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South Africa Hopes to Ease Traffic Woes With Rail System

Over the past 10 years, South Africa has seen its major cities sprawl, their populations grow, and traffic on road and rail networks explode. Nowhere is this more evident than in the greater Johannesburg- Pretoria area. Passengers on overfilled commuter trains hang on the outside of carriages, and vehicles clog the roads. A rapid rail network under construction is meant to ease congestion.

As in all of South Africa's major centers, MetroRail is the second mode of transport for mostly black commuters from the predominantly black townships to the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

And, like almost every commuter traveling between Soweto and downtown Johannesburg this chilly winter morning, Ntombi Nkabinde says the trains are chronically late.

"The late coming of the trains - they are delaying all of the time, most of the time they are delaying us - like you find some people they have even been retrenched because of Metrorail, because of the poor service through to us passengers," she says.

"The commuter rail service at the present moment is unreliable and unpredictable, and is a mode of force, not a mode of choice," said Paul Vorster, chief executive of the South African Society for Intelligent Transport Systems.

But the primary mode of transport for the commuters of the Pretoria-Johannesburg complex of Gauteng province, are minibus taxis. Each day, they transport 65 percent of the region's workers. Together with personal vehicles, often carrying just one passenger, they clog the highways and city roads.

Commuter Stanley Made, says there is just one solution - improve the public transport system.

"The main problem is the traffic in the morning and in the afternoon," he says. "Why? Because there is too much [more] private cars than the public transport. People are running away from public transport, because it is not that much good, as they want [it] to be."

Paul Vorster says there are primarily three causes of increasing congestion on the region's roads.

"One is the normal annual growth in the population, people get more and more; [second is] annual growth in the number of vehicles that we see on the roads; and then thirdly, where that is expounded is by growth of the middle class since 1994, when South Africa has been reincorporated into the global economy," he says. "We have seen a steady growth in the middle class, and one of the characteristics is that people, if they can in any way afford to use private transport, they will prefer to do so."

Several government initiatives are in the pipeline to improve the situation. After many delays, a national program to scrap old mini-bus taxis and replace the fleet with modern, safer and more economical vehicles is getting under way. The government will provide taxi owners with recapitalization funds.

Vorster says the so-called recap plan is based on sound logic.

"There is a lot of very good logic behind the taxi recap, and we really hope the government will get the taxi recap going again - because that will bring new vehicles and, obviously, roadworthy vehicles onto the road," he says. "It will provide one element of a public transport network, which we desperately need, because the fewer cars we have with one occupant, the better for [alleviating] traffic congestion."

Between 2005 and 2009, the government will spend $6 billion on improving the public infrastructure. Metrorail is one of the major beneficiaries. Vorster says these funds, together with new dynamic leadership at the helm of Transnet, which owns Metrorail, has raised confidence levels that the commuter rail network will improve greatly in the next few years.

And in Gauteng, work has just commenced on Gautrain, a new high-speed rail network that will link Pretoria, Johannesburg, and the Johannesburg International Airport. Slated for completion by 2010, Vorster says Gautrain will include much more than a simple point-to-point rail link.

"So, it is not only a train system that will run from station-to-station, but as part of the train network, there will be a dedicated system with buses, mini-buses, other vehicles that will collect people, take them to the station and, on arrival, also take them to their final destination," he says. "That will be on the same livery and quality control as the train system."

The government's plans are focused on a single date to get the work done and get the systems running smoothly. It is the year 2010 - the year of the next World Cup, which to be held in South Africa.

Commuter Stanley Made says, if South Africa is to stage a successful tournament, there is not a minute to be lost.

"As far as I see, I was looking for Germany recently," he says. "I was impressed about what is happening. And they have to pick up their socks [move quickly]. It is only three years now - we don't count 2010 - it is only three years. the minister of transport and his people, they must come up with these taxi people and sit down and see what can they do, as quick as possible."

Vorster says he is confident South Africa's transport system will be ready for 2010, adding that work is starting to gather pace. He says that South Africans have shown in the past that they can succeed where the world expected them to fail. What is more, he says, failure is simply not an option.