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Fast track to improvement

I’ve recently returned from a week in South Africa so I am trying to get used to the cold weather and ‘normal’ life.  I always enjoy visiting new places and I love getting the chance to explore and experience cultures so different to those I’m used to in the UK.  Sometimes you end up viewing things you take for granted at home in a wholly different way.  Being away this time led me to appreciate the British public transport system! Strange you think?

Let me put this into context: so many of our expectations, including what we consider to be new or revolutionary, is based on what we are used to (without us even realising it a lot of the time!). Take the example of transport. In South Africa, everyone strives to own a car as it is the easiest, safest, most reliable and in many cases the only way of travelling around.  Here in the UK (and in the larger cities especially) owning a car is not so much of a big deal, a nice to have rather than a must have. Of course the reason why there is this difference is because of different standards of public transport in each country.

In South Africa, public transport as we would consider it – i.e. trains and buses, is often unreliable and in some cases unsafe. Let me just clarify what I mean here by unreliable – in the UK we mutter if a bus or train occasionally doesn’t turn up but in South Africa’s case it won’t just be one bus – it could be that half the buses on any given route don’t turn up! South Africa’s bus system is quite different to ours, in that there are no formal bus stops and people just alert the driver wherever they need to get on or off, so there is no shelter and no indication of when the next bus will arrive. At least in the UK we can work out how the service is running from the length of the queue.

So imagine the excitement when a new Gautrain service linking Johannesburg, Pretoria and OR Tambo International Airport opened for business. In a country so starved of transport infrastructure this of course got everyone talking – this kind of public transport, reliable, safe and strictly controlled, hadn’t really existed in South Africa before – so it was perceived in the media and by the public as a revolutionary, ground breaking development! To me however, it really was (as a friend observed) just like a normal train running on a normal suburban line! The only real difference to our trains was the presence of a lot of security guards and a long list of actions and behaviour that were forbidden (one woman was even told she wasn’t allowed to chew gum in her mouth, who knows what they would have done if she had stuck it under her seat or spat it out on the floor!). But it is new, reliable and safe and seen as something of a game-changer.

A new train service in the UK would barely raise an eyebrow whilst a new tram network would be of local interest.  But that’s because in the UK we have a 150 year heritage of transport infrastructure for the masses.  What really matters here is incremental improvements in reliability, incremental increases in capacity and sustainable transport initiatives.  Brand new lines, like the proposed new Western mainline are reported in terms of negative impacts on the communities lying in the path of the new line rather than as a capital asset to the country.

Two different countries, two very different transport needs and therefore two very different responses to infrastructure improvements.  The common link is the need to invest in innovation to improve the lives of citizens, but in the practical application they are worlds apart.

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