Taken for a ride

Bus and taxi operators, stand back! The Gautrain is here, and commuting in Gauteng is about to become a breeze… right?

I am one of those ridiculously positive people. I see the good in every person I meet (as a result, I have employed the occasional axe murderer). From day one, I embrace events such as the World Cup with vigour, convinced that it’s going to be a runaway success. I think every idea is a great one.

Even Gautrain. I knew it wasn’t for me (I work and live too far from the route). But, goodness gracious me, I thought it would be uber cool to have a state-of-the-art rapid rail network in the province. Sandton to the airport in less than 15 minutes? Whoa.

It was thus with much excitement that I decided to put the train to the test. I knew it wouldn’t represent the most practical way of getting from my office to the airport – I had figured out that it would take longer and cost more – but the ludicrously positive creature lurking in this decrepit body wanted to sit in the high-speed train, smug in the knowledge that us South Africans had pulled off yet another coup. (Yes I know we did have a lot of help. The Bombela Operating Company, which delivers the operations and maintenance of the Gautrain system, for instance, is led by RATP Développement – the operation and maintenance arm of the French transport company, RATP, which has enormous expertise in the operations of multi-modal public transport networks both in Paris and around the world.)

But sod the French. We beat them in the World Cup anyway. I was off to the Sandton station, my patriotic South African heart bursting with pride. It was 11.24 am.

Until I tried to locate the parking lot, that is. I’d been onto the Gautrain website, so I knew where in Sandton it was located – corner of Rivonia Road and West Street – and I arrived there at 11.50 am (incredible; it can take an hour from my Northcliff office to Sandton). But, arriving at the station, I couldn’t see any signage pointing me in the direction of the parking. Never fear. I spotted an entrance to an unmarked parking lot, drove in and hit the jackpot.

There was plenty of parking and I headed straight for the ticket vending machine to pay my R200 (the standard price for a return trip to the airport). That’s a good R200 off what I would pay for a private taxi. I hauled out my trusty credit card but the Gautrain staff member nearby told me that the machine would not accept credit cards. I extracted R200 from my wallet, but she (the attendant not the machine) asked me for R210. The R10 surcharge is for a Gautrain Gold Card, which is just like a credit card but serves as a reusable train ticket.

At 12.02 am I arrived at the station, after travelling deep down into the bowels of the earth on endless elevators. There were dozens of extremely helpful staff members en route to direct me to the train platform. A train was waiting, I boarded immediately and I was impressed no end. It truly is world class. I can understand why the politicians are so chuffed (even if the homeless people are muttering).

Within two minutes, we were at the Marlboro station en route to OR Tambo International Airport. Like its Sandton counterpart, the station was spotlessly clean, modern and ever so impressive.

At 12.06 we left the Marlboro station and our train driver told us that we were travelling at 160 km/h. It really didn’t feel like it; the ride is smooth. Lots of mobile telephones were ringing (strange, that never happens on trains overseas), I checked my emails and pondered the Gautrain technological miracle as we sped towards the airport.

We stopped at Rhodesfield station at 12.14 am and, by 12.16 am, I was in the airport terminal. At 12.26 am, I was already clutching my boarding pass. I was impressed. One hour from office to boarding pass was incredible.

While on my business trip to Port Elizabeth, I sang Gautrain’s praises. And then I arrived back.

The train journey itself was exceptional. I thought I’d made things a lot easier and significantly cheaper for myself. But then I hadn’t paid for the Gautrain parking yet! I had read in the media that parking cost R9.50 a day; that’s a lot cheaper than the long-term parking at the airport. I trust journalists; they are decent, law-abiding, honest citizens. Promise. So, having being gone for two days, I took R19 from my wallet and headed for the ticket machine.

Bad move. It decided to charge me R292.00. I went to the ticket office (there is one, with a live person manning it) and threw my toys out of the cot. The lady manning the counter (strange expression, that) shoved a brochure in my direction and pointed indignantly. I continued arguing and so she gave me a substantial discount. R156 for two days.

When I got back to the office, I checked the website. It proclaimed that “if you park and also use the train to the airport, the fee for the first 24 hours or part thereof is R29.00”.

So unless for some reason there is an odd hyper-inflation for park-and-ride commuters, I probably should have paid R58. Never mind. After the many billions of rands we have spent on the project, I’m sure the Gautrain must be a really worthwhile proposition…

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