Ramaphosa’s big bullet train promises

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been talking about high-speed bullet trains for South Africa since his 2019 State of the Nation Address, and this year he indicated that government finally seems to be making progress on the project.

That being said, there is nothing concrete yet, with the latest development being cabinet’s approval of a framework for a high-speed rail (HSR) that will first focus on the Johannesburg to Durban corridor.

The president spoke of this approval during his 2024 State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 8 February.

“In November last year, Cabinet approved a framework for high-speed rail, focusing initially on the Johannesburg to Durban corridor,” said Ramaphosa.

The next step is for the transport and finance ministers to discuss the financial implications of the bullet-train project’s implementation.

“Cabinet approved the High-Speed Rail Development Framework and the financial implications for implementation will be discussed between the Ministers of Transport and Finance,” a summary of the cabinet meeting on 1 November 2023 reads.

“Cabinet approved the prioritisation of the Johannesburg to Durban corridor for a detailed feasibility study, and the Johannesburg-Polokwane to Musina and Johannesburg to Mbombela (corridors) will be put to the market.”

During SONA 2019, Ramaphosa painted a picture of a prosperous South Africa and smart cities interconnected with bullet trains.

“We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from eThekwini back here,” the president said.

“Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect.”

Progress on Ramaphosa’s smart city and bullet train promises has been slow or non-existent.

However, promises of the first HSR network in South Africa came from transport director-general Alec Moemi in May 2020.

President Cyril Ramaphosa

At the time, Moemi said a framework for an HSR network had already been deployed and implemented, with an anticipated launch in 2025.

In March 2022, then-transport minister Fikile Mbalula gazetted the country’s National Rail Policy White Paper, which sets out the foundation for establishing HSR corridors.

The National Rail Policy is the whitepaper that contains specific mention of High-Speed Rail (HSR), which Ramaphosa’s cabinet adopted.

“The framework will determine the strategic objectives for high-speed rail in the country and determine the criteria to be used in determining and prioritising these corridors,” the white paper reads.

“Feasibility studies on proposed high-speed services will be conducted by the department (of transport) guided by the framework.”

Deputy director-general for rail transport, Ngwako Makaepea, said government was eyeing the Johannesburg-Durban corridor as a lucrative HSR opportunity that could compete with budget airlines.

While the government will fully fund the project, China has indicated it would potentially invest in it.

Regarding the capabilities of the HSR network, China has several high-speed trains in operation, including some that are allegedly capable of hitting 600km/h.

At 600km/h, it would take less than an hour to travel from Johannesburg to Durban using this technology.

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Ramaphosa’s big bullet train promises