September 01, 2002

South Africa’s High-Speed, High-Risk Rail Project

Nevertheless, eight years after the end of Apartheid, in excess of 250,000 families are on waiting lists for low-income homes, the population of AIDS orphans is rapidly on the increase, and access to public transport remains minimal.

Given these goals and the plans to achieve them, it is worth asking whether the planned R 7 billion Gautrain is an appropriate priority. At what ultimate cost to the Province and its taxpayers? Does rapid rail meet the needs of the province’s majority?

Mobility in South Africa’s Economic Hub

The quiet swoosh of high efficiency rapid rail service is a far cry from the congestion and near complete absence of public transport that visitors to the World Summit on Sustainable Development will meet when the event convenes in August of this year. It is even further from the reality of chaotic and limited choices that local residents struggle with on a daily basis.

While Gauteng is the smallest of South Africa’s provinces, its economic opportunities are far-flung. It is not uncommon for residents of the province to travel more than 1.5 hours in a single direction on a regular commuting basis, and for public transport users to change modes and direction three and four times in one journey.

Between the two cities a variety of forms of transport services are provided by both the private and public sector. The prevailing form of transit for most low-income Gauteng residents is the kombi taxi, a type of privately operated, loosely regulated mini bus para transit service. In addition to kombi taxis, regular commuters have a choice between varying levels of service provided by municipal and provincial buses, commuter rail, and private passenger vehicles. Commuter rail service historically designed to move low-income labor to industrial areas ­ is by far the least attractive choice.

Not only has the rolling stock been left to deteriorate without capital re-investment, but stations are rundown, hazardous and unsafe, trains are overcrowded, and often the service itself unreliable. kombi taxis offer a higher degree of flexibility and convenience, but due to the under-regulation of the industry, remains a less than ideal option for many commuters.

In this environment most commuters who can afford a private vehicle quickly make the choice to use one. According to the Gauteng Department of Transport, the M1, the main highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, comes close to its planned capacity for more than 12 hours per day in the southbound direction. Provincial sources say that traffic volume has been growing by more than 7 percent per year. To most traffic planners that level of capacity utilization begs more freeway space.

To Gautrans, the Gauteng Department of Public Works and Transport, the situation requires a solution that integrates the Province’s economic growth and tourism needs with a spine of high quality road and public transport service.

The Gautrain

In 1999 the Province began to investigate a high-speed rail link between Pretoria and Johannesburg, with a key node at the northern suburb of Sandton, as well as a link to Johannesburg International Airport.

According to Gautrans, the planned “Gautrain” will use a state-of-the-art rail system to cover the 57 kilometers between Pretoria and Johannesburg in 35 minutes at speeds of 160 kilometers per hour or higher. Gautrans envisions the trains running 18 hours a day with reliability and punctuality. The project’s managers plan a door-to-door service with quality surface feeder buses, and safe parking at station nodes.

Gautrans managers describe the Gautrain as one element of an integrated provincial transport system that includes more roadways, toll roads and HOV lanes on highways, and continuing rail, bus, and kombi taxi services.

The demand for the Gautrain, they say, comes from the near capacity situation along the highway between the two major cities. The reasons for the Gautrain, they say, are many. Gautrans managers consider the Gautrain an investment in the future, an opportunity to build lines along which densification of the sprawling province can take place, an opportunity to create an asset for the province in terms of transport, and the opportunity to direct economic growth, supporting tourism and business expansion in the province.

Beyond simple mobility, Gautrain’s promoters promise considerable positive economic impact. They anticipate 43,000 jobs being created during a multiple-year construction phase, and an increase in GDP of between 0.7 and 1.0 percent over the Gautrain’s implementation period. The Gautrain project also claims the rail link will reduce CO2 emissions by 70,000 tons per year.

Provincial authorities are using a private-public partnership approach to develop the Gautrain. The Province has amassed reserves from taxes on gambling and from new vehicle registrations, and it is these revenues that will support the public sector investment into the feasibility studies, planning, procurement of land, and some contribution to fixed infrastructure. Gautrans expects a concessionaire to build and operate the Gautrain.

Provincial officials have indicated that they are ready to provide a guarantee to the winning concessionaire in terms of passenger volumes. With this guarantee, should ridership fall below a specified level, the concessionaire will receive an operating subsidy from the Provincial Government.

In its promotional materials, the Gautrain project claims that all relevant alternatives to rapid rail have been considered. But how does the Gautrain stack up against other choices?

Bus Rapid Transit Systems

An alternative form of mass transit growing in popularity and use around the world is Bus Rapid Transit. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a surface-based, flexible rapid transit system chosen by cities as diverse as Bogota, Columbia, Quito, Ecuador, Auckland, New Zealand, and best known perhaps from Curitiba, Brazil.

As its name would indicate, Bus Rapid Transit relies on buses as the service technology. Unlike conventional bus service, BRT systems include features such as dedicated, exclusive busways employing physical barriers to separate them from other modes, platforms at bus floor levels for rapid boarding and exit, traffic signal linkages and priority, information technology links between vehicles and passenger information displays, and pre-entry ticketing that allow BRT systems to operate at the pace and volumes of underground metro systems or fixed rail service.

BRT systems can be built at a fraction of the cost of underground metros and rail, and are relatively flexible in their operations.

According to Lloyd Wright, an international public transport consultant, the cost of BRT systems can vary from about $1 million per kilometer to as much as $10 million per kilometer, and averages between $3 and $5 million per kilometer. In high labor cost areas such as the United States, sophisticated BRT systems including “bus tunnels” have pushed costs as high as $10 million per kilometer, but this cost pales in comparison to surface level rail systems and underground metro systems.

Rail costs average between $20 – $30 million per kilometer, while recent underground metro systems have averaged from $70 million per kilometer in Santiago, Chile, to $180 million per kilometer in Los Angeles, California, in the United States.

Inter-city BRT systems often cost even less than those contained within the dense boundaries of a city, due to lower land acquisition costs. Sao Paolo, Brazil, for example, runs a BRT system from the ends of its metro lines to satellite cities. That system averaged just over $1 million per kilometer for construction.

BRT systems offer a practical solution for cities facing considerable congestion, but where densities do not suffice to implement rail solutions. BRT systems can offer passenger capacity very near to that available from rail, but at both construction and operating costs several levels of magnitude less than fixed rail – either above or below ground.

BRT systems also offer modularity, and a high degree of flexibility in routing. In terms of land acquisition costs, BRT compares very well with fixed and light rail systems.

Considering the Gautrain

According to government sources, Gauteng Province spends more than 80 percent of its annual budget on social services, including subsidies for transport. However, a very small fraction of that budget supports public transport. The province continues to struggle with a huge housing backlog, and lacks resources needed by schools, clinics, hospitals, parks and recreation, even municipal police forces.

In the transport sector specifically, rail and bus receive subsidies, whereas the kombi taxi industry benefits only indirectly from public provision of taxi stations, or ranks.

Given this backdrop, the decision to pursue the Gautrain, on cost alone, is a strange one. But in considering the choice of Gautrain, other questions arise as to intended ridership (beneficiaries of public investment) and the probable utilization of the Gautrain given the Province’s plans for more roadways.

While Gautrain officials have been vague, citing a need to seek competitive tenders, a figure of R7 billion, or US$700 million, is being bandied about as the cost for the land and technology acquisition, and construction for the project. At current exchange rates or R 10 to $1, the result is a system costing more than US$ 12 million per kilometer, in present dollar terms.

However, currency devaluation and the reliance on foreign-engineered systems and foreign-built rolling stock are likely to inflate that ballpark figure significantly. Some analysts anticipate that the final implementation cost for the Gautrain could exceed R 30 billion.

In addition to that capital, construction and land cost, analysts fear that the Provincial Government’s ridership guarantee will leave the Province paying a heavy ongoing subsidy to compensate for what critics claim is a wildly overoptimistic projection of passenger volumes. At R 30 billion in initial capital and construction costs, Gautrain’s cost per kilometer becomes a breathtaking $52+ million.

As a political priority, then, the cost comparison for a rapid rail link as opposed to a BRT leaves far less resources available for other immediate social needs. Further, some might argue that public transport is addressing a social need. In the case of the Gautrain, are the “social” needs being addressed, even at a high cost?

Evaluating the Gautrain in Light of Alternatives

Gautrain’s project manager cites a number of motivations, including near-term capacity and long-term vision, as the key drivers of the Province’s decision to go with rail. But others question whether commuters will shift from private vehicles to luxury rail, whether affluent drivers will deliver the shift in capacity that the Gautrain is intended to provide. With capacity a question mark and costs high, the long term vision of change driven by Gautrain leaves some union leaders in the rail sector cold.

The choice seems to be to subsidize travel for the affluent – such as airline passengers and workers in the financial sector, at the cost of improvement of rail service for the poor.

The Gautrain’s planned route does not match the travel densities in the Province. While the route might provide for linkages to low-income areas, the plan does not speak to the volumes of movement between the southern part of the province and the Johannesburg city center, and between the large and dense township of Soweto and the service employment nodes of Sandton and Pretoria.

The proposed route indicates the core ridership for the Gautrain, more affluent passengers moving between East Pretoria and Sandton. Engaging these commuters, often found in the single occupant vehicles stuck in congestion on the M1, is the heart of the Gautrain commuter premise.

Another curiosity comes in promoting rail along with additional highway lanes ­ tolled and untolled. Will the affluent ridership for the Gautrain emerge if the planned PWV 9 highway roughly parallel to the M1 goes forward? Are low-occupancy vehicle passengers likely to elect to use rapid rail when a tolled lane of public road offers a more rapid avenue to the same venue, with considerably fewer hassles than the minimum two changes required by public transport?

When it comes to supporting the National Government’s commitment to public transport, is Gautrain the right choice in terms of value for money? In terms of cost effectiveness? In terms of the choice of target market to receive subsidy? And in terms of probable ridership, given other provincial roadway plans?

Professor Romano del Mistro of the University of Pretoria recently put forward a transitional strategy using a relatively simple busways system to test the likelihood of more affluent commuters getting out of their cars and onto public transport. Del Mistro references the challenges of getting commuters everywhere to leave their low-occupancy passenger vehicles and regularly use public transport. Gautrain planners expect potential ridership of 70,000 per day.

While development of the Gautrain and its station nodes may indeed support the Province’s densification plans, there is no guarantee of this outcome. Nowhere else in the province has commuter rail been developed as a density node. Critics point out that rail lines are relatively inflexible. New spurs can be added, but at significant cost and often with drawn out battles over land procurement.

In the past rail lines have also been used as barriers to separate the races and economic classes in South Africa. One of the most compelling arguments for BRT systems, in addition to their cost per kilometer, is the flexibility they provide to respond to a changing urban landscape.

While high service BRT systems do have cost requirements for dedicated busways, signal prioritization, boarding platforms, etc, these costs pale in comparison to the engineering and capital requirements of a fixed rail system. In this way BRT systems are a good match for urban environments with considerable fluidity in terms of future development.

While the authors of the Gautrain feasibility studies claim that they considered bus services as an option, Gautrain project managers contend that a bus-based system simply cannot compare to rail in terms of ridership capacity. This claim seems to be refuted by Bogota’s Transmileneo project. The Bogota BRT projected initial ridership of 600,000 per day.

By December 2001, one year after its inaugural voyage, it was carrying more than 900,000 passengers per day. The latest figures indicate an even higher level of ridership. Ridership in Curitiba’s world-renowned BRT system exceeds 2 million passengers per day. Prof. Del Mistro points to a busways or BRT system as a way to accurately test the premises behind the Gautrain capacity claim.

Union leaders in South Africa question Gautran’s claim of asset building, as well as the vision of a well-maintained, high quality door-to-door system. Union leaders from the rail sector point to the under-resourced state of commuter rail in the province at present. The once effective system has declined into a state of disrepair and oversubscription.

Likewise municipal and provincial public bus services are struggling to retain current customer bases and attract new customers. Historic backlogs of maintenance and new capital investment have hobbled even the best-managed service providers. Thus many union leaders and even some national government officials are skeptical of Gautrain operating at the level of quality and punctuality envisioned by the project developers.

Massive public investment in the Gautrain, even as only a portion of the total investment required, would favor air travelers and more affluent commuters over low-income commuters. MetroRail, the service carrying more than 35 percent of the Province’s daily commuters, is struggling to maintain its government subsidy. Jane Barrett of the Transport and Allied Workers Union questions the massive scale of public investment in the Gautrain.

Barrett points out that the Province is prepared to invest significantly in the Gautrain, while existing rail providers that service the working poor are left with valueless aged rolling stock and struggle to attract the level of re-investment needed to improve service and potentially privatize.

Large-scale infrastructure projects do indeed bring increases in employment during their construction phase. But the long term employment impact of the Gautrain is less certain, and the number of sustainable jobs coming to South Africans and to the gross geographic product of the Province are unproven.

Waiting on the Platform

One of the concerns for many in South Africa’s nascent public transport sector is possibility of the Gautrain discrediting public transport. If ridership figures do not bear fruit for the Gautrain and the guarantee is utilized, then critics may once again say that public transport does not pay, rather than question the premises behind the massive scale project in the first place.

Gautrans points to the rapid rail link as an investment in the future economic growth of the province. Ultimately the choice of a more expensive rapid rail link over lower cost BRT or other alternatives seems to be a political one. Oddly, in a province with high unemployment and significant backlogs in social service delivery, where the specter of AIDS orphans appears significant in the coming decade and beyond, and where most of the “public” transport is paid for privately by para transit kombi taxi riders, cost does not seem to be an issue.

Cost-effective alternatives, such as Bus Rapid Transit systems, seem to be left waiting on the platform, along with most of the Province’s low-income commuters.

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