Gautrain rapid-rail network operator Bombela Concession Company has maintained or, in some cases, increased Gautrain operational capacity despite low passenger numbers.
“While maintaining or even increasing capacity at a time when demand has reduced goes against commercial logic, it makes perfect sense from a health and safety perspective and is the right thing to do in times when social distancing is an imperative,” says Bombela Concession Company marketing and communications executive Kesagee Nayager.
She adds that, owing to financial and other difficulties that many Gautrain passengers are facing under lockdown, the company has decided to delay the implementation of its yearly fare increase that normally happens in June.
“We have decided to delay the fare increase to later in the year when we have more accurate information on when the lockdown regulations will be lifted. We trust that this news will bring some relief to our passengers during these trying times,” Nayager tells Engineering News.
She explains that numerous regular Gautrain passengers travel with a weekly or monthly travel product. However, when it was announced that South Africa would enter into Level 5 of the lockdown in March, these passengers were concerned that their products would expire or that they would not be able to get a speedy refund.
“We immediately looked at how we could expedite our refund process,” she says.
Affected passengers were advised to block their Gautrain card online and apply for a refund. Gautrain made changes to streamline its refund process so that passengers could be promptly refunded for unused trips on their weekly or monthly passes.
“We waived the admin fee that would have typically applied, and passengers were not required to provide any supporting documentation together with their refund request,” says Nayager, adding that the company actually refunded passengers an additional R17 so that they could buy a new Gautrain card once services resumed.
Meanwhile, Gautrain’s OR Tambo stop has been discontinued since the start of the lockdown, further affecting the company’s bottom line.
“The airport service is our premium service. A loss in ridership for us translates into a loss in sales. But, we cannot put a price on human life. We understand and support the rationale to restrict air travel during these times,” she explains.
Moreover, as servicing and maintenance continues as usual, the company has not made any savings in terms of its wage bill.
“In fact, we are pleased that, to date, we have managed to pay all our employees in full since the Covid-19 outbreak,” Nayager enthuses.
However, she concedes that the additional health and safety measures that the company has implemented were not budgeted for and have become an unforeseen additional cost to the business, albeit an essential cost.
“It is a price we have to pay to ensure we keep our reputation intact during these trying times, and to help build our customers’ confidence in our ability to do what is in their best interests, especially when times are tough.”
Nayager says that the executive team of the Bombela Concession Company decided to donate 33.33% of their monthly salaries for three months towards the national Solidarity Fund.
“We are proud that some of our employees joined the drive and agreed to also make a financial contribution towards the fund for a three-month period,” she says.
Further, some of the health and safety measures taken include chemically disinfecting buses and trains at each terminal, as well as at the end of every day.
“During April and May at peak period, trains operated at 20-minute intervals. This has since been decreased to 15-minute intervals. Pre-lockdown, we operated trains in the peak period at 10-minute intervals. By extending the headways, we are able to make time to disinfect and wipe down the trains at the terminal stations,” Nayager explains.
With the wearing of face masks being compulsory, limited stock is available at all terminals for passengers who may not have one.
To ensure physical distancing, Gautrain stations have floor decals at all queue points and on all platforms. In addition, every alternate seat on trains, buses and midibuses has been cordoned off to help maintain physical distancing.
“In my experience, I find that customers are willing to comply and even assist in enforcing the rules once they see the benefit or rationale behind it. Very early on we took bold steps to do things differently and our customers and staff have been supportive of these changes,” Nayager assures.
She says the company even implemented health and safety measures that were not required.
“For example, even though Covid-19 is reportedly not airborne, we decided to disinfect the air ducts on the trains during maintenance hours – a time-consuming and costly process.”
Moreover, she says Gautrain has taken care to keep customers informed of changes that they could expect at stations and onboard trains, buses and midibuses.
“Traveling during these trying times, especially using public transport, can be somewhat daunting, so we have to take care to remove the surprise elements by providing customers with information upfront, even before they get to a station.”
Nayager concludes that it has remained priority to act speedily and with compassion in implementing various health and safety measures to protect its employees and passengers against infection – despite the cost.