Saturday, October 25, 2008

Johannesburg - the Gautrain, the bad and the ugly

I don't blog about work as a general rule, but I'm going to make an exception here. A colleague showed me some video footage of the Gautrain tunnel today. The audio quality was phenomenal. The sirens, the sloshing of feet on water, the tunnelly-echoes. All of this culminated in the ceremonial cutting of a paper divider bringing two tunnel sections together. As this happened, the construction workers broke into a roaring Shosholoza. Given the acoustic effect of the tunnel, it was a moving experience. I went all goosey.
The Gautrain is just one of many huge projects in this country that was made possible thanks to the sweat and toil of many of our black South African brethren. What is gratifying to see is the pride they take in their work; the Gautrain is a massive project, and you can see the construction workers are inspired by the idea of a train swishing along through tunnels under Africa's largest city. The Gautrain truly reinforces this idea of Johannesburg as a world class African city.
That said, I had to attend a meeting in Eloff street in Johannesburg on Wednesday. I assumed Eloff street would be a huge thoroughfare (based on the emphasis the monopoly game gave the street). In fact, driving on Marshal and Fox streets (both one way roads going in opposite directions) I was unable to find Eloff. The inner city requires a major overhaul, and some effort must be made to woo the white man back. The central parts of Johannesburg are chaotic and intimidating; a nightmare to navigate. The inner city is in an advanced state of decay, with many building hulking over roads like dark and derelict shipwrecks. There are usually streetnames etched on pavement stones, but these have become smudged and hard to make out. There is also a huge amount of construction work and tearing up of the road (for Neotel's cables) going on throughout the city. The result is a harrowing driving experience, with many roads either closed or causing bottlenecks. Johannesburg will need to work on its signage before the world cup, or face thousands of tourists getting lost with unhappy consequences.

I do think the Gautrain is one of the most positive developments in South Africa at this time. Any measure that alleviates motor vehicle congestion (energy wastage, pollution, frustration) is vital. It would be good to see the interior networks - cross country I mean - receive similar attention. In other countries it is not unusual to take a train from urban centres to rural destinations. It is unthinkable right now in South Africa, and yet it shouldn't be - particularly because there are such vast distances to cover. In South Korea for example, it is a very pleasant trip on a train to faraway cities (say 200km away). You get to walk around; and you arrive feeling comfortable and relaxed. The same experience applies to Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany and much of the rest of Europe.
Here in South Africa the 370km drive I often do to Bloemfontein is quite a stressful experience. Many vehicles travel 150km/h, and there are speed traps to consider, along flotillas of trucks that hold back torrents of unpatient traffic. There are also road hazards - the 50km single lane stretch of tar north of Bloem is particularly frustrating. The 370km drive requires fairly intense concentration - especially when the driver hopes to make the trip without stops (as I often do). 3 and a half hours in the driver's seat - even if your playing computer games - isn't easy.
We really need to see fewer trucks on the road, and fewer cars. Motoring has become a luxury that is less and less affordable. The alternative - rail - is not only cheaper, it is more pleasant, and worth our collective investment.

No comments: