Read in magazine

As of February 2022, the Gautrain transport network had carried 175 million passenger trips since it opened in 2010, in so doing sustaining around 12 000 jobs a year across its supply chains. With a new CEO at the helm, the Gautrain is set to scale to higher levels of success.

Back in 2006, Tshepo Kgobe would brave rush hour traffic driving to work from the West Rand and doing the school run. “I left work at four o’clock as usual and battled through the traffic—which was far heavier than normal—to pick up my wife, and then we edged our way across town… finally reaching our young son at school at half past six! I turned to my wife and said to her ‘this is now more just an occasional frustration… this is now personal!’,” recalls Tshepo Kgobe, who was appointed as the CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency on 1 February 2024.

“Traffic in Gauteng was truly horrible at that point in time, and rush hour was a nightmare. There were measures being taken and proposals tabled, such as increasing the lanes on the various freeways, but aside from that, there was no other way to travel to where you needed to be other than on the freeway,” recalls Kgobe, who was appointed as the CEO of the Gautrain Management Agency on 1 February 2024.

“We estimate the freeway speeds at that point in time to have been around 25 to 27 kilometres an hour… and that’s at rush hour!” adds Kgobe. “We used to leave home very early and come back home earlier to try and beat the traffic, or we would come back late after the worst of the traffic. Monday to Friday! Week after week! That’s the life we had, and there was no other alternative for people in Gauteng to travel north to south by car.”

Travelling to the airport was an equal nightmare, and Kgobe has given up trying to count the number of times he missed flights because there was no other alternative of getting to the airport coming from the West Rand… and he used to just hope he would get lucky with traffic.

“It was horrible, but today we’ve not only changed travel times for the public travelling by car, but we have changed our way of life now that the Gautrain has built itself into the fabric of daily commuting. It’s about mobility and that has positioned the Gautrain as a lifestyle product, because if you want to be home to see your kids, then you’re not going to want to sit on the freeway for two hours in the morning to get to work… and then another two hours coming back from work in the evening.

The Gautrain provides greater mobility that actually empowers the lifestyle of people in Gauteng more than anything else. In 2013, we commissioned an independent study that found that a commuter who uses the Gautrain every working day to and from work between Johannesburg and Tshwane saves around seven hours and R1 300 in petrol and car-maintenance costs a month, compared with those who drive themselves” adds Kgobe, who has been in the railway industry for 25 years.

In 1998 he joined the railways in Durban, working as a junior engineer with Metrorail, and later as an Assistant Regional Engineer. He did a stint in the rail industry with a consulting company in England when South Africa was looking at high-speed rail, with his role appropriately assessing how to actually enable it. This unknowingly prepared him for his future role with the Gautrain. He returned to Durban where he became a senior engineer at Metrorail for a few years until Bombela Concession Company was announced as the preferred supplier for the Gautrain. He was one of the first 20 to 30 engineers to join the various companies working on the construction side of the project for Bombela.

He was then headhunted for a Transnet Rail project and from there his career really took off, leading to corporate board positions and the opportunity to play a role in key transformation strategies. It was in 2013 that he was first approached about a role in the Gautrain Management Agency… but he turned it down!

“I think we went through this back and forth for a period of two years, but my question for them was very simple: What am I going to do there? The Gautrain was up and running so I questioned whether I was needed there,” he smiles. He was then told about imminent extensions to the Gautrain line, including the process of starting the feasibility study, and that was when he realised there was work for him to get stuck into.

“I’m now on the other side of the fence, which is joining the public-private partnership, but specifically representing the government entity in the shape of the Gautrain Management Agency (GMA). I joined as the senior executive responsible for technical services, which includes environmental health and safety, monitoring and evaluation, overseeing and monitoring operations, integration and transport planning. It was a very wide portfolio, but I was excited to take it on as it enables the GMA to function very well,” says Kgobe. Not long afterwards, CEO Jack van der Merwe left the GMA and was replaced by William Dachs and Kgobe was appointed to the position of Chief Operating Officer and he has served in this role for the last four years until his recent appointment as CEO.

With the current operator concession coming to an end, the GMA has had to gear up for the changeover, which includes putting a tender out into the market to find a new operator… and all before 2026! The new delivery partner will operate, maintain, modernise, innovate, and upgrade the current Gautrain system so that the GMA can continue to provide a safe and efficient public transport service.

According to Kgobe the Gautrain will become an even more integral part of people’s daily lives and a catalyst for economic development, growth, and economic recovery in the province. “There will be a smooth and timeous transition from the existing delivery partner to the new contract, with no service disruption post March 2026,” he says.

“We must remain an aspirational product as well as an accessible product, and that is an important first stance of mine. That doesn’t mean we must subsidise everybody who arrives at the station or give discounts to everybody, but we have to look at families that cannot afford our service, and I’m speaking about indigent families. How do we sponsor them and how do we remain accessible to disabled people? We also have to look at the many kids who come from families that have been sponsored by more affluent families to enable them to attend expensive schools, and therefore we have to contribute to the benefit of the scholars who are using the system as a whole,” adds Kgobe.

Gautrain is a strategic asset valued at R45 billion, and once the current concession expires at the end of its 19.5-year term in 2026, the costs of establishing this long-term asset will have been paid off, allowing the Post 2026 Gautrain Project to reap the economic benefits.

Looking ahead to the future, the GMA CEO relies on the words of one of his former mentors who always insisted that “if you hire good people, the rest will take care of itself”.

Kgobe admits that it’s not quite as simple as that but adds that they have created a team of knowledgeable people, while always hiring only the best.

GMA recently received its third consecutive Top Employer status by the Top Employers Institute. “Being recognised as a Top Employer for three years in a row confirms our dedication to building and nurturing agile and resilient leaders who transform spaces, people and the economy through mobility. This is as a result of our employee-centric culture anchored by four key values: Caring, Excellence, Leadership and Learning,” says Kgobe.

He also highlights an organisational commitment to maintaining high levels of operational efficiency and clean governance which has seen GMA record its 11 consecutive clean audit outcomes.

The GMA has also received widespread praise for the way in which it has developed a highly effective way of working with the taxi industry. The Gautrain Midibus Feeder and Distribution Service started operating from Gautrain Marlboro station in 2011 following a partnership with taxi associations from Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Twelve years later, additional midibus routes are operating from Gautrain Centurion and Hatfield stations in partnership with the minibus taxi operators. At an affordable R12 per trip, the Gautrain-branded midibuses now transport about 72 000 commuters a month. This partnership has created employment for 69 people, 21 are women and 18 are youth.

“The innovative contracting model with the taxi industry addresses a number of issues, including enhancing the integration of the Gautrain system with other public transport services within the province, improving accessibility to Gautrain stations, and reducing traffic congestion to the stations. “In addition, the vast majority of midibus commuters also use the Gautrain which boosts train ridership,” says Kgobe.

“In this way, we’re creating not only a better business for our commuters, but we’re creating a legacy for those taxi owners themselves, as well as helping to resolve the violence that has arisen between Uber drivers and the meter taxi industry,” he adds, highlighting the fact that these smaller operators are contracted to run their distribution and feeder services in areas where the GMA can’t run their 22-seater vehicles… and in doing so it has given the Gautrain a broader reach in terms of its customer service. At the same time, taxi operators are learning how to operate scheduled services and how to run a business that is not just surviving day-to-day, but rather a business that has a long-term outlook.

“More than anything else, that is a game changer. It is something that, you know, is revered around the world,” says Kgobe, his face breaking into a huge smile.

Looking ahead, the Gautrain as a service is looking to diversify its offerings and build capacity among operators, particularly as they look to expand the rail lines and create interlinking lines The extension project will add 150-kilometre of rail network to the existing 80-kilometre Gautrain system. Going green is also a priority. Extremely green! On the GMA’s To Do List are hydrogen buses, hydrogen trains, hydrogen minibuses, and they already have an electrical path being tested in and around town. They are also close to converting many of their current buses to green technology through plug-and-play engine switches, as the majority of their vehicles were purchased with these future green transformations in mind.

“We’ve already started thinking 30 years ahead with our stations, and we are looking at establishing a property development company that will allow us to redevelop a lot of our stations ourselves, and long-term wise to develop properties around our stations ourselves,” he adds.

According to Kgobe the arrival of Gautrain stations in communities has influenced local development and commercialisation decisions, R46 billion has been added to the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the provincial economy due to property development induced by the Gautrain, further contributing to another 245 000 jobs. “We have seen a significant proportion of commercial and residential properties mushrooming around Gautrain stations,” he says.

The GMA has become a major success not just for it’s public-private partnership and the world-class efficiency and reliability of its trains, but also for its highly skilled but cautious management and systems that not only seek to incorporate the needs of all South Africans, but that also plans ahead to ensure the success of its services for future generations. It’s a model that other public and private entities can not only learn from but can also be inspired by!

“The Gautrain has shown, first and foremost, what we as South Africans can do when we believe in ourselves and put our heads together. In the rail industry, what it has shown us is that there is a different way of running rail services, and a different way to implement the same service but to achieve a different goal. It has shown us that it is possible that you could actually have the ability to own an asset, but have it operated by a third party in such a way that it is efficient at a world-class level. The Gautrain service has achieved beyond its initial goal. The Gautrain does what it says on the tin… but it is also able to give you the best outcome possible,” smiles Kgobe.

By Editor