Tracking change

Rapid rail travel aboard the Gautrain has the potential to revitalise Johannesburg and Pretoria as thriving urban environments.

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If 19th-century European railway stations were temples of Modernism, ushering in access to the new world, what are 21st-century African railway stations? It’s a teasing question, one that raises questions about urban planning, mobility, sustainability and cultural heritage.

Gauteng’s much-vaunted Gautrain is South Africa’s first rapid rail system, spanning about 80 kilometres of essentially fragmented urban terrain. Trains started running last year, in time for the World Cup, but only Phase 1 operations were functional at that stage.

The first phase operations included the airport train service between Sandton Station and OR Tambo International Airport, a commuter service between Sandton and Rhodesfield – with an intermediate stop at Marlboro Station – and a dedicated feeder and distribution bus service to and from the Sandton and Rhodesfield stations. The Operations Control Centre, Train and Bus Depot facilities were also completed.

The remaining sections of Sandton Station required for the Phase 2 operations were completed in March 2011, including the completion of the underground section between Sandton Station and Park Station, the route between Midrand Station and Hatfield Station and the Pretoria Satellite Bus Depot.

The phased construction has been extraordinary – civil engineering feats and all – and several architectural firms have collaborated on this massive project, which has taken eight years to bring to fruition.

Tom Steer, senior resident/master architect of Bombela CJV (Pty) Ltd, says that the most interesting part of the project has been working to the system identity while allowing each station to have its own unique micro-influence. The 10 Gautrain stations – three of which are elevated and three of which are underground – are still essentially templates that will take on greater personal identity as communities elect to add richness in the form of art, advertising and so on.

“We wanted to create world-class structures that were not sterile and could still accommodate subtle influences from each suburb. For example, Centurion is renowned for SuperSport Park, so the station has been placed and decorated to represent markings on different sporting fields, such as soccer, rugby and cricket,” Steer explained.

French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, author of The Production of Space, has put forward the idea that a city can no longer have a homogeneous identity. He has criticised urbanism for this reason, calling it “a politics of space that imposes homogeneity through a process of rigorous planning, suppressing ‘symbols, information and play’”. But what’s clear from the Gautrain planning is that symbols and play are very much a part of what makes each station unique.

Although each conforms to the larger Gautrain System Identity (GSI) in the broadest sense, giving a nod to homogeneity for the sake of the brand, there is nothing formulaic about the stations themselves. Nor, indeed, is there anything strictly formulaic about the key design concept, which posits that railways are like tribal pathways of old, along which members of village communities travelled to meet up under Africa’s spreading acacia trees that offered shade and provided key landmarks. So each station is a landmark that overarches; a “tree” that shelters, brings together and makes social living easier

At the same time, the arrangements of parking facilities, drop-off zones (or “kiss-and-ride” zones, if you prefer) and transfer corridors are quite different, and have been organically designed to talk to and coexist with and in existing spaces.

Let’s look at Hatfield, the northernmost Gautrain station and corner post at the end of the route, as an example. Although not yet in use by the public when I visited, I was able to examine the bare bones of the Gautrain Hatfield Station: Beautiful spaces – station, parking, bus depot – poised to function after the scheduled safety trial running has been completed.

A station without a public tells a fascinating story in itself. The glass-and-steel buildings and gently undulating roof canopies are simple and understated – the very essence of a light, bright architectural vision. In time, these spaces will be occupied in such a way that there will be a fine interplay of light and reflection, as commuters bustle from thoroughfare to fare-point.

Hatfield is already a thriving hub, with a R280-million development known as The Fields intended to create one of the biggest conglomerations of residential units in a single node in South Africa. This project, with its aim to revitalise the urban environment, feeds into the City of Tshwane’s Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework. The intended feel – a vibrant use of colour and texture in a light, airy environment – is not dissimilar to the Gautrain’s clean seamlessness.

Some of these units have been earmarked for student housing. After all, the University of Pretoria’s main campus and central administration offices are dotted around Hatfield – six of the nine faculties are found here. It is for this reason that the Gautrain station has been decorated with tiles designed to represent graduation caps.

There is nothing dismaying about this nod to the literal. In fact, as the area “graduates”, in terms of Transit Oriented Development, one can expect to see the area attract more visitors and investors. According to the City of Tshwane, this will mean neighbourhood revitalisation, public safety and pedestrian friendliness, creating an alternative suburban living and working environment with, of course, enhanced mobility.

This is good news for Hatfield. To be on the Gautrain route will quite possibly mean the difference between a thriving urban area and a sleepier one that must, of necessity, send its residents out to barter elsewhere, to use the tribal metaphor as reference.

African railway stations are, in that sense, the new trading posts of the 21st century, along new trading routes that make economic hubs of key locations. Almost every city of importance started as a trading post: New York, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Singapore, Venice. Will this be Pretoria’s chance to become a second Johannesburg? Perhaps. But let’s talk once the trains are running.

Fiona Zerbst is a freelance journalist currently based in Pretoria, Gauteng. She is the author of four books of poetry. Website: