Rapid mass transit is on the rise throughout the nation’s urban areas

With growing demand from a cost-sensitive population and increased congestion, South Africa’s investment in public transport has skyrocketed in the past decade. In addition to refurbishing existing rapid transit networks – such as the Metrorail, which operates across five separate metro areas – in recent years the government has also launched a handful of high-profile projects, including the Gautrain, a rail and bus network that covers a large geographical area north of Johannesburg; and bus rapid-transit (BRT) systems in Gauteng and Cape Town, with more in the planning stages.

The increase in public transport activity has been driven in large part by the country’s worsening traffic situation. The national road network has become increasingly congested over the past two decades, for example, particularly in Gauteng and other urban areas. This is a direct result of the rapid expansion of car ownership among the burgeoning middle class: between 1994 and 2013 vehicle ownership in South Africa doubled. Consequently, there has been a lot of investment in public transport in recent years, but so far this has been insignificant compared to rising demand. Indeed, while a handful of projects have been rolled out, demand for affordable and quality public transport is strong.

Planning Ahead

Government investment in public transport has taken place under the umbrella of a handful of federal and regional development blueprints. In Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, development is proceeding under the 25-year Gauteng Integrated Transport Master Plan (GITMP), which was launched by the regional government in August 2013. Under the first phase of the plan, the fiveyear Gauteng Transport Implementation Plan (GTIP5), the province aims to establish a transport authority to oversee implementation of the GITMP; roll-out a “single-ticket” system for all transport networks in the province; shift a substantial amount of road traffic to rail and other public transit networks; expand the use of non-motorised transport (including bicycles and walking) among the urban population; streamline the freight transport segment; and, broadly, boost accessibility to public transit throughout the province.

As of early 2014 some of these initiatives were under way, but the creation of a single Gauteng Transport Authority (GTA) has proven to be more challenging than initially planned. While Gauteng’s 12 municipal and three metro-area governments have agreed that integrated transport planning needed to be adopted in the province, some authorities are wary about losing influence over transport infrastructure in their districts.

The Department of Transport’s (DoT) Public Transport Strategy (PTS), which was launched in March 2007 and runs through 2020, serves as the development blueprint for public transit at the federal level. Under the PTS, the government aims to create integrated rapid public-transport networks throughout the country’s urban areas, with a focus on rail and bus systems. As of early 2014 the strategy had resulted in upgrades to the Metrorail network – which is operated by the stateowned Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) – and the establishment of BRT networks throughout the country. By the time the PTS wraps up in 2020 the DoT forecasts that 85% of the country’s metro-area inhabitants will live within 1 km of a public transit line.


As of a decade ago most city dwellers in South Africa moved around primarily by privately operated buses, minibuses, taxis and, in urban areas, the Metrorail system. PRASA operates Metrorail networks in five areas, namely Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and the Eastern Cape. In total, the system includes 468 stations, 317 of which are owned by PRASA, while the state-controlled transport conglomerate Transnet owns the remainder.

According to PRASA, the five individual networks jointly move roughly 2m passengers per day in total, which makes Metrorail the single most-used masstransit system in South Africa. With this in mind, the government is currently working to maintain and update various components of the Metrorail network, many of which date back to the apartheid era. Safety concerns and regularly delayed trains have had a negative impact on the network’s reputation over the past decade.

According to local media, as of early 2014 much of the Metrorail train fleet was upwards of 40 years old. In October 2013 PRASA signed a R51bn ($4.8bn) deal with Gibela, a joint venture controlled by the French transport firm Alstom and a handful of local partners, to supply 600 new trains – consisting of 3600 coaches – over a 10-year period. Additionally, PRASA is in the midst of a modernisation programme, which will involve updating Metrorail track and station infrastructure, with the goal of boosting network efficiency.


The Gautrain project was officially announced in 2000, but was not completed until June 2012. Consisting of 80 km of track and a series of feeder bus routes, the network offers passenger services between northern Johannesburg, Pretoria, Ekurhuleni, OR Tambo International Airport and other key stops.

The system was developed on a public-private partnership (PPP) basis, where the key partners were the Gauteng Provincial Government and the Bombela International Consortium, the latter of which consists of five members, namely the Canadian transport firm Bombardier; the French contractor Bouygues Travaux Publics; and three South African firms, including Murray & Roberts, a leading engineering, contracting and construction services firm; SPG Concessions, a black economic empowerment company; and the J&J Group, an investment management firm. Built at a total cost of more than R25bn ($2.4bn), the Gautrain project is the single largest PPP project carried out in South Africa, and one of the largest on the African continent.

“Generally people only use public transport if they have no other option, with a car being the desired mode. However, by improving our public transport offering and the promotion of its use through developments like the Gautrain, coupled with factors such as rising fuel and other transport costs, we are beginning to see a visible shift,” Jack van der Merwe, CEO of Gautrain Management Agency, told OBG. Critics of the Gautrain have argued that the project largely excludes lower-income South Africans, citing as evidence high entry fares and the fact that the network is centred in Johannesburg’s relatively upmarket northern suburbs. Despite these critiques, the Gautrain has reported steadily increased passenger uptake since it opened for business in 2012. According to a Gautrain spokesman, in 2013 ridership on the system grew by 27% in total. This rapid jump in passengers has resulted in overcrowding on many trains, particularly on popular routes and at peak times.

Consequently, in March 2014 the government announced a series of short-term stop-gap measures to reduce crowded train cars, including adding cars to morning and evening rush-hour trains, extending the hours of certain stations and the airport train, reconfiguring the seating on most cars in order to allow more passengers to ride comfortably, and reducing times between subsequent trains. Under the GITMP the provincial government plans to extend the network in a variety of directions and add new stations, and acquire new rail carriages to cover the new routes.


As of May 2014 BRT systems were up and running in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and were either under way or in the planning stages in most of South Africa’s other urban areas, including Durban, Pretoria, Rustenburg and Port Elizabeth. Additionally, the government has announced plans to roll-out BRT systems in Nelspruit, Bloemfontein, East London, Polokwane, Msunduzi, Ekurhuleni and George by 2018. BRT networks are different from standard bus systems, as they run in purpose-built, dedicated lanes, avoiding traffic congestion. This allows them to maintain a regular schedule, functioning more like a ground-level tram or train than a bus. Additionally, BRT systems are designed to integrate seamlessly with other modes of transport, including both the Gautrain and the Metrorail.

A blueprint for the large-scale roll-out of BRT in South Africa was initially put forward in the PTS, which was launched in 2007. Since then development has progressed rapidly. The first line of Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya (which translates as “we are going” in Scamto, a mix of languages popular among South African youth) BRT network was up and running by late-August 2009. Rea Vaya was developed on a PPP basis, with the city of Johannesburg and other public sector entities owning a minority 33% stake in the project, and the firm PioTrans controlling the remainder. PioTrans took charge of the system in February 2011 and is made up of former taxi and minibus operators who were poised to lose business to the BRT system, and is the result of years of negotiations between private transport firms and the government. This financing and management scheme is being replicated across South Africa.

Still, Rea Vaya has critics. “BRT usage in Johannesburg has remained low since its launch,” Jackie Walters, a professor of transport and supply chain management at the University of Johannesburg, told OBG. “Meanwhile, billions of rand have been spent on the project as well as others in the country, to the detriment of traditional public buses and other lower-cost projects. There is an opportunity cost to consider here.”

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The Report: South Africa 2014

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