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The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Feverish gushing about the Gautrain during its media launch drowned out everything I wanted to know. But then, I'm a crabby bastard.

“I find the #Gautrain hysteria a bit sad. Given a massive budget stolen from working people, I can build cool stuff too.”

What an angry reaction that tweet provoked from the Twitterati who declared themselves “privileged” to receive an invite to “be a part of history” at the Gautrain media launch on Saturday. I’ve been told the privileged invitees on the train whined much about my negativity and cynicism. One committed union man even honoured me with the appellation “crabbit bastard”.

While I am duly impressed with what appears to be a well-executed project to build a world-class rapid rail system, I couldn’t help thinking of the airport transfer drivers I have met who expressed a real fear of losing their jobs. Acts of God they cannot avoid, but what did they do to deserve this Act of State?

Why should airport transfer companies, car hire firms and shared taxi services, which already compete with each other on the basis that each has to make a profit to justify their existence, have to compete with a taxpayer-funded service that will likely receive subsidies and bailouts whenever it runs into financial trouble?

“Are you a masochist?” asked one person when I said I might just choose taxis over the train. Well, my standards may be a little low, but being chauffeured door-to-door in the plush opulence of a new Mercedes doesn’t strike me as a particularly painful way to travel. I’ve also used shared minibus taxis, and while they were certainly less comfortable, they were also very efficient for the price.

The last airport transfer driver I spoke with had some good conversation about the latest developments in Johannesburg, and noted perceptively that he knew many unemployed people who would love the jobs over which Gautrain workers were striking mere weeks before the project deadline.

On another occasion, I was driven around Johannesburg and Pretoria by a lady who waited at various locations for me to complete my business. I paid for that convenience; a rental car may have been cheaper. It would have been a right pain, however, to have been dependent on public transport.

So, am I a masochist? No, I’m not, and my reasons for preferring a private taxi go way beyond mere sympathy for a hard-working man or woman who earns an honest living without relying on government handouts.

Another economic question comes to mind. If a service is really so vital, why is a tax-funded monopoly required to deliver it? Are consumers not the final judge of what they prefer to purchase? Are producers not the final judge of what, given this preference, can be produced at a cost lower than the public’s willingness to pay? The necessity to force people to pay for something by means of tax strongly suggests that the service in question is not economically justifiable, and the capital and labour would have been better employed elsewhere.

Think of the other government-funded or state-owned companies you know. Would you describe SAA, Transnet, Eskom, Telkom (in its day), or the SABC as shining examples of efficient and cost-effective delivery of essential services? Does the government’s record give one confidence in the long-term performance of yet another government boondoggle?

Of course, this problem isn’t limited to the South African government. Other countries have had exactly the same experience with grandiose public works projects.

The usual answer from government is that these projects create jobs. This sounds attractive as a political slogan, but the real challenge in any economy is to enable it to create productive jobs. Only when labour and capital are directed at profitable endeavour does aggregate prosperity rise.

This can only be done by the private sector. There is no competition in the public sector, no choice among monopoly providers, and no way for consumers to determine the marginal utility of the products and services created by different combinations of labour and capital. Worse, in the public sector there is little regard – as rising sovereign debt crises worldwide testify – for the long-term sustainability of the jobs created by government. They are, by definition, charity jobs that not only rely on confiscating profits from the private sector, but proceed to compete those very same private-sector employers out of business. How is this kind of “job creation” sustainable?

Principled opposition to public works aside, here are a few questions that appear not to have occurred to the effusive media, because all the excitement left little time for critical thought.

When road construction costs, on average, about R2 million per kilometre, will the R25 billion spent on 80km of Gautrain track be 156 times more efficient?

If it takes 15 minutes to get from the airport to Sandton, how long does it take to get from the airport to your hotel, home or office? Surely, this would involve some waiting, busing, walking and baggage-shlepping, at best?

What about those congestion charges mooted to force motorists to use a public transport option that they would ordinarily not prefer? On what grounds should motorists be punished for requiring transport along routes that differ from the Gautrain’s feeder networks? And if motorists can only be persuaded to leave their vehicles by means of “punitive” charges (to adopt a term coined by Gautrain project manager Jack van der Merwe) what does that say about the real efficiency of the system?

How profitable are tickets? To what extent are they subsidised? When will the Gautrain project show positive cashflow? When will it pay for itself? How long will taxpayers have to fund it? What guarantees does Bombela, the lucky operating concessionaire, enjoy?

Why are there no trains between 20:30 and 5:30? Surely people who go out at night have a very good reason to prefer public transport? What about commuters who need to catch early-bird flights for business?

None of the social media reports – nor indeed any of the news articles in the formal media – even asked these questions, as far as I could see. Let alone getting answers. All were too busy gushing exuberantly about how cool the train was.

Granted, it appears there was no shortage of coolness at the Gautrain launch function. One of the social media invitees described the glitzy event as featuring “musician ‘angels’ suspended in the air” and “water fountains and plants throughout [which] created a tranquil forest feeling”.

Asking hard questions would, presumably, have upset this tranquil feeling.

Another of the intrepid twits compared the Gautrain launch to “Proudest South African” moments such as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the 1994 elections. Yet another spoke of having buried people who had prayed to be alive to see the Gautrain launch.

It’s a train, for heaven’s sake! A sense of perspective is not their strong suit either, evidently.

Another social media guest at the event said they were invited as VIPs because of the very hysteria I though tainted their coverage. Worse, they were required to tweet about the event. A journalist with some integrity wouldn’t have dreamed of accepting an invitation under those conditions, for fear of being thought a shill. It must be nice for marketing departments to be able to turn to non-journalists who consider it a privilege to be wined and dined in return for parroting the public relations bumpf.

In defence of the Twitterati, however, they did spot a major oversight on the part of the Gautrain marketing team. They tweeted copiously to correct the atrocious spelling of “Shosalosa”.

Thanks, folks. Nothing gets past you.


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