Jozi to Pretoria at High Speed

Joburg and Pretoria are about 60 kilometers (35 miles) apart. Rush-hour traffic between the two cities is legendary. If you’ve ever driven from Baltimore to Washington D.C. at 7:00 a.m. on a weekday, then you know what it’s like to drive between Pretoria and Jozi. On a bad day it can take hours. And until today, the freeway was the only option.

Friday afternoon gridlock in downtown Pretoria.

I’m a big fan of train-commuting. I spent 10 years as a D.C. suburbanite and rode the train to work every day. Believe it or not, I miss those train rides. I loved having that daily hour (or more) to myself — to read, sleep, listen to music, or just space out.

Today was an exciting day for South African train-lovers. The Gautrain, Africa’s first high-speed commuter train, opened service between Joburg and Pretoria. Joe and I went for an inaugural ride.

The Gautrain welcomes a rather stunned-looking Joe.

(The Gautrain actually opened for business just over a year ago, with a line that runs between O.R. Tambo International Airport and the Jozi suburb of Sandton. But for all intents and purposes, today was the Gautrain’s big debut. Read more about today’s opening on BBC.)

Note to non-South-Africans: Gautrain is not pronounced GOW-train (or GO-train, which is what I initially called it). It’s the HOW-train, with a guttural, phlegm-producing H sound that I’m unable to replicate. The Gautrain is named for Gauteng Province, which is where Jozi and Pretoria are located.

A Gautrain pulls in to Hatfield Station — the end of the line in Pretoria.

The Gautrain is not a perfect solution to Gauteng’s traffic woes. The system consists of 10 stations, most of which sit in a straight line between the two cities. A web of Gautrain bus routes extends the overall reach of the system. But if you don’t live near one of the limited number of Gautrain stations or bus stops, you’re still stuck. The nearest station to Melville, where I live, is five kilometers away in Rosebank. But so far there is no Gautrain bus service to Melville.

A Gautrain station map on the train we rode today.

Also, the Gautrain’s Joburg to Pretoria line is still incomplete. The final leg of the route — between Rosebank and Joburg’s central business district, has been delayed indefinitely due to a mysterious water leakage problem. This delay is disappointing, considering that the whole project was supposed to be finished in time for the 2010 World Cup, and considering that the Gautrain has already cost South Africa’s tax-payers three times the original estimate.

But still. The Gautrain is a huge leap forward for South Africa, and today’s ride turned me into a believer. The stations I visited were pristine and functioning perfectly.

Airport-bound travelers enter Hatfield Station. Check out all the parking — this is just one section of the sprawling garage.  

The trains are luxurious and swift. Unlike in D.C.’s Metrorail system, the announcements made over the Gautrains’ loudspeakers are actually audible (probably because they are pre-recorded, not delivered by mumbling, inarticulate humans). And speaking of humans, I have never seen as many friendly, helpful transportation employees as I saw today in the Gautrain system. The customers were happy too, and proud.

Customers and staff (in fluorescent vests) excitedly await the train’s arrival.

Passengers record our departure from Rosebank Station. That’s Joe in the middle.

Another photographer. There were lots of us.

It takes 35 minutes to ride from one end of the line to the other, and the fare is R46 (about $6.50) each way. We arrived at Hatfield Station in Pretoria, strolled around the neighborhood, grabbed a bite to eat, and then rode back to Rosebank. Everyone laughed and talked and snapped pictures; even the police didn’t mind being photographed. It was a feel-good day.

At the very least, the Gautrain is a pleasant place to spend an hour a day. Maybe I should find a job in Pretoria.

Happy to be on the train. (Photo courtesy of Joe.)

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14 Comments

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough August 3, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Wow, congrats on the train, Heather! How exciting! By the way, tomorrow (Wed.) morning at 7 EST I’ve scheduled my 7 links post to go live. You may have noticed Lisa passed the award to me. At any rate, thanks for sharing the idea. The post was fun to put together!
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 8:54 am

      Hey Kathy, can’t wait to read your post!

  • Reply Joburg Expat August 3, 2011 at 7:59 am

    “with a guttural, phlegm-producing H sound that I’m unable to replicate”: Ha, I’ll have to remember that description, I always struggle to convey to my readers how to pronounce Gauteng!

    • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 8:57 am

      I was trying to do the sounds again yesterday. I’m just not capable.

  • Reply Jaco August 3, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I am a dedicated public transport person now. It is saving me heaps and heaps of money – and it is so much more relaxing than sitting in your car praying that the N1 will not turn into a parking lot while swearing and gesturing at minibus taxis. Luckily Killarney has a bus taking me to Rosebank, and the Pretoria bus deposits me a block away from my downtown office. phew. Btw, as soon as the Park Station Gautrain opens, you can take the BRT bus downtown, and then catch the train. But with the water problem, that might take a while.

    • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 8:56 am

      Yeah, I’m excited for the Park Station leg to open and bummed that it’s delayed. Oh well. I still haven’t taken the BRT bus and need to do that pronto.

  • Reply Jozie Days August 3, 2011 at 8:47 am

    School holidays start soon so we will plan a train and bus day for the kids. I think I will be as excited as they are!

    • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 8:58 am

      I saw a lot of excited parents and kids on the train yesterday. Great vibe. Thanks for reading!

  • Reply @injoburg August 3, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Nice post, I love the Gautrain too, though yet need to do the PTA leg.
    Please note that the Gautrain was never intended to open for the World Cup last year; it’s a common misconception. This was a separate project, and by working faster they actually managed to open the airport to Sandton line weeks earlier than planned – so it’s a case of finishing much earlier than finishing late (though the PTA line should have opened late June…).
    Disappointing that the Park Station leg remains closed – I can’t help thinking it’s mainly the less wealthy working in the CBD (and lots of bank employees working in Marshalltown) that suffer from this delay.
    And indeed, once that final part of the line is open, and when the new BRT route from the CBD past WIts and UJ to Soweto opens in ealry 2012, we’ll have a proper public transport connection to Melville. Till then it’s tricky. I tried using public transport to get home a few weeks ago, and it involved a walk from Rosebank to Jan Smuts street, a minibus to Empire road and another to Melville. Cheap and friendly, but not ideal.

    • Reply @injoburg August 3, 2011 at 9:57 am

      Oh, and the last time I tried to drive to Pretoria form Melville, after an hour I still had not passed Sandton, so I gave up and went home. Good to have an alternative now!
      Now all they need is signs along the highway telling motorists in traffic their PTA arrival time if they take the next exit, park and take the train; we have those in Holland along highways near commuter train stations, very handy.

      • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm

        Thanks @injoburg. And that for the correction re:the late opening. I think the Gautrain is fantastic.

    • Reply 2summers August 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      PS: Joe says the SA World Cup committee presented the completed Gautrain system,as part of their winning bid in Zurich, May 2005. We’ll have to debate this over coffee/tea sometime.

  • Reply laurenbarkume August 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Great post! I’m really excited to finally have a public train option in Joburg. I’ll be taking my first ride up to Midrand today, it will drop my commuting time the Gallagher Estate by half.

    • Reply 2summers August 5, 2011 at 4:21 pm

      Yes, it really is a huge step forward. Joe rode the train again with Lucky today and they had a ball.

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