Rapid Rail Project Gets on Track: When Skepticism Threatens to Derail Support for the Multibillion-Rand Gautrain, South Africa's First World-Class Rapid Rail System, a Comprehensive Campaign Seeks to Improve Public Perception

Article excerpt

In 2005, South Africa's national cabinet approved the development of Gautrain, the country's first rapid rail service, in the Gauteng province. The multibillion-rand project would link the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg and the O.R. Tambo International Airport, with a total of 10 stations linked by 80 kilometers of rail, generating economic growth in the province, creating jobs, alleviating traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions. Urban commuters would be able to travel safely between cities at rapid speed--a first for the country. The first part of the route was to be completed in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which South Africa is hosting.

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The project addressed the region's accelerated economic growth and increased need for development and infrastructure delivery, with emphasis on developing the small- and medium-enterprise sector, increasing black economic empowerment, enhancing the skills of the local workforce, and promoting business tourism. In addition, the project aimed to promote urban restructuring by revitalizing the central business districts of the two cities that would be linked by the rapid rail train, Johannesburg and Tshwane.

Despite these benefits, Gautrain faced severe criticism from politicians, the media and the public. Many felt the funds should be allocated to existing public transportation systems, or invested in other development projects to alleviate poverty and provide essential social services. The nearly 700 public meetings held during Gautrain's environmental impact assessment in 2002 were volatile and reflected highly negative opinions. Existing public transport in South Africa is widely perceived as unreliable and unsafe, and many of Gautrain's critics were convinced that Gautrain would be beset by similar problems.

Still, the project was approved. In this climate, the main objective of the Gautrain media relations team was to influence media coverage and opinion to generate coverage that emphasized the benefits of Gautrain.

Goals and objectives The media relations team's goals were to:

* Achieve a minimum of 50 percent positive and very positive media coverage overall from May through July 2007.

* Achieve a minimum of 50 percent positive and very positive media coverage on major issues from May through July 2007. Major issues included the development of local engineering, science and technological skills; the 2010 World Cup; spatial development; construction; public transport; and the economy.

Solution and implementation

Since Gautrain is the first world-class rapid rail project in Africa and the second-biggest private-public partnership of its kind in the world, the need for education about the project was ongoing. Media messages were aimed at changing perceptions about public transport and educating potential consumers about the benefits of Gautrain--building relationships with communities affected by construction and securing future ridership.

Relationship building with 19 print journalists (including those from dailies, specialized media such as the Financial Mail and Engineering News, and community newspapers) started with an educational 10-day trip to London and Paris in October 2005. The objective was to give the journalists a comfortable, world-class public transportation experience, and to show them the maintenance yards and attributes of rapid rail, safety and security presentations, and control room workings of those cities' public transportation systems. …