I caught the Gautrain, the new high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and OR Tambo airport, for the first time on Thursday.
It’s unbelievably fast, smooth and quiet. It also seems to be something of a triumph of technology over common-sense, with some typical South African lack of attention to detail, and certain bizarre peculiarities, like not letting you disembark at certain stations even when the train has stopped, if you’re in the “wrong carriage”. A world first?
It has an over-head “luggage rack” so tiny that it might be good for arranging a small collection of curios, but is useless for actual bags. And the ticket machines at the airport don’t offer you tickets – only cards. Turns out you have to get a travel “credit” card – there are no one-off tickets – but there’s no explanation of this for the unwary ticket-seeker.
And then there was the guy banging on the doors at Marlboro station, trying to get out… no, not allowed.
Fred Khumalo of the Sunday Times tried to catch the Gautrain this week – and ended up missing his plane as a consequence:
I hadn’t realised that at Marlboro station I could only take the train going to Sandton, when the airport is in the opposite direction. As I stood waiting at the station, I saw a half-empty train from Sandton to the airport on the platform across the way – and I asked the security guard why I couldn’t go across and get on board that train. He wouldn’t budge, and my ticket didn’t allow me to do so! I had to go to Sandton first.
Needless to say, after waiting there, and more waiting again at the Sandton station, I missed my flight. Had I driven to the airport I would have made it with time to spare.
But the joke was not over: three days later, on my return trip, I boarded the train at the airport. But when I tried to get off at Marlboro, the doors wouldn’t open. I started hitting the “open” button with some force. Suddenly a security guard appeared, and remonstrated with me. I told him I wanted to get off. He said I was in the wrong coach. Why hadn’t anyone told me? I simply had to laugh when he said: “You didn’t ask.”
Why not open all the doors when the train stops? It still does not make sense to me! The Gautrain is a great intervention in this traffic-choked city – but whoever is in charge must iron out these absurdities.
It’s rather pathetic that the Gautrain management can’t make it effortlessly simple to use a train that currently offers only four stops (three-and-a-bit stations, actually, considering the limited access to Marlboro).
The Gautrain website is also really bad – you have to download pdfs and spend ages pouring over a complicated document to try and get the basic information you might want, such as hours of operation, frequency of trains… I gave up in the end.
And why does it only run until 8pm at night?
Fortunately, most of these problems could be relatively easy to sort out, aside from the ludicrous “luggage rack”. If the Gautrain makes public transport in SA sexy again, it is a very good thing. And the R100 ticket for the airport to Sandton transfer is substantially cheaper than the R350 that I have often been quoted – and turned down – for “shuttles”. (Often it made more sense to hire a car.)