Tales from the Rails (Part 1 – Discovering the Gautrain as a blind traveller)

One of the most daunting parts of travelling as a blind person is figuring out how to get from point A to point B. This is particularly true once you have arrived at a big transport hub but are not yet safely at your final destination. I had heard quite a lot of positive feedback about the accessibility of the Gautrain – especially for blind travellers and I recently had the opportunity to test this out for myself first hand.

Accessibility to a disabled traveller refers to how easily a place, facility or system is to understand and navigate. This includes things like:

  • How safe is it for the disabled traveller?
  • How easy is it to navigate and move around the facility? i.e. Can the traveller easily and quickly get to where they need to be?
  • How user friendly is it to access information about tickets, routes, payment methods etc.
  • How available and willing are staff members to assist a traveller with a disability when needed?

The Gautrain is a rapid train that runs along two lines that crisscross Johannesburg, which forms part of the Gauteng metropolitan in South Africa. In its short life (the service started in 2010) it has become a popular mode of transport for local commuters who don’t have time to waste on traffic congested roads. But how would a blind tourist feel when attempting to use this service for the first time? Prior to my trip, I made contact with the Gautrain Customer Services to figure out what services are available to visually impaired travellers such as myself and what I could expect.

After a quick flight from Cape Town at the South Western tip of South Africa, I arrived at OR Tambo Airport with my wife who joined me as my sighted guide and travel companion. We found our way to the airport based Gautrain station in half the time we had allocated. We met a friendly lady called Sadhiya from Bombela, the operating company. She had been sent by the Gautrain Customer Services to give us a short tour and some more information about the Gautrain and exactly what they offer. Sadiyah was so enthusiastic about the service and showed great pride in the Gautrain and her job. She excitedly guided us through the ticket purchase experience and through the main entrance gates.

It was immediately apparent that the Gautrain staff had been well trained to assist disabled travellers if needed.

To my great surprise the floors were all exactly the same level and I found it a breeze getting from the check in gate to the platform. The station has a varied tactile floor covering that allows a blind person walking with a long cane to feel when they are getting to the edge of the platform. All around me I could hear the bustle of fellow passengers going about their business.

The announcements are regular, clear and comprehensive alerting travelers to the arrival and departure of the trains.

Boarding the train was simple, there was no step needed as the carriage lines up perfectly with the station platform. If not for feeling the floor texture change with my long white cane, I would not have even known that I had stepped onboard. Before we knew it we were comfortably seated and a loud beep announced the closure of the doors. Fellow travellers joined us in settling in for the journey as the train pulled smoothly out of the platform. I heard foreign accents from a couple who were excitedly talking about their travels. Accompanied by the distinctive crinkle sound of newspapers being opened, business people read the daily news.

An announcement told us which stations we would pass through before reaching Malboro station, one of the main junctions on the line. This announcement was clear and audible. I was thoroughly impressed. As a blind person you really get to notice how bad the sound quality of public address systems can be. That said, clear and audible announcements are very much appreciated.

Arriving at the Marlboro station we needed to switch trains and leave the east to west line. The first leg of the trip was over so quickly and a short escalator ride found us waiting for the northbound train that would take us further onward to Pretoria. We had refused the lifts, as I really wanted to know how easy it would be to use the escalator. This proved to be no problem at all. Sitting on the northbound train I felt a little strange, when travelling as a blind passenger, one usually can expect some challenges. Everything was flowing as smoothly as vanilla ice cream does when it bellows out of a soft serve machine.

Sadiyha chatted to us and told us that she had worked for the company since its inception. She had started on the stations before getting promoted and joining the head office team. She confided that she missed working on the platforms and seeing the passengers and happenings every day. She also told us, very proudly, that her husband was in fact one of the drivers on the trains. Sadiyah also advised that the Gautrain welcomes guide dogs onto the service. The SA Guide Dogs Association regularly trains guide dog puppies on the train. Staff are briefed to recognize the dogs wearing their service jackets. The Gautrain has regular blind commuters who are using the system successfully and without any incidents.

Minutes later we found ourselves disembarking at the Pretoria station. This ended the final leg of our Gautrain journey. After saying our goodbyes, we found ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief. It had all been so simple.

Well done Gautrain and thank you for making it easier for us sight impaired travellers to navigate our way without getting smashed shins and feeling like we are seconds away from falling onto the tracks. Thank you also for making your announcements so clear and comprehensive. Most of all, thank you for training your staff so well so that they are able to make this service one of the best I have ever used.

In my experience, the Gautrain has proven accessible to a blind traveller. Furthermore, it provides facilities for mobility-impaired passengers (i.e wheelchair friendly access and disabled friendly toilets at all stations) as well as deaf or hard of hearing persons. The service optimizes all the sensory cues (audible, tactile and visual) that one can expect a disabled person to rely on. I felt safe and confident in the capable hands of the Gautrain staff. I will definitely make use of this word class service in the future. As a Capetonian, I still find myself a little jealous of Gauteng for having such a smooth and accessible public transport service.

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Chris and Tamlyn standing at the map of the Gautrain rail system at OR Tambo International Airport
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Chris and Tamlyn standing in from of the Gautrain on the platform at OR Tambo International airport

*Writer’s Footnote: This article is Part 1 of a 6 part series all about travelling by rail as a blind passenger in Southern Africa. All these articles will be combined to make up the story “Tales from the Rails” to be published when completed. I hope that you have enjoyed the read and if so please share. Part 2 will be the story of travelling on a 3 day journey about the most luxurious train in the world, the Rovos Rail. Watch this space.

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