LYNN NEARY, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.
Africa has its first high-speed rail service. It was built in the economic heart of South Africa to ease congestion. Passengers describe it as swift, safe and reliable.
NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton hopped on board to try it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HIGH-SPEED TRAIN)
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Welcome aboard Gautrain.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL TONES)
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Train to O.R. Tambo International Airport.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Here starts my ride on the Gautrain that covers both Johannesburg, which is the economic and business hub in South Africa, and Pretoria which is the political capital. We're going down, right down, into the bowels of the Gautrain.
What's exciting about it is it's the speediest train in Africa. It really is a first. And let's see how the ride will be and what other people think about the Gautrain. Here goes.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Attention please, passengers for O.R. Tambo International Airport, please change trains at Marlboro.
KELEBOGILE MACHAKA: Visitors that are coming outside of South Africa, they are amazed because they do not expect to see a system that is on par with the best of the best in the world, such a world-class project.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kelebogile Machaka is a spokeswoman for the Bombela Concession Company, which operates the Gautrain.
You have to put the Gautrain into context. South Africa's existing national Metrorail system is like most rundown railways across Africa, dating back 50-plus years. They need a radical upgrade.
STATION ANNOUNCER: Train approaching, stand back from the platform edge.
QUIST-ARCTON: In rolls the Gautrain with its immaculate royal blue and gold livery. It came online just in time for another first for the continent, the 2010 soccer World Cup championship hosted by South Africa. The network, with a stop at the airport, has since expanded, with more stations to come, says Machaba, the Bombela spokeswoman.
MACHAKA: The Gautrain is primarily aimed at taking people that are using cars off the roads and into public transport, to alleviate the congestion on the major roads.
QUIST-ARCTON: Early in the project, there was criticism about the nearly $3 billion network and fears the Gautrain would simply serve a rich elite, doing little for poor South Africans.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)
QUIST-ARCTON: Not everyone can afford, say, the $18 one-way ride to the airport from downtown Johannesburg. But a taxi costs easily twice that. Officials say the Gautrain is carrying up to 40,000 passengers on an average day. And that includes banker and regular Gautrain user Michelle Madden.
MICHELLE MADDEN: Love the train. It's convenient and it's very, very smooth. It's easy.
QUIST-ARCTON: What did you do before?
MADDEN: Bus, taxis, and it was terrible and dirty. This is very clean.
QUIST-ARCTON: Madden is taking the 30-minute trip from Johannesburg for a meeting in Pretoria.
MADDEN: I think it's wonderful because the buses are disgusting. The buses have chewing gum all over the floor and the seats. And they have chicken bones under the chairs and it's disgusting.
QUIST-ARCTON: Cheerful and polite, Chabalala Casper is one of about 400 security personnel, patrolling the trains and stations served by the Gautrain.
CHABALALA CASPER: Yah, clear. No one allowed to eat or drink here. Even chewing is not allowed. Even water, not allowed to drink.
QUIST-ARCTON: You heard him. The Gautrain's rules are strict. But passengers say fair is fair because this keeps the trains spotless.
First-time rider Refilwe Edith Seabi hops on in Pretoria. She's impressed.
REFILWE EDITH SEABI: Normally, the traffic, I know it because sometimes, Johannesburg from Pretoria, it will take me two hours because of the traffic. So I want to see today what time I'm going to board it and what time I'm going to arrive.
QUIST-ARCTON: She's bringing along her sister Girlie for a spot of shopping in Johannesburg. But Seabi is a little nervous.
SEABI: I'm very much excited and a bit anxious. And it's the first time.
QUIST-ARCTON: So what are you expecting?
SEABI: I'm expecting comfort. But I'm just anxious about its speed.
QUIST-ARCTON: A speed of up to a hundred miles an hour. But once she settles into the Gautrain's upholstered seats, Refilwe Seabi relaxes visibly and smiles.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: The next station is Centurion.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.