Irma Venter [Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Engineering News]


It would probably be fair to say that Golden Arrow Bus Services (GABS) has seen the best and worst the South African transport industry has to offer. The company this year celebrates its 158th birthday, with its roots tracing back through an unbroken chain of acquisitions and mergers to the very first bus service ever operated in Cape Town in 1861.


The idea for a bus company in Cape Town was first put forward by newspaper editor JH Silberbauer in the Cape of Good Hope and Port Natal Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, explains GABS CEO Francois Meyer.



The article, which ran on November 9, 1860, suggested that trams could provide a potential solution for the transport problem in the Cape Town area.


The article caught the eye of Argus newspaper founder Henry Solomon, who was so impressed by the possibility of such a system that he set to work – this lead to the formation of The Cape Town & Green Point Tramway Company after the passing of the Green Point Tramway Company Act of Parliament in 1861.

The tracks were laid from Somerset road in the direction of Green Point, and extended to Sea Point a short while later, says Meyer.



The trams proved to be quite a hit, with 2 500 passengers carried within the first three weeks, over the space of ten daily weekday return trips and five return trips on Sunday.


Today, Cape Town trams are no more, with the service replaced by buses and trains. And, as The Cape Town & Green Point Tramway Company had to face the changeover from trams to buses, it now again faces an electrification and digitalisation revolution, while it also has to contend with the possibility of reduced public transport subsidies.


Daily Operations

GABS, with its sister company, Sibanye Bus Services, operates 1 124 buses in the Cape metropolitan area.


“Our services extend from Atlantis, in the north, to Somerset West, in the east, and Simons Town, in the south,” notes Meyer.


Golden Arrow operates within the Cape metropole as a scheduled commuter bus service.


Another sister company, ElJoSa Travel & Tours, operates scholar transport services in Cape Town and Gauteng, as well as luxury tours nationally.


Golden Arrow is owned by Hosken Passenger Logistics & Rail (HPL&R), which is, in turn, owned by Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI), a black economic empowerment investment holding group listed on the JSE.


HCI’s major shareholder is the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union.


Through HCI’s ownership, Golden Arrow holds a Level 2 empowerment rating.


GABS employs about 1 600 duty bus drivers and 2 700 staff in total, says Meyer.


“On an average working day, we move 230 000 passengers, but we do at times carry more than 250 000 passengers a day.”


Together, GABS and Sibanye operate 1 124 buses during the peak periods.


“Since 2000, we have bought 1 221 new buses, which is an average of 64 a year,” notes Meyer.


“Buses scheduled for replacement during 2019 are between 16 and 18 years old.


“The life cycle of a bus is dependent on a number of factors, but buses can, in general, operate in excess of a million kilometres during their life time. New buses cost more than R2-million each.”



Each year, the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works (DTPW) is allocated a public transport operating grant (PTOG), determined by the Division of Revenue Act (DORA), to contract out the provision of public transport services.


In turn, Golden Arrow is contracted by the DTPW to operate a scheduled commuter service of 4 836 daily trips and about 36-million passenger kilometres a year.


In addition to this, GABS operates four- million passenger kilometres a year without receiving any subsidy.


The national government, recognising the inability of many citizens to meet the true economic cost of daily commuting, allocates these public transport grants, or subsidies, to assist commuters, explains Meyer.


“It’s the commuters, and not the bus company itself, who receive government support via a transport subsidy.


“Bus companies receive no more than they would otherwise have, had the passengers concerned not been eligible for government assistance and had they paid the full economic fare.”


With one-way passenger flow (into town in the morning and back again in the afternoon), long distances covered (from informal settlements into town) and low off-peak demand, bus operators would not be able to continue providing services at the current cost levels without subsidies to make up the shortfall, emphasises Meyer.


Most commuter bus services in South Africa and internationally, operating on government contracts, require operating subsidies in order to adhere to contract specifications to provide services according to approved timetables, to construct depots and to recapitalise and maintain their fleet in a responsible way, he adds.


“It should be noted that Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit service receives up to six times the subsidy per bus in comparison to the subsidy allocated to Golden Arrow for the provision of conventional commuter bus services.”


In October 2018, MyCiTi transported an average of 60 913 passengers on a weekday, compared with GABS’s 230 000 passengers.


However, each MyCiTi passenger trip is more likely to replace a private vehicle journey than a GABS journey.


Funding Challenges

GABS’s primary funding concern is that the DORA allocation to the PTOG does not increase at the same rate as transport inflation does, particularly in terms of personnel and fuel costs.


This has halted the expansion of commuter bus services, despite rapidly increasing urbanisation in the major cities of South Africa, notes Meyer.


“In addition to this, government instituted a moratorium on new bus contracts in 2001, with existing contracts being rolled over in preparation for a new system, which would ostensibly be a negotiated or tendered regime.


“This, however, has not materialised. Subsidised bus operators are governed by interim contracts with unreasonable month-to-month extensions for the past two decades.


“This short-term horizon has made longer-term investment decisions highly problematic and no progress has been forthcoming regarding the new tender regime,” laments Meyer.


Section 41 of the National Land Transport Act does, however, provide a measure of relief for interim contract operators in that it prescribes the integration of such operations by way of negotiations into integrated public transport networks as outlined in the Act, he adds.


“The GABS operating model is in the main predicated upon the ruthless maintenance of efficiencies across the supply chain by optimising fuel consumption and curbing labour costs, both of which collectively constitute more than half of total operating expenses.”


With government having stated its objective to reduce the subsidies provided for public transport operators, GABS, however, faces a fresh challenge.


South African bus services are defined by one-way passenger flow, long distances and low off-peak demand, and these negatively affect asset utilisation, says Meyer.


“If subsidies were to be reduced, fares would, regrettably, have to be increased.”


Meyer adds that demand for reliable, afford- able and safe public transport is “unquestionably” a basic human need in a rapidly increasing urban environment.


“As the custodian of public funds, government is obligated to ensure that citizens have access to mobility in order to pursue economic opportunities, engage in social interaction and have access to educational and health services.”


He believes a large section of the urban population is dependent on bus services as a critical public transport mode.


“However, with rising fuel and labour costs, the State has to provide subsidies in order for the vast majority of urban dwellers, trapped by the legacy of skewed apartheid spatial development, to access bus services at a nominal cost.


“Subsidies should, therefore, be increased at levels that are commensurate with rises in the operational costs of bus operators in order to ensure a measure of sustainability of their businesses – which includes fleet replacement and new technologies, and to ensure affordability for poor commuters who have limited mobility options.”


Urban Design

Increased subsidies are, however, not the only assistance that could potentially be offered to bus operators.


There are a number of key areas in which local government can assist to optimise bus services, says Meyer.


Apartheid spatial planning and the urban sprawl effect mean many South Africans have to travel long distances to get to work each day.


Transit-orientated development could play a key role going forward, but this is a long-term solution, says Meyer.


Reducing congestion could also help.


“Our buses operate in mixed traffic, which means that congestion affects our services negatively,” he notes.


“Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus service has its own dedicated lane for Phase 1A, which works well, but Golden Arrow’s operations traverse the entire metropole and dedicated lanes on all routes are simply not feasible.”


In terms of municipal owned bus terminals, there is “a dire need for refurbishment”, which would significantly improve the public transport experience for many users, notes Meyer.


A stable political environment would also be of assistance.


“A large percentage of our services are operated in areas where political protests and unrest are a regular occurrence,” says Meyer.


“[Owing] to the size of our vehicles, we are often targeted during unrest. We work closely with the authorities and our own officials on the ground to try to avoid potentially volatile areas.


“We do, however, do everything possible to ensure that our passengers are still able to access our services, including moving our operations to the periphery of volatile areas.”


In an effort to improve safety on Golden Arrow buses, 20 City of Cape Town law enforcement officers took up duties in September to ensure safety on Golden Arrow buses.


This is after a memorandum of agreement was signed by the city’s law enforcement department and the bus service to combat the spate of bus attacks that have occurred in recent years.


Tech Revolution

Meyer says GABS understands the value of technological innovation and is, therefore, rolling out a number of initiatives to improve operational efficiencies, as well as the passenger experience.


“We are currently rolling out a free Wi-Fi service to all our buses, which will enable passengers to use an entertainment platform and make use of 40 MB of data twice a day,” says Meyer.


“The project has been rolled out to more than half the fleet and we are very excited to see how this can be expanded in future.”


GABS is also looking into the creation of a customised mobile app that would provide its passengers with real-time scheduling information.


“In 2018, we completed the roll-out of our Automated Fare Collection (AFC) system,” adds Meyer.


AFC makes provision for the selling and updating of contactless smart cards at various points, and controls cash fare and smart card validation aboard Golden Arrow’s buses.


It is also reconfigurable, should it be decided in future to institute a universal payment system across all modes of public transport.


“The system provides us with operational information that will enable improved asset utilisation and efficiencies,” notes Meyer.


“When combined with business intelligence technology, we can see the company moving into an exciting new era in which data analy- tics will drive our service offerings and allow us to tailor our services to the specific needs of our passengers.”


In terms of the buses themselves, Meyer says GABS would ideally like to reduce their reliance on diesel through the use of green technologies.


“We are looking to test new-technology vehicles in the near future.


“However, the cost, even in the testing phase, remains prohibitive at this stage, with green technology, such as electric buses, costing more than double the price of diesel buses.”


Incentives or funding from government to assist in the testing phase would no doubt improve the speed at which these new technologies are incorporated into the South African market, states Meyer.


“In the interim, we remain dependent on diesel. However, all buses purchased since January last year are fitted with electronics to improve fuel consumption. These include an automatic neutral shift, hill hold and accelerator limiter.”


Looking to Freight, Travel-on-Demand

As part of its strategic objectives, GABS’s holding company, HPL&R, is focused on organic growth in commuter bus services, while also pursuing opportunities in the logistics and executive travel market segments.


This is driven by the high demand for bus services in metropolitan Cape Town, which dictates that the commuter bus market has the potential to accommodate up to 3 000 buses, says Meyer.


“This provides opportunities for GABS to significantly extend its service footprint.


“Concurrently, ongoing research and development is being undertaken to tap into the digital travel-on-demand regime, akin to Uber services, [as well as] exploring opportunities in the freight and the broader logistics market as part of the company’s overall strategy to diversify its service offerings in light of possible dwindling subsidy allocations in a constrained fiscal environment.”





Gavin Myers
It’s often said that any type of successful relationship in the transport industry needs to be based on mutual trust and confidence. The recent handover of the 1 000th MAN bus to Golden Arrow Bus Services (GABS) proves this beyond any doubt. GAVIN MYERS reports.

In March 2011, the 500th MAN bus was handed over to GABS. Since then, the company has procured an average of 100 MAN buses a year – which accounts for approximately 20 percent of MAN bus sales in the local market.

“It was 15 years ago that we took delivery of our first MAN bus, but the relationship actually started two years earlier,” explains Francois Meyer, CEO of GABS. “Relationships such as this don’t happen overnight, and there are four essential components necessary to reach the milestone of 1 000 buses.”

With an investment approaching R1,4 billion over the 17-years, the most obvious component is a sound relationship.


“MAN has gone out of its way to build this relationship. No company would spend the money if that relationship isn’t strong,” says Meyer.
Special guest at the handover event was MAN senior vice president for international markets, Jeroen Lagarde, who agreed unequivocally.


“At MAN there is a philosophy of collaborating with our clients to produce efficient and safe transport solutions. Our relationship with GABS is an excellent example of this. We have a dedicated team that interacts with the engineers at GABS on a regular basis ensuring the company gets the bus it needs.


“This relationship also involves over a dozen self-service centres operated by GABS. They are all MAN accredited and supported by our MAN parts centre,” explains Lagarde.


According to Meyer, the second important component is the product itself. “The Lions Explorer is the workhorse of the South African commuter bus industry. It is a wonderful product that works well,” he says.


Lagarde adds: “With 14 models and 26 derivatives offered to the local market, MAN offers more than just seats on wheels.” (See “Constant Collaboration” for more details about the 1 000th HB2.)


The third essential component – the passenger – is, according to Meyer, the most important one for GABS.


“We wouldn’t need 1 000 buses if we didn’t have the passengers. I do hope that we continue to improve the product and the service for the passengers. Every GABS employee does their best, 365 days a year, to make this happen,” he beams.
Beyond this, it is necessary to ensure that each passenger has a safe and reliable journey – this is a priority that both MAN and GABS place above all others.


“We continually provide innovative technology to make our vehicles as safe as possible. However, technology alone cannot compensate for well-trained and competent drivers, and I’d like to congratulate GABS on its commitment to training its staff. We need to tip our hat to the company’s bus drivers for the important job they do,” Lagarde adds.


Meyer continues: “The last component is our provincial Department of Transport. We really have to work closely together. If our combined focus is to make the best decisions for the passenger, not much can go wrong.”


Keynote speaker at the handover was, in fact, the Western Cape Minister of Transport and Public Works, Donald Grant.


“In over 150 years of operation, GABS has remained true to its mission of ‘operating safe, reliable passenger transport services, designated to meet the needs of customers, by applying sound business principles to create a secure future for the company and its people’. The company’s longevity and service record is testament to its record of realising this mission.


“GABS provides an absolutely vital service for the people of Cape Town, and has solidified its place in the city. GABS will continue to be a crucial partner in our ongoing efforts to realise safe, efficient and reliable public transport for the hundreds of thousands of daily Cape commuters,” Grant concludes.

Constant Collaboration
The MAN Lion’s Explorer 18.240 4x2 BB – bus number 1 000 in the GABS fleet – has some distinctive features that place it above the class for commuter buses in South Africa.


According to Philip Kalil-Zackey, head of bus sales, MAN Truck & Bus SA, these extend to bonded windows, coach-style mirrors, side destination panels, daytime-running lights, USB chargers for each row of seats, on-board Wi-Fi and a full-GRP interior.


“The structure is 3CR12, which is a mild-grade stainless steel. It doesn’t rust and the body will outlast the vehicle’s life without being refurbished,” he explains. “It’s also stronger than mild steel. This means less steel is used, which reduces the weight by a tonne. Today this is a standard at MAN, but it was something that GABS pushed for in the beginning.”


Gideon Neethling, divisional engineer, GABS, explains that the company still has over 230 vehicles older than 15 years on the road. “Some have covered more than a million kilometres. We do 60 000 km a year across the fleet, of which MAN vehicles account for between 93 and 95 percent.”


The two teams work closely together. “There is a lot of collaboration – monthly and weekly meetings in some cases,” Kalil-Zackey explains. From driver training, to workshop competencies, uptime and fuel consumption, the teams are constantly looking for enhancements.


“We believe that you can only manage what you measure – so we measure the operation of everything on the bus. If we see there’s an area to improve, we then collaborate with MAN and the end result benefits both sides. That’s the beauty of the relationship,” Neethling smiles.

Article courtesy of Focus on Transport: http://www.focusontransport.co.za/index.php/regulars/focus-on-bus-and-coach/bus-and-coach/3098-four-step-programme.html




Road Safety is a major focus point for Golden Arrow and underpins every operational activity. Chief Executive Officer Francois Meyer wants it to play an even bigger role within organisational culture and as such two major projects are on the cards for 2017.


The Road Safety Pledge Campaign was rolled out during the last week of February across all company depots. It comprised a hard-hitting but also extremely entertaining industrial theatre production performed by a talented group of four actors from Karos and Kambro. The production cleverly portrays the working lives of bus drivers and delves into the consequences of lapses in judgement. Drivers were encouraged to connect emotionally to what they were seeing and audience reaction certainly indicated that the message was hitting home.


Thereafter drivers were asked to take a pledge, which comprises a number of driving traits that together embody what a Golden Arrow driver should strive to be. The individual pledge components were designed based on statistical information and focused on positive reinforcement rather than a punitive tone. Each driver was also given a badge which should be worn to signal to passengers and colleagues that they have taken the pledge.


Feedback from the drivers was very positive with many taking time to process what they were seeing. Duty bus driver Jacobus George stated that “if watching this play does not change the attitude of drivers and their driving behaviour, then nothing will”. Driver Satyelwa Citwa left the activation feeling inspired: “Since watching the play, I know why I am here at GABS, I am here for my family. I love my job, I love my passengers and I respect them.  There were so many things to think about, such as even If I have right of way I should exercise care not to collide with a third party vehicle. As from that day I promised myself I will not do anything that will put me or my job under pressure. I took the pledge and I want to live the pledge”.  Driver Xolani Nake says the play was really a big wake-up call. “They illustrated that the importance of safety and passenger care, I am more alert after the show, it gave me a reality check,” he says.


 According to GABS CEO Francois Meyer, this campaign is just one strategy to increase awareness around road safety. “This is just the beginning. We are constantly looking at innovative ways to entrench a culture of road safety in every Golden Arrow employee and this filters through to every meeting and every training session,” he says. For Meyer it’s not just about paying lip service. “At Golden Arrow we are not just a bus company, we take our responsibilities very seriously. I want every passenger to know that they are precious cargo and every bus driver to live our ethos every time they get behind the wheel,” he says.




The safe driving pledge:


  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I have taken the pledge.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and every one of my passengers is precious cargo.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I don’t allow anything to distract me.


  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I practise defensive driving.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I know when to stop.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I don’t use my cell phone when I’m behind the wheel.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I always maintain a safe following distance.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I know that safe driving begins with me.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I am considerate of other road users.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I watch out for children and pedestrians.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I don’t have a need for speed.




  1. I am a Golden Arrow Bus Driver and I only change lanes when it is safe to do so.





The Biannual Safety Refresher Course was re-introduced late last year after a thorough redesign. The course encourages  drivers to experience a sense of belonging and pride when they get to say that they are not just drivers, but rather that they are Golden Arrow Bus Drivers. It offers a mix of updated information and reinforcement of basic driving behaviours.


The course runs over a span of two-days, starting on a Tuesday/Wednesday. Drivers  then get back behind the wheel and begin to process what they have discussed. The following week, drivers return to reflect and provide feedback.


The course is presented as collaboration between two instructors. One of the instructors focuses on soft skills such as emotions, feelings, attitudes and behaviours, while the other focuses on practical driving behaviour and experiences. The elements covered in the course content include: personal emotions, passenger emotions, developing an excellent customer service mindset, chain reactions and how easily they are set in motion, valuing oneself as a driver and a person, company policies, national legislation, accidents and DriveCam training.