S.Africa applies finishing touches


JOHANNESBURG, June 8 – South Africa put the finishing touches to its World Cup preparations, rolling out the continent's first high-speed rail link on Tuesday and announcing plans to bus fans from stadium to stadium.The three-billion-dollar Gautrain began whisking passengers from Johannesburg’s international airport into the uptown Sandton district, just three days before the tournament begins.

The 160-kilometre-an-hour (100 mph) link will be one of the key legacies of the tournament and is intended to show that Africa can build transport facilities to rival those of anywhere in the world.

"I have been in Johannesburg just for one hour — the airport and here — but I really thought this was a first world service," Costa Rican football journalist Gustavo Jimenez told AFP as he stepped off the train at Sandton.

"That’s not only because of the facilities and the building, but also because of how much effort they are putting in to helping users," he added as a security guard helped him hail a taxi to take him to his hotel.

In fact, security guards outnumbered passengers, reflecting the desire by authorities to deflect fears that a country with one of the world’s highest crime rates is no place to stage the world’s biggest sporting event.

Tickets from the airport to Sandton cost around 13 dollars, a small fortune for most South Africans but much cheaper than the cost of a taxi ride.

And while traffic snarl-ups mean the journey usually takes around an hour, the Gautrain will cover the distance in around a quarter of that time.

Strikes and subsidence problems have ensured that only the link to Sandton, a swanky suburb which is home to the Johannesburg stock exchange and a massive shopping mall, has opened in time for the World Cup.

But the train will eventually take passengers into the central business district, the suburb of Rosebank and onto Pretoria, the seat of government.

The 60-kilometre highway between Pretoria and Johannesburg is the busiest in the country and the Gautrain should cut journey times to just 42 minutes.

Janet Gallagher, who lives near the airport but often travels to Sandton, was one of the first passengers.

"It’s absolutely awesome," she told AFP. "In the morning at rush hour, it can take up to two hours. You can’t compare … It was so fast," she added.

Worries over crime, transport infrastructure and accommodation have dogged the build-up to the tournament ever since South Africa was granted the right to stage the World Cup six years ago.

But Sepp Blatter, president of football’s world governing body FIFA, told reporters that while the first-ever World Cup on African soil would not be without its flaws, it was time to be swept along by World Cup fever.

"You can be critical — that is your right — but admit that you really feel something here," he said.

As well as the Gautrain opening, a new train station opened in Cape Town and the country’s transport minister announced plans for a special bus service to drop spectators off close to the stadium before every match.

"This service will be provided by a fleet of 110 newly acquired 79-seater buses, operating alongside approximately 300 mini-buses from the taxi industry," Sibusiso Nbebele told reporters.

"It will transport spectators from all operational hubs, in various host cities, directly to the stadiums thus alleviating the frustration of dealing with congested roads and sourcing suitable parking."

Authorities in Johannesburg were also sealing off roads in the downtown area where a giant fan park will play host to thousands of supporters unable to hunt down a ticket for Friday’s opening.

Transport authorities in the city said that usual bus services would be suspended on Friday as the bulk of the vehicles would be needed to ferry supporters to the Soccer City stadium where South Africa are playing Mexico.

But the preparations were not entirely problem-free, with cell phone users finding it next to impossible to get a connection.