Gautrain CEO Jack van der Merwe

Gautrain chief executive Jack van der Merwe has been stuck in N1 traffic for 14 years. And he has had enough.

“It’s just getting worse,” he explains. “You see people leaving home earlier and earlier, and there’s a major accident at least once a week. You can never just sit back, relax and breathe.”

He then begins listing all the reasons why his pet project – the Gautrain – is going to be Gauteng’s saving grace.

His enthusiasm is understandable, given that he has been both champion and whipping boy for everything Gautrain-related since its inception.

A particular low point came after former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s 2006 Budget speech, when it was announced that the project would set the country back R21.6 billion.

“There was a massive outcry,” recalls Van der Merwe. “We appeared in the newspapers 1 800 times over those months.”

Van der Merwe was summoned to explain himself in front of Parliament.

“I was driving home when I got a call from a radio station to explain it on air. I had four panellists screaming at me over the phone. Everybody was having a go at me when (then premier) Mbhazima Shilowa phoned in and said the station should direct its questions to him. I just thought ‘Well, if he’s willing to get up and fight, so can I’.”

Four years later, he watched as the airport link opened, right on schedule at exactly 5.20am, three days before the Fifa World Cup got under way.

“About 10 people were waiting there with their luggage at Sandton station, flying out that morning. This was not a joyride for them. They were actually using it for their work. That was the biggest kick for me.”

Since then, about 3 million passengers have been moved along the airport line, and this week, Joburg and Pretoria will finally be connected when the Rosebank to Hatfield line opens.

The Park station to Rosebank line, however, remains closed after excessive water seepage in the tunnel connecting the two stations. It is hoped it will open by the end of the year.

Once again, Van der Merwe finds himself on the media’s bad side.

But he’s an engineer. And as an engineer, he explains, his job is to solve problems.

“We’ve never had an insurmountable problem in this project,” he says. “There are a set of gates you have to get through to get the project done. If you can’t get through them, it’s the end of the project.”

Attracting tenders was one thing. Fleshing out the details of the contract with the Bombela Concession Company over the next 14 months was something else entirely.

“We sat in negotiations from 8am to 11pm, day and night,” remembers Van der Merwe. “We kept half the attorneys in South Africa, Canada, London and France busy.”

On September 27, 2006 the 100 000-page contract was signed.

“It has been an incredible privilege to be part of this,” says Van der Merwe. “If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt, it’s that we are comparable to anywhere in the world.” - The Star