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Bombardier's South African showcase coming off the rails Add to ...

Bombardier Inc.’s showcase project in South Africa, the high-speed Gautrain, was a popular sensation when it launched in 2010 during the soccer World Cup. But now, 18 months later, the backlash has begun.

At first, South Africans loved the ultramodern train. It was their own small local version of the famous bullet trains of Europe and Japan, even if its 80-kilometre route was limited to two cities and an airport.

Bombardier hoped to use the $3.7-billion Gautrain project as a springboard to new rail contracts in South Africa.

Today, the Montreal-based manufacturer is facing the flip side of its early success. Soaring expectations were replaced with sour complaints when the Gautrain was plagued by technical problems as it expanded from Johannesburg to Pretoria.

The drumbeat of bad publicity is mounting. Nearly every week there are negative stories in the South African media, focusing on the local consortium in which Bombardier is a partner, which operates the train. The media are filled with criticisms of the unreliability of the Gautrain and its limited hours of operation.

Part of the problem is the connecting bus system that picks up commuters in their neighbourhoods and carries them into the Gautrain stations. More than 300 bus drivers, complaining of 11-hour shifts, have held four illegal strikes over the past six months. This week, they were dismissed from their jobs, provoking them to threaten a court action.

The latest strike has reduced the number of Gautrain commuters by about 10 per cent this week. And the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that the frequent strikes could inflict damage on South Africa’s global image, since the Gautrain has been hailed as one of the best train systems in the world. “This reputation is at risk,” the chamber says.

But it’s not just the buses that struggle. The train itself has sometimes been halted by technical problems, including the theft of copper cables from its rail lines.

The Gautrain was supposed to provide service to downtown Johannesburg, but its downtown station has still not opened, because of water seeping into an underground rail tunnel. The target date for fixing the tunnel has been often postponed, and is still unclear. As a result, the train serves mainly the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

More bad publicity was generated when it was revealed that the provincial government will be obliged to give substantial sums of money to the Gautrain operating consortium, Bombela, because its ridership is less than projected.

The official goal was about 100,000 passengers a day, but the train is carrying only about 34,000, partly because of the continued closing of the downtown Johannesburg station and partly because the South African government has postponed a controversial plan to impose tolls on the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

As a result, many of Gautrain’s target customers still prefer to commute by car, and the government will reportedly provide a subsidy of $37-million to the consortium for the financial year ending on March 31, in addition to the huge costs of building the rail line and providing its trains and equipment in the first place.

The reality is that the Gautrain was always a prestige project, promoted for political reasons and offering few benefits for South Africa’s masses. Approved by former president Thabo Mbeki, it serves only a small elite. While useful for business executives catching an airplane or commuters from the wealthy suburbs, it never had any chance of serving the vast majority of ordinary South Africans.

The country’s biggest transport problem is the legacy of apartheid. Because the regime refused to allow blacks to live in the cities, most of them were relegated to remote townships, far from the city centres, where transport is difficult.

Today, the townships are served by a patchwork system of buses, ordinary trains and minibus “taxis.” The Gautrain has done nothing to solve their problems.

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