Johannesburg — FOR a project that had so many critics at its birth, one had to wonder where they had all gone when thousands of excited Gautengers turned out to use and experience the Gautrain, which opened for business yesterday.
"One lady was so excited about travelling on Gautrain that she forgot her bag on the train," said Jerome Govender, CEO of the Bombela Concession Company which operates the train.
This was the first phase of the rapid rail service with the trains operating between Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport. It was completed a month ahead of schedule to ensure it was ready in time for the World Cup.
The remainder of the service, south from Sandton to Park Station in the Johannesburg city centre and north to Pretoria, will open early next year.
In the first hour of operation yesterday more than 1000 passengers had used the dedicated airport service. "It was great to see people arriving at the Sandton station at 5am this morning with all their luggage for their trip to the airport. Such was the faith that people had in the project," said Mr Govender. "It was as if South Africans had been using the service for years."
By mid-afternoon the Gautrain had been operating at 97% punctuality with 600-700 passengers using the service every hour.
"We expect about 9000 to 11000 people to have used the train by the time the service closes at 8.30pm tonight."
In 2003, Gautrain estimated that up to 140000 commuters would use the train each year. If yesterday's numbers are any indication, that was an extremely modest estimate.
When the project was first mooted 10 years ago, many saw it as a pie-in-the-sky project that would never happen in their lifetime.
When the project was given the go-ahead at a cost of R20bn, many did not believe it warranted the expense and residents complained about the noise it would create.
While Gautrain was being built, motorists said they would never use it. But yesterday that all changed and there were few complaints.
Mr Govender had just accompanied a smiling Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele and Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane along with other dignitaries on the train from OR Tambo. Mr Ndebele described the service as a "dream come true" while Ms Mokonyane said she was "elated". But it was not only the politicians that were excited by the launch of the service.
Yesterday afternoon, dozens of people were still milling around the station in Sandton. "I will be taking the train to the airport tomorrow, have breakfast there and then come back," said one passenger who did not want to be named. He had arrived at the station yesterday to buy his Gautrain smartcard which would allow him to travel on the train and associated bus service.
"I love rugby and I will use Gautrain to go watch games at Loftus next year . What a pleasure."
And what a pleasure it is. The trains run every 12 minutes in peak periods and every 20 minutes in off- peak periods. Once on the train it is a mere 15 minutes from Sandton to the airport at a cost of R100 -- far less if you get off at Marlboro or Rhodesfield stations.
Supporting the train service is a bus network that will virtually take you anywhere in northern Johannesburg, with stops every 500m intervals.
However, the first day was not without teething problems. Some vending machines were not able to link to credit card facilities. Ticketing is done through Gautrain smartcards which provide access to parking at the station, the bus service and the train itself. The smartcard can be prepaid at stations and at six remote vending machines along the various bus routes. Once paid, the card provides access to the platforms, a feature that goes a long way to ensuring security by preventing loiters getting access to the trains. There were also rumbles about signs in the wrong places.
Mr Govender said they expected to have sorted out glitches in the next two weeks.
While Gautrain may have cost billions to build, it is a project that will change the way South Africans will travel and has already had a direct effect on the Sandton node.
Mr Govender was briefing the media at the aptly named Rezidor Gautrain Sandton Hotel.
The Sandton Eye, the development housing the hotel, is a clear sign of the kind of development that the Gautrain will spur.
Sitting in the hotel lobby overlooking the Sandton city centre with the Gautrain buses emerging from the station , it was hard not to think that with the arrival of Gautrain, Johannesburg had matured into a world-class city.