The Gautrain system was developed with accessibility at its heart, but what is the journey really like for a wheelchair user? MARISKA MORRIS finds out
The platform at the Rosebank Gautrain station starts to fill up as a woman announces in a calm tone over the intercom: “The next train to Sandton is a four-car train and will arrive in four minutes.” At the far end of the platform, Sandra Khumalo sits patiently. The champion rower and sales representative at ConvaTec South Africa is checking a few emails while she waits.
She started taking the Gautrain when her car broke down. Now, four months and a fixed car later, Khumalo still uses the service on a regular basis. “I simply park my car and take the train,” she explains. “I use it about three times a week when I have appointments in Pretoria.
“I have to be at Tswane by 09h00 and the traffic at that time is ridiculous. The Gautrain is fast. An hour is more than enough for my entire journey. It is also on time. If the schedule says the train will arrive half past, it will be there.”
Over and above the reduced travel time, the Gautrain system is easily accessible. The stations were designed to make it easy for people with disabilities to use – especially wheelchair users. There are wider entrance gates for people with mobility devices such as wheelchairs, as well as lifts for easy access to the various platforms and markers to indicate accessible seating on the train cars.
The train is level with the platform, which means embarking and disembarking is quick and easy for wheelchair users. Once you are inside a train car, there is ample space to manoeuvre a wheelchair into the dedicated area before locking it in place, as well as a grab rail to hold on to for additional support.
Accessibility is a priority for Gautrain, explains Barbara Jensen, senior executive manager of communication and marketing at the Gautrain Management Agency (GMA): “One of government’s objectives is accessibility and easy mobility for all citizens, especially people with disability. The Gautrain system was built in accordance with strict international transportation and safety regulations. All station environments, trains and Gautrain buses are designed to provide easy access for all passengers. Provision is made for passengers with mobility, sight and hearing impairments.”
When the blue-and-gold train arrives at the station, Khumalo demonstrates how easy it is to access a car. Confidently, she presses the button for the doors to open and rolls in. With no incline or obstacles, it is an easy manoeuvre, even for a less experienced wheelchair user.
Inside, Khumalo reverses until she is positioned against the folded seats in the designated wheelchair area, locks her chair in place and grabs on to the yellow railing. The whole process takes but a couple of seconds. The designated area is large enough to accommodate more than one wheelchair user.
“Khumalo embodies the vision of providing an efficient, comfortable and safe public transport service that is easy to use,” says Ramalepa.
“Wheelchair access is provided at all Gautrain stations, on all trains and on every second Gautrain bus, which is equipped with a wheelchair ramp and bay.
“For someone like Khumalo, this is important as she is an independent businesswoman who is always on the move and the Gautrain provides quick and efficient travel for her.”
The only advice Khumalo has for wheelchair users who want to make use of the service: Know where to go. First-time commuters can ask one of the many security officers on duty to help them find their way. “The security staff are quite clued up on the train itself and will show you were to wait so that, when the train approaches, you can wheel in at the right door,” Khumalo says.
The Gautrain is a very safe transport mode. “There is no fear that someone will just steal something, not like what might be the case on other forms of public transport,” Khumalo says.
She experienced the efficiency of the Gautrain security first-hand when she recently forgot her bag in the accessible bathroom at the Centurion station. Khumalo realised her mistake when she arrived at Marlboro. “I quickly went to the security office and reported that I’d forgotten my bag. The security staff at the Centurion station retrieved the bag from the bathroom,” she recalls.
As she would be passing by the station again the following day, she arranged to pick it up then. The next day, the Centurion security staff brought the bag to her where she was sitting on the train. “I didn’t have to get off. They actually came to me. All I had to do was sign for the bag. It was nicely packaged as well,” says Khumalo.
While she has been using the Gautrain mainly for business, she says she would like to use it more for pleasure. “The only time I go to Pretoria is for sport, but that is over the weekend, so I drive.” (Khumalo is currently training to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.)
When asked what the future entails for the Gautrain, Jensen says: “The GMA has been tasked by the MEC for Roads and Transport to lead the proposed Gauteng Rapid Rail Integrated Network Extension project – an exciting project that will see more rail extensions being built in other areas.
“The GMA has conducted a feasibility study for the network extension project and is currently awaiting National Treasury approval.”
With even more routes and stations in the pipeline, the Gautrain should surely be the first choice in public transport for wheelchair users in the area.