Living in South Africa can be depressing and staying positive in light of bad politics, rampant crime and various other issues can prove challenging. So it was a welcome reprieve to experience something uplifting amidst the sea of negativity which seems to have engulfed South Africa of late. I refer to the Gautrain.
Curious by nature I decided it was high time I took a trip on the train to see if it really was all it’s been cracked up to be and so it was I arrived at the Sandton station late one Sunday morning. Car parked at the spacious parking facilities, I made my way to the airy ticket platform to buy a ticket to Hatfield. Friendly, competent attendants manned the slick ticket machines and helped Gautrain ‘newbies’ such as myself purchase tickets and Gautrain Gold Cards which allow users to tag in and out of the train, the parking areas (for an extra fee) and related bus services. Gold Cards cost R10 and are valid for five years; a return ticket to Hatfield cost R86.
Ticket bought, I proceeded with the masses through glass ticket barriers down multiple escalators to subterranean depths. I was immediately reminded of my travels on similar transport systems in Europe and the UK. The upward gusts of wind and ‘smell’ of trains was unmistakeable and sent a thrill of anticipation up my spine. Two things about the station struck me though: the floors are already in need of attention and I feel the designers behind the stations missed a golden architectural opportunity.
In a nutshell the stations are workmanlike and simple which obviously suits the purpose. But I was hoping for something more; something truly aesthetically exciting and daring. They got it right at O.R Tambo and the 2010 soccer stadiums, why not here? No doubt financial constraints and the like had something to do with the lack of architectural dynamism I know South Africa is capable of which was a little disappointing. However any drawbacks were soon forgotten as the Gautrain pulled into the station with barely a whisper amidst camera flashes from the crowds.
The Gautrain is something to be proud of. Beneath its polished, golden hued veneer lies an equally polished interior complete with air-conditioning, rows of comfortable seats and wide open windows. Equally impressive was the smooth ride which would give London Underground goers cause to be jealous.
The route to Hatfield included stops at the various stations announced by an on-board speaker system and it was fun to fly in line with building rooftops one moment and through dark tunnels the next. The majority of the embankments on either side of the tracks are well maintained (although admittedly the scenery was punctuated by the odd cluster of informal settlements) and the trip to Hatfield took roughly 35 minutes; a trip I daresay would normally take at least two hours in peak hour traffic.
And therein lies the beauty of the Gautrain. It’s quick, safe and convenient and allows travellers to sidestep traffic jams and avoid the direct impact of petrol increases and toll roads. According to a Gautrain brochure, using the train is also good for the environment.
Upon my arrival in Hatfield I made my way on foot past the clean Gautrain bus depot to the hub of the suburb a mere five minutes away and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Appetite sated, I caught the 2:55pm train back to Sandton and arrived back just after 3pm. What a pleasure. Suffice to say Johannesburg was more than ready for a service of this calibre. The train is first-world, the station washrooms and platforms were clean and I felt safe thanks to a strong security presence and CCTV cameras. Yes there have been snags such as copper theft but the fact that the train had been built at all is encouraging in itself and is hopefully a sign of better things to come.