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Tour Diary

Riding the Gautrain

With skyscrapers whose summits get lost in smog, shopping malls that teem with sophisticated who's who, suburbs that sprawl for as far as the eye can see, Johannesburg is like any modern, first-world city

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
With skyscrapers whose summits get lost in smog, shopping malls that teem with sophisticated who's who, suburbs that sprawl for as far as the eye can see, Johannesburg is like any modern, first-world city. The only thing missing from it was a subway, until late last year.
Eleven years ago, the city announced an ambitious project to build a railway system that would link Sandton, the main commercial district, to the airport and the country's capital Pretoria. Back then, no-one believed it could be done. In 2006, when construction started, even fewer people had faith in the idea. For one, the construction company had to buy numerous blocks of flats and other private property to make way for the tracks. Many owners refused to sell. Worker strikes were inevitable and delays along the way meant that when the football World Cup was a few weeks away and the venture appeared no closer to completion, it was classified a failure.
In the 18 months since then, reasons to doubt the dreams of the provincial government have become fewer and fewer. The Gautrain launched, initially with just the airport route operational, for the Word Cup, but now can take passengers all the way to Hatfield, where Pretoria's main university is. Along the way, it stops at Centurion, a little more than a kilometre away from SuperSport Park.
It is not the first time that public transport has been available to spectators of a cricket match - minibus taxis have been used for years - but it is the first time the middle-classes have felt comfortable enough to use it.
On one of the early trains were a group of young men who decided to spend one of the days of their university holidays at the cricket. One of them was wearing a Sri Lankan shirt. Behind them sat an Englishman and his grandsons, who he takes to the first day of the Centurion Test every year. This year, they enjoyed another first - their maiden ride on the Gautrain.
They listened in awe to their grandfather telling them that the train travels at 150 kph and that when he was younger he would take a much older version of a train to Elland Road to watch Leeds United play. Twenty minutes from boarding, the train reaches Centurion - with three stops along the way. For someone who has only ever travelled this route in a car and has battled through traffic which ranges from 45 minutes on a good day, to well over 90 on a bad one, the sheer shaving off time was my most enjoyable experience on the train.
There are other things to marvel at, like the open spaces I did not know existed just after the hub of Sandton or the Turkish mosque that is being built in Midrand but the real marvel of the train is the train itself. Sleek and smooth, the train is a sign of progress for a country that has often lagged behind in technological terms. The inside is spotless, no eating, drinking or even chewing of gum is allowed. Its greatest wonder is that it is on time, to the minute, something that public transport in South Africa has never been.
One of the biggest criticisms of the new system is that, because it only operates between a few, key centres, it leaves passengers high and dry. Slowly, a solution to that is emerging. A bus service is also operational and upon disembarkation from the train, the one headed past SuperSport Park was waiting. It's cheap - when used in conjunction with the train - although the entire journey is not.
For a return trip from Rosebank to Centurion, a return bus ride to the ground and parking of my own vehicle at the station, I spend R98 daily - the equivalent of US $13. For the week it takes to cover a Test match, it's doable but the average South African would not be able to sustain regular trips on the train.
As it grows, with the sector that will go to the city center still to be completed, it should become more cost effective. Its other major problem is cable theft, which has stopped the train on its tracks - literally - a number of times. Despite those speedbumps, the Gautrain remains a symbol of growth and evolution and certifies Johannesburg's status as a world-class city.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent