The Gautrain Management Agency has announced a proposed new route to extend its rapid rail network. That the Gautrain is a failure is just one reason to oppose it.

In a press statement in late May, the Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) announced the outlines of a new route for the Gautrain, running from Little Falls in the west, through Cosmo City and Randburg, which will both get new stations, to Sandton and Marlboro, where existing stations will be upgraded.

The extension is to be the first phase of a larger Gautrain expansion plan, which itself forms part of the Five-year Gauteng Transport Implementation Plan (GTIP5), which was established (ahem) 10 years ago. That, in turn, forms the basis of Gauteng’s 25-Year Integrated Transport Master Plan (ITMP25), which was launched in 2013.

The problem is that the Gautrain, as it exists, is a colossal failure. The ‘Shilowa Express’, as it used to be called, was always a vanity project, designed only to show off Gauteng’s economic prowess. It’s bling.

It always catered largely to the rich, while ignoring the ‘apartheid spatial planning’ that the ITMP25 was supposed to address.

Not a single route takes the Gautrain to the working masses, who mostly live in the outlying townships of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Its stations, with the exception of Park Station, are all located in rich, formerly white, suburbs: Rosebank, Sandton, Marlboro, Midrand, Centurion, Pretoria and Hatfield. Its service to O.R. Tambo International Airport serves only those who can afford to fly.

And those people almost all prefer their luxury imported automobiles.

This is why the Gautrain has always sucked on the taxpayer teat, in the form of a ‘patronage guarantee’ paid annually by the Gauteng Provincial Government (GPG).

Hard questions

When the Gautrain was launched in 2010, journalists and ‘influencers’ were wined and dined at a glittering celebration, and dazzled by the lights, or the booze, all of them forgot to ask any hard questions, like why a train that cost R25 billion to build, or R9 000 for every household in Gauteng, was justifiable in the first place.

I was denounced as a grouch and a ‘crabbit bastard’ for not singing the praises of Gauteng’s modern marvel, and instead calling it a boondoggle that wasted taxpayer money.

Nobody asked whether rapid rail really was the most cost-effective means of providing mass transit in Gauteng. As it happens, rapid rail has never been evaluated against any benchmark other than doing nothing. Light rail, trolley buses, road buses, heavy rail and commuter rail, all of which should be cheaper per passenger-kilometre, were never even considered as alternatives.

Nobody asked about the financial arrangements between the GPG and the private but politically connected Bombela Consortium, which won the exclusive concession to operate the train. As it turned out, it was a classic case of privatising profit and socialising losses.

Bombela took no risk whatsoever. If not enough people wanted to ride the Gautrain to make it commercially viable, the GPG would step in with a ‘patronage guarantee’, ensuring that it would always remain in the black.

Political patronage profiteering, I called it in 2011, in a play on the acronym for the ‘public private partnership’ as which it was sold.

Meanwhile, hard-working operators of taxis and shuttle services got shafted by a taxpayer-built train that charges taxpayer-subsidised prices, and is guaranteed to make a profit no matter how badly it performs.

My initial criticisms were thoroughly vindicated when the Gautrain made its lowest-ever revenue of R266 million in the 2017/18 financial year, and the patronage guarantee had risen every year from R360 million in 2010/11 to R1.54 billion for 2017/18.

This was crony capitalism writ large, just as I had predicted.

AA opposition

Now, the Gautrain is getting bold new expansion plans off the ground. The media uncritically called it good news. They uncritically parroted the views of spokespeople for the GMA on the need to triple the size of the rapid rail network.

The Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), on the other hand, has denounced the plans in no uncertain terms, calling it a ‘disastrous financial decision’.

‘The Association contends,’ its press statement reads, ‘that spending billions of Rands on a system that caters for a minority, and which pays vast amounts of public money to a private entity, is neither responsible nor prudent.’

Its detailed, 76-page submission to government is worth reading in its entirety.

It points out that the patronage guarantee, instead of declining, has risen further, to R1.9 billion in 2020 and over R2 billion in 2021. Since its inception, the AA notes, Gauteng taxpayers have spent R13 billion on keeping a private concessionaire in the pound seats.

These numbers cannot be attributed to the pandemic lockdowns, since they merely continue a trend that started with the opening of the Gautrain in 2010. Ridership started declining at least three years before Covid-19 struck, and has been on a downward trend ever since.

The AA observes that the ridership projections for the original routes stood at about 47.5 million per year, every year. In reality, ridership peaked in 2017 at 15.6 million riders, which is less than a third of the original target. At last count in 2020, annual ridership stood below 14 million.

Market might not exist

The original route connected the most profitable hubs where the most well-heeled customers might be found. Given that it has critically under-performed expectations year after year, the AA worries that the new routes will expose the GPG to even more demand-side risk.

‘The AA is concerned that the potential market for Gautrain might simply not exist along the [new route],’ it says in its report.

‘We in any event wish to re-iterate our position on public transport,’ the AA said, ‘which is that Gauteng needs a mass transit system to cater for the working class, poor and the unemployed. The [proposed new route] does not do so.’

Instead, the organisation favours ‘a provincial-scale mass-transit bus service which could serve any corridor with high effectiveness’, and ‘brings cost-effective transport within the reach of all systems at acceptable levels of subsidy’.

Vanity project

South Africa is not a rich country. Gauteng isn’t Vancouver, or Singapore, or Shanghai, or Paris.

Spending billions every year to subsidise a train system that only a handful of wealthy travellers wish to use is a criminal waste of resources when the vast majority of South Africans are under-served by public mass transit systems.

Spending billions in taxpayer money just to keep a well-connected private operator of a monopoly concession in business is criminal, too.

The Gautrain has comprehensively failed, even with a limited network serving only the most promising hubs. Doubling down on an expensive failure is not progress.

It’s vanity, like Ramaphosa’s smart cities and bullet trains, which will do nothing to better the lives of ordinary South Africans, and will instead mire them further in poverty.

The GPG surely has better things to do with its residents’ money. It should reject out of hand any proposed extensions to the Gautrain.

[Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/south-african-tourism/8712650139]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.