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Gautrain strives for social change

It’s a project that will be judged more on its legacy than most.

South Africa’s Gautrain high speed rail link will finally be complete by the beginning of July.

While the first phase linking Sandton station to OR Tambo International airport was finished in time for the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the remaining extension between Pretoria and Johannesburg, both in the Gauteng province, was not.

Gautrain was intended to stimulate economic growth in Gauteng. The 77km of track will run across 10.5km of viaducts as well as through 15km of tunnel, in some very remote areas.

Inevitably though as construction reaches completion, in a country well-known for its high crime rates, thoughts have turned to how to maintain it and protect it from crime.

Project delivery partner Bombela has responsibility for construction as well as for operating the railway for 15 years. Its project director Ian Thoms says there are numerous ways that these questions have been accounted for.

“I think the structure is important because it’s a PPP concession and has got very onerous requirements for performance penalties,” he says.

“That will keep the railway tip top because if the condition were to sink, there are more penalties from very rigorous criteria. In Hong Kong, for example, it’s more customer service orientated, but with Gautrain here, it’s the infrastructure and condition that’s important.

After 15 years, the railway is due to be handed back to the provincial government and if it’s not up to scratch, there will be penalties to pay, says Thoms.

He says that the criminal activity is the legacy of apartheid and poverty but that the reliability of the system depends on its safety and security and that the government has negotiated with the Police Force to spend time on board the trains.

The result is that confidence is building and “everyone you speak to say they do feel safe”, Thoms says.

But he says there is another issue causing him more concern over the condition of the railway, and it isn’t only a South African problem.

“One of the biggest single things to ruin the railway is copper theft,” he says. “Already there has been theft by people in the workforce, which hasn’t been a major amount, but if they keep stealing it, the earthing system becomes unsafe.”

Despite these ongoing concerns, Thoms highlights Bombela and the Gauteng government’s contributions to training up a 26,000-strong workforce that will be able to help deliver new high speed projects that have been much talked about in South Africa.

“[The project] becomes more than just travelling and transport, it becomes a social centre and it draws work to the area… It means too if we could win people over, we’ll see further expenditure on highway construction, better integrated use of land, integrating with public transport interchanges and lure development to those sites of retail, commercial, office buildings and residential and also hopefully other government infrastructure which is closer to the railway. It reduces pollution of course and it increases social interaction.”

Thoms adds that one of the greatest achievements of working on the railway is that it has brought together a lot of parts of engineering that is not often seen together in Africa including civil, geotechnical, structural, signalling, rolling stock as well as good project management to make sure it all works.

He knows this is the best legacy Gautrain could leave and as emerging market heavyweights India and China fight to make their mark on the African continent, at least South Africa has now got a geared up supply chain ready for some serious infrastructure investment.

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