- South Africa's labour federation has threatened strike action against an "elite" super-fast train service, which it claims is ignoring the needs of poor commuters. Billed as Africa's first high-speed train, the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link is expected to cover the 80 kilometres between the national capital, Pretoria, and the commercial hub of Johannesburg in 40 minutes, at a cost of about US$ 3.2 billion.
Earlier this year, the Gauteng provincial government announced that the project would be ready in a record 54 months, in time for the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa. The world cup is set to draw much attention to South Africa and the Gauteng region.
The six-lane highway between the two cities is one of the busiest stretches of road in the world, as growing affluence adds more users. Public transport has so far been inadequate and often unreliable. Especially local trains in the region are unpopular with most potential users, not the least due to very poor security.
But the new train service "will do nothing for the poor people who live in the black townships and spend up to four hours commuting to Johannesburg for work," said Siphiwe Mgcina, provincial General-Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is aligned to the ruling ANC party.
"The design of cities during apartheid was premised on black townships being temporary, and these were located far from city centres ... nothing was done to improve the transport service between the townships and the city centres, and this situation has persisted," he noted.
Critical of the government's lack of foresight, Mr Mgcina pointed out that the authorities should have opted to develop a mass transit system from townships into cities, as part of an integrated development plan that would see townships themselves becoming economic hubs over the next 15 years.
Up to 300,000 daily commuters, most of them residents of townships on the outskirts of Pretoria and Johannesburg, use the Metrorail, a dilapidated state-run surface network plagued by old infrastructure and machinery, which experts say is in need of an urgent makeover. Commuters angered by Metrorail's unreliable services have frequently torched trains, costing the provincial government US$ 48.5 million in 2005.
"If the government prioritised upgrading and extending the existing Metrorail, this will also create many jobs," added Mr Mgcina. Others call for authorities to first improve security on the Metrorail network.
Yunus Mohamed, an industrial relations and human resources lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand, was critical of the Gautrain project, saying the provincial government "had not got its priorities right".
"The Gautrain project, clearly aimed at the affluent and the upper-middle class, intended to ease the mobility of the business community. It will do nothing for the majority of the community, who suffer the most in terms of travel. Even the price of the tickets, believed to be in the region of about US$ 16 for a trip, is beyond the reach of an ordinary commuter," he noted.
Provincial Minister of Public Transport, Roads and Works Ignatius Jacobs was dismissive of COSATU's criticism and said the Gautrain project was part of a plan to overhaul the entire transport network in the province, which included upgrading Metrorail.
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