Smooth as a bullet and with all its steely efficiency too

2011-08-09 12:17

You may not eat, drink, smoke or even chew gum on the Gautrain, a security guard explains as the country’s fastest train whizzes down a dark tunnel from Sandton station.

With devilish speed the train breezes into the bright sunshine of Johannesburg north, where suburban Marlboro houses and the RDP houses of Alexandra township act as a reminder of the real world far away from the comforts of this sleek machine.

Earlier, as we approached the entrance to the Rosebank Gautrain station with cups of steaming coffee, another security guard politely asked us to step aside and finish our drinks as no beverages are allowed in the station or on the train itself.

This is when I began to miss the vibrating bustle of the Metrorail trains, where commuters can enjoy anything from a steaming hot mealie to a cold beer without a care in the world.

But the Gautrain is something else, particularly for a darkie who in the early 90s was driven to a lifetime aversion for trains which constantly seemed to operate on a different timeline from the rest of the world.

To this day, I instinctively check the time whenever I see a train, just to check that I’m not late, regardless of whether I’m driving or just walking.

I guess these are the lasting effects of being at the mercy of trains that were also known simply to die in the middle of nowhere. Of course this happened without a word from anyone about when or whether they would move again.

One time, I watched as angry commuters chased a train driver who could not explain why the train had decided to “die” at Wolmerton station, north of Pretoria.

Years later, after the gods had intervened and elevated me to the ranks of those who travel by car, I read about commuters who burnt down Pretoria station because of the trains being consistently late.

But after my first trip on the Gautrain this week, I see no reason why commuters would resort to such actions. First, the stations are so clean that one’s chances of slipping on a banana peel are as slim as those of winning the Lotto jackpot.

Then, to buy a ticket, one only has to deal with a vending machine, unlike the sullen ticket vendors of the past who always seemed to be so angry.

The ushers are young and appear to be well trained. There are electronic signboards everywhere directing you and advising the time of departure.

But I really missed the voices of the announcers at Metrorail train stations, who at times seemed to be rehearsing for jobs in the world of horse- racing commentary. While voices also boom from speakers inside the Gautrain announcing the train’s next destination, it’s just not the same.

Some will agree that the fact that the doors are electronically operated is a welcome safety feature, but I was disappointed. One of the highlights of catching a train in the past was watching the staffriders, young men who ran alongside a moving train leaping in and out of it with such deft footwork.

However, the faint-hearted be warned, the speed with which this Gautrain takes off, hayi khona! has the capacity to rattle even the brave of heart.

It speeds through the pitch dark tunnel between Rosebank and Marlboro like a fighter jet – perhaps the management should consider safety belts for those comfy seats.

The trip from Rosebank to faraway Hatfield in Pretoria took about half an hour with stops at Sandton, Marlboro, Midrand, Centurion and Pretoria before reaching Hatfield. This equalled a record set by a taxi driver who once took us from central Johannesburg to central Pretoria in his Nissan E20 minibus, having violated almost every rule of the road and probably other laws that were still to be written!

After my experience on the Gautrain, I’m hooked.

However, deep down, I missed the energy of Metrorail trains, from the myriad hawkers selling rat poison with the same enthusiasm as they peddle fruit and cool drinks, to the preachers whose voices fill the train carriages.

Oh yes! I also missed the suspense of not knowing if the train would arrive on time, and the prying eyes of the pickpockets. Eish!

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