 miles) with the distance between Sandton and the airport being about half of that.

A single ticket to the airport costs 100 rand compared with 300 to 400 rand for a metered taxi. Twenty-four trains will be able to carry about 140,000 passengers per day, Jensen said. By comparison a 25.5 kilometer bus trip from Soweto to Johannesburg costs 6 rand.

“Everyone knows how congested” Gauteng is, Jensen said in an interview yesterday. “This is South Africa’s economic heartland. People who value their time will use the Gautrain. We need to get people moving.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Franz Wild in Johannesburg at fwild@bloomberg.net

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