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Fast track to Jo'burg

Work is rapidly accelerating on South Africa's first high-speed rail link. Bernadette Redfern reports.

The R25bn (£1.76bn) Gautrain project is probably the most ambitious piece of civil engineering ever attempted in South Africa. The 80km high-speed railway will link central Johannesburg to Oliver Tambo International Airport and to Hatfield, Pretoria, and is a critical part of the preparations for the 2010 football World Cup.

The project is similar to many major infrastructure projects in that it is not self-financed. It is subsidised by the government which is putting up 80% of the construction cost. The rest is made up of bank loans from Standard Bank and Rand Merchant Bank and equity investment from Bombardier, Bouygues, Murray & Roberts, and Strategic Partnership Group (SPG), who are the shareholders in project concession company Bombela.

Bombela's contractor shareholders, Bouygues and Murray & Roberts, have set up Bombela Civils joint venture to carry out the civils work.

Bombela Civils project director Charles-Etienne Perrier explains the challenges of building South Africa's first high-speed rail link 'We achieved commercial close and started on site on 28 September 2006 - even though financial close was not achieved until 25 January. Government made some of the grant funding available so that we could start on site. We are working so quickly because we have to meet the 2010 deadline.'

Currently there are 2,000 people on site; this will rise to 6,000 at the peak of construction. 'We are out on site in six or seven locations, ' says Perrier. 'The biggest challenge is the sheer size and magnitude of the project combined with a fast-track programme.' In all there will be 10 new stations, 15km of tunnels, 5Mm 3 of earthworks, 10km of viaducts and 60 overpass or underpass structures. 'Technically the most interesting part will be the 15km of tunnels coming into Johannesburg, ' says Perrier.

'Between February 2007 and May 2009 we will do seven drives using drill and blast but we will have an earth pressure balance tunnel boring machine from Germany to excavate a 3km section in weathered granite, ' he says.

As soon as civils work is complete, track laying springs into action.

'Our programme is integrated so as soon as we have completed the civil work we hand over the section to the track team.' Bouygues, Murray & Roberts and SPG are carrying out civils work and Bombardier and SPG the tracklaying and signalling.

Security is a hot topic in South Africa where crime rates, particularly for violent crime, theft and robberies are extremely high. Attracting passengers means that one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that the train is safe. Perrier says he is confident that the security measures to be implemented, including CCTV in carriages, will do just that.

The train operator is a joint venture of RATP (Paris Metro operator), Murray & Roberts and SPG and although the revenue risk is carried by the government it is in the interests of all parties that the system is used, particularly if gridlock is to be avoided at World Cup time.

'Making the system safe will be critical. There will be a two stage security process developed by the operator, ' says Perrier.

Who's who

Client: Gauteng Department of Finance and Economic Affairs

Independent Certifier: Arup

Concessionnaire: Bombela

Contractor: Bombela Civils

Track and signalling: Bombardier and SPG

Train manufacturer: Bombardier

Designers: Atkins, Scott Wilson, Africon, Vela VKE, Ingerop Africa, Siyaka, PCM joint venture and SNA.

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