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The Gautrain: What was it all about?

Ian Ollis is currently a candidate for the Masters of City Planning (Transportation) programme at MIT in Boston. He formerly served as a South African MP, (Shadow Transport, Labour and Education Minister). He has also worked as a city councillor in Johannesburg, briefly lectured at Wits University and ran a real estate company. He has no dogs!

Maybe the phrase “pipe dreams” should be changed to “train dreams” – certainly in the case of the vaunted Gautrain and accompanying BRT system. Less than 3,000 jobs and a few newish buildings do hardly a rich harvest make.

The Gauteng provincial Gautrain office hosted many workshops, public meetings and presentations in the months leading up to the launch of construction of the Gautrain. These were essentially part of the environmental impact process and also a marketing exercise to let people see and get excited about the first new train line and train system in South Africa since 1973.

The rest of SA’s rail infrastructure is many decades old and outdated. During one of these presentations the head of the project, Jack van der Merwe explained the need for the train, other than the obvious need for an integrated high-speed transport system, that is. He explained that South Africa had, since 1994, developed various proposals meant to stimulate economic growth – Gear, the Maputo Corridor, the Coega harbour and various export processing zone projects and so on. Each one, he pointed out, had run into serious trouble or limitations, sometimes opposed by trade unions, sometimes limited by the exchange rates and sometimes by the costs involved.

Transportation infrastructure, such as the Gautrain, was to be the new tonic for the economy and would stimulate growth and create jobs. The view then was that the Gautrain would stimulate the economy, directly and through its offshoot projects by 1% of Gauteng’s GDP. The project is now nearing completion and we could begin to evaluate just how far down that road of job creation and economic growth we are to date. Phase one of the train, from the airport to Sandton is running effectively and the Pretoria/Tshwane to the Joburg CBD route will open mid-2011.

So what has been achieved? The success of the actual train is unquestioned as a mode of transport (construction costs aside). Usage by passengers has been double the projections drawn up. One can expect that the longest and final route will equally be over-subscribed. Apart from being much faster than driving one’s own car, it is safe and reliable.

In SA this is nothing to be sneezed at. We can expect it to reduce some of the congestion on our highways and it will connect to metro-rail at two points in Tshwane as well as at Rhodesfield in Kempton Park (Ekhuruleni) and at Park Station in the Joburg CBD.

But what about the projected knock-on effect of economic growth? Of course, the concessionaire and the provincial Gautrain office are keen to laud the successes of the project. This week I received employment figures from them on jobs created.

“In view of the verified local employment by the concessionaire and its sub-contractors, the concessionaire has created or sustained more than 29,000 local direct jobs and an estimated total of 101,500 direct, indirect and induced jobs up to September 2010,” Barbara Jensen said. Longer term, about 2,700 direct and indirect jobs a year would be created for operation and maintenance of the system.

Of course, we don’t yet have audited figures and these include lots of indirect and some temporary jobs, which will no longer be required once the engineers, technicians and labourers move on to other projects here or abroad. It is the 2,700 that is the more significant figure as it is what remains after construction is complete. It is a significant number. However, when seen against the backdrop of the 1 million jobs lost and the government’s plans to create 5 million new jobs, it is a drop in the bucket. The true impact of this project will be in the knock-on effects of a more mobile workforce and a new customer base available to businesses around the stations and distribution routes and the construction and property developments in those nodes.

There is the possibility of a revival of property and business at the Pretoria Central Station as well as the Park Station in Johannesburg if the local city councils increase “safe and clean” initiatives at either end. Some new development will occur around the Hatfield station, but much of this land is already developed. The area around Rhodesfield will be redeveloped and OR Tambo will be able to increase its capacity with the additional modes of transport available to airline passengers.

However, a closer examination of the infrastructure and development around the Marlboro, Sandton and Rosebank stations will give an indication of some of the limitations and weaknesses in the somewhat utopian vision we expected. Two key limitations immediately spring to mind: The incomplete bus rapid transit system and the limited funds available (due to the economic downturn) for the property development necessary to drive all of this economic growth.

Marlboro Station has a very small bus distribution system. Having ridden the train twice, I have never seen anyone embark or disembark at this station. It lies adjacent to the bustling township of Alexandra. These residents generally cannot afford plane trips for the most part and mostly have no interest in riding to the airport. Existing taxi systems serve the needs of these residents who don’t need the train to get to Sandton either. No significant new development has begun in the area. And significant new shopping and residential developments would be necessary to make this station fully functional and rezoning and new services infrastructure would be needed to support this – all very costly.

Rosebank has seen some significant new investment. Development began at the cusp of the economic downturn by large institutional investors who took the risk and began construction of new malls, refurbishing others and constructing a hotel and several new office developments. However, the proposed new residential high rise buildings have not yet materialised. The city council’s expectation of the inclusion of some low-cost residential units in Rosebank look like an unrealistic pipe dream and the upper-end apartments just became too expensive for the market to support until now. A few of the new developments have been scaled down, not begun at all or delayed. Capital markets dried up at the time many developers began construction and, of course, if all office and retail developments went ahead at the same time, a glut of space would leave many buildings unoccupied until the market caught up with the available bulk. The economic crisis of the past two years has only exacerbated this trend.

The lack of a completed BRT system linking the Rosebank and Sandton stations with other destinations such as Randburg, Cresta also limits the rate of development and demand. Where do you go when you get off the train? And where do you leave your car? Parking at dedicated Gautrain parking garages is expensive as are the buses that don’t always go near your home or place of work. I regularly report through Twitter when I spot a completely empty Gautrain luxury bus whizzing past, taking no-one anywhere.

Sandton has a similar problem. The Sandton city complex has embarked on an impressive extension and revamp project that will increase the size of the shopping mall immensely and add new office and residential elements. The Gautrain must surely have contributed significantly to making this viable. One or two new hotels have sprung up spurred on by the Gautrain and the World Cup. However, with the cup gone and the global economic slowdown, the skyline of Sandton is not changing quite as quickly as expected.

So was Jack van der Merwe right after all? In the short term, the answer must be an unfortunate “No!” We are not going to see the huge impact on the Gauteng economy as predicted. The net cost of the World Cup counteracted any gains made by the Gautrain in the short term, coupled with the effect of the simultaneous global recession. One train system will not offset the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in the region during the downturn. The expected property and retail boom in the nodes has not brought about those elusive jobs either. In the longer term, we should see the international economy turning around and freeing up new capital for development in Midrand (around the Gautrain station and Grand Central airport) as well as in Rosebank and Sandton. If and when the city council finds the funds for the new infrastructure necessary to unlock developments around the Marlboro Station, we could see a completely new node develop there too.

Until then, there will be some efficiencies coming out of the economy as a result of the Gautrain, but those expected tens of thousands of jobs will remain an elusive dream. At most 2,700 long-term jobs and a few new buildings are simply not what we were offered for our money. DM

Ollis is a Democratic Alliance MP.


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