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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