High-speed rail needs a wider gauge than the one used throughout South Africa. The Gautrain, pictured above at Pretoria station, uses the country's only standard-gauge railway. File photo: Mujahid Safodien

Johannesburg - The Gautrain, although sporadically beset by problems such as cable theft and power cuts, is officially a success story, with passenger figures already reaching numbers predicted only in the 10th year of operation.

And in terms of punctuality and customer satisfaction, it beats the London tube - its UK counterpart - by far.

A study conducted recently by Bombela, the operating company, covers the period from late 2011 to March 2012, when the Pretoria-Johannesburg route opened.

According to the report, the increase in passenger demand has placed severe strain on the train system in peak periods. There has been an increase of 60 percent in ridership each year, with average weekday figures in March 2012 increasing to about 48 000 passengers - up by about 18 000 or 60 percent year-on-year.

Weekend ridership has stabilised at a relatively consistent 14 000 to 16 000 passengers a day.

Several additional train-sets have already been introduced in peak times to accommodate the demand, but there are constraints such as train availability, signalling and track-layout systems.

Long-term system enhancements and fare incentives are also being considered.

When it comes to punctuality, the study shows that only 91.3 percent of UK trains were on time over the past year, compared with the Gautrain’s 98.6 percent. Also, the Gautrain operates on a tighter, three-minute leeway as opposed to the UK’s five-minute leeway.

One big problem which plagues the Gautrain is cable theft, but according to the report, this is in line with international trends.

The report said: “Published statistics indicate that train delays due to cable theft in the UK have increased tenfold since 2004/5. Thieves are targeting signalling cables, overhead power lines and even metal fences to sell for scrap.

“Far more significant than the replacement cost of these components is the cost to the national economy - the tens of thousands of lost man-hours when passengers are delayed.”

According to Bombela, the Gautrain network is designed to “fail-to-safe”. It means that when a cable is cut, trains are brought to a safe stop. This protects passengers, but can lead to frustrating delays while the problem is found and repaired.

“Unfortunately, along with other rail operators, the Gautrain will remain a target for cable thieves. Since opening our first service in June 2010, we have experienced four cable theft incidents, which have resulted in service delays. There have, however, been numerous other incidents where either our security systems have managed to prevent service-critical cables from being stolen, or where the cables stolen have not been service-critical.”

Bombela said it had already done an enormous amount of work to tackle the problem of cable theft, including:

- Surrounding the rail reserve with a 1.5m concrete palisade security fence.

- Installing CCTV cameras at key locations in the rail system.

- Deploying dedicated security teams, including dog and motorbike patrols, and response teams.

- Augmenting security teams.

Bombela noted that cable theft in South Africa was far bigger than just the Gautrain.

“It is a national scourge, tantamount to economic sabotage, and will require concerted and determined action from the authorities nationally if there is to be any hope in winning the battle.

“The majority of metal recycling businesses operate within the law, but we believe full implementation of applicable legislation (in particular the Secondhand Goods Act and its various regulations) is required to restrict the market in stolen metal. People trading in scrap must do so legitimately,” the company said. - The Star