Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thrissur to Bangalore: On a Kerala State RTC "Multiaxle"

I was fully undecided about my return journey after my vacation. Air Tickets for Sunday went at high rates, while I couldn't opt for a bus since I needed to be in Bangalore maximum by 4AM on monday. Tickets for buses leaving on Sunday were being sold for astronomical sums as well. I finally decided to take a bus on Saturday instead - and have a nice rest at home on Sunday, so that I can start off fresh on Monday. I decided to look for state buses - I hadn't travelled in a Kerala RTC multi-axle buses in a very long time - almost a year! This was the best opportunity for me to try them again - there were four options, and I briefly considered taking the last bus - but ruled out since that bus would reach Bangalore quite late in the morning. I finally decided to take the last Kerala RTC bus via Salem, which is the 1515hrs Trivandrum-Bangalore service. Booking was done online.

In the run up to my journey, I got a mild hint that I might get the Scania Metrolink 13.7M trial bus for my trip. Kerala RTC has been operating a Scania Metrolink HD 13.7M bus on trial bus since the past three months. They've been operating the bus on different routes since then, and had been shifted to the Trivandrum-Salem-Bangalore route a few weeks earlier. Going my spotting calculations, it would be the Scania trial bus that takes me back to Bangalore.

November 14, 2015:
Sometime past 1430hrs - I was busy roaming around in Ernakulam. An SMS popped up in my phone - that was the message containing details of the bus and the crew that would take me back to Bangalore. Next to the word Bus Number was the word "Scania" instead of any bus number! I jumped up in joy - it was indeed the trial bus that would take me back to Bangalore! I was really excited to have made it to the trial run by chance!

I left home sometime after 1915, after my dinner. My dad dropped me at the nearest bus stop. For some reason, no buses turned up for quite some time.As the time ticked past, I got tensed, and started thinking of alternatives. I finally got a bus that goes upto Irinjalakkuda, some 20 kms before Thrissur. From there, I got into an autorickshaw for the last leg. I made it to Thrissur by around 2100hrs. The bus station appeared unusually crowded - buses that left the bus station was also crowded - especially those heading to northern Kerala. I was to meet fellow busfan, Sankar, at the bus station - he was coming in from Ernakulam by a Bangalore bound bus - on calling him, I realised that there was heavy traffic, and his bus was still about 10kms away from Thrissur.

In the meantime, I ran into a conductor of Thrissur depot, whom I know fairly well - we stood there talking for quite some time, and by then Sankar's bus came in to the bus station. I came to know from him that there was heavy traffic block in Ernakulam, and all buses coming from that side was heavily delayed. I called up the conductor of my bus (using the phone number mentioned in the message I recevied), and he informed that the bus was atleast an hour away (about 70 kms away in Aluva). Sankar and I stood discussing a lot of KSRTC related stuff. Sometime towards 2300hrs, he headed out of Thrissur in a Guruvayur bound bus. I decided to have a tea and a fried Banana Fritter (പഴംപൊരി, അതിനാണ്) in the meantime.
The bus: KL-07-CD-6026 (photo from archives)
The Scania trial bus, KL-07-CD-6026, pulled into the bus station at 2304hrs. I had actually been standing at an empty platform - I was fairly confident that my bus would pull in there itself, since the other platforms were full. I was right - the bus came and stopped exactly where I was. In fact, the driver stopped a little before the platform, opened the door and let the second driver out - who guided the driver to the platform without ground the bus on the concrete vehicle stoppers. The second driver saw me carrying a bag, and asked if I had a reservation in the bus - when I said yes, he quickly opened the dickey  and let me leave my baggage in there. The conductor wasn't permitting passengers in, since a lot of passengers were alighting at Thrissur. I finally got in to the bus after he began boarding - there was no fuss about checking tickets - he just asked for my seat number and let me in. As soon as he let me in, he handed over a bottle of water to me. I was reserved in one of the last rows (purposefully, to enjoy the engine notes). I was quite surprised by the fact that the bus was full! Except the seats for those boarding at Thrissur, all seats were full! The conductor came around to do a headcount just before starting from Thrissur - since no blankets were on my seat, I asked him for one. His answer was atrocious - Its kept on the luggage rack, you can take it if you want. Probably my facial expression got him a message - he took one and handed over to me.

We finally pulled out of Thrissur bus station at 2314hrs. Instead of turning towards Sakthan nagar, and then towards Mannuthy, the driver headed straight towards Thrissur round, and then towards Wadakkanchery. I am not a fan of this route, primarily because the road is too windy, and it isn't a very comfortable ride if you are in a bus. The driver was quite fast, and honked quite often on this route. The bus had a musical horn - and it was a bit irritating. The seat felt a bit congested - might be only a feeling though. The engine sounded louder than in the Airavat Diamond Class bus that I came in, but the ride quality was far better. The suspension felt softer than the inbound bus.

The driver was very fast, and the body roll was very pronounced due to the winding roads - I couldn't sleep throughout the time the bus was on this route. We finally pulled into Palakkad bus station at 0034hrs, and parked near the fuel station. I am not sure if we took fuel from here, but a couple of passengers joined. We started off from Palakkad at 0049hrs. By now, sleep overpowered me, and I fell asleep in no time. The ride got comfortable after we left Palakkad - it got more stable, and there were lesser body rolls. The blanket was very heavy - it was made of the thick wool and not of synthetic fleece. I felt a bit uncomfortable in the blanket - but it was long and wide. The AC temperature felt perfect as well.

The sleep was very comfortable, and continuous. I vaguely remember seeing the bus pull in for a tea break - the time was around 0530, and it was near Krishnagiri toll (if I recognised correctly). I had another nice sleep, and woke up just as the bus pulled in to the Attibele toll gate (0628). I decided not to continue my sleep and instead pulled up the backrest. The driver was quite fast, and he kept overtaking vehicles through every possible lane - but I do not recall any rash maneuvers.We stopped at Hebbagodi (0642) to drop a passenger - the conductor got off the bus everytime to open the boot. Soon after we left Hebbagodi, I fired up a few taxi operator apps on my phone, and checked the availability of cabs at Silkboard. Kerala RTC crew have this habit of going through the BETL Elevated road instead of going below.

I wanted to confirm if the bus would go on the flyover or below - but I did not have to ask - the bus headed towards the flyover toll gate, and stopped to drop passengers getting off at Electronic City (0647hrs). I confirmed a cab as soon as we started from the toll gate. A couple of minutes after we entered the flyover, I decided to head to the cabin. I took a seat in the second row, instead of standing in the cabin. I was finally dropped at the beginning of silk board flyover at 0656hrs. The conductor opened the boot for me - my bag was easily reachable and I did not have a problem getting it out. However, that was not the case for a co-passenger - his bag had reached the other end of the luggage space - the conductor refused to help the passenger in retrieving the bag.

The 480-odd kms journey took 7h42m - including 15 minutes lost at Palakkad and some more time for the tea break near Krishnagiri. The running time was great for the distance. The bus had clocked over 70000kms - and seemed well maintained. There were no rattles - other than those caused by baggage hitting on the baggage racks. The engine seemed louder - I am not sure if that was a feeling or if there was difference between the buses that I am comparing. The ride was definitely softer. The leg space felt tight compared to Volvos. The overall ride quality was better than a Volvo. The crew behaviour is a major let down - the conductor did not seem very helpful. Helping passengers with their baggage is a small thing - but goes a long way in enhancing their travel experience. This was my first experience in a trial bus, and perhaps this was also the first time that Kerala RTC operated a non-KL15 registered bus on an interstate route. And, this was, perhaps, also the last trip of the trial bus on the trip - the bus has been returned to Scania, since.

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, did not use.
Entertainment: Available, not used

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4.5/5
Crew behaviour: 4/5
Punctuality: 4.5/5 (Left almost two hours late, and arrival was behind schedule)

Overall: 4.5/5

Will I take this service again? Kerala RTC Multi-axle buses are the cheapest on the road on weekdays, but the crew behaviour is a major let down. I'd surely try them for their timings and fare.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

First ride on Airavat Diamond Class: Bangalore to Thrissur

Scania was launched in India about two years back. The initial product as only the 14.5M variant, followed by the 12M and the 13.7M variants. The first institutional buyer to purchase the 13.7m variant was the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. KSRTC went in for a new brand name for the Scanias, and called them the Airavat Diamond Class. The basic question, like everyone asked, was - what is the difference between the Diamond Class and the Club Class. One primary difference was that Club Class used Volvo B9Rs and Mercedes Benz Multi-Axle buses, while Diamond Class used newer Scania Metrolink HD 13.7m multi-axle buses. Club Class buses have a seating capacity of 49 (44 semi-sleeper seats and 5 regular 'executive' seats), while Diamond Class buses have only 46 seats - all semi-sleeper. The fares are the same in both the classes.

Airavat Diamond Class was first inducted into the KSRTC fleet sometime during the end of June 2015. They initially replaced the first set of Mercedes Benz Multi-axle buses, while the second set of Diamond Class buses replaced a few Volvo B9R buses. With a decreasing frequency of travels, more specifically bus travels, I did not get an opportunity to try the ADCs (Airavat Diamond Class) for a very long time. The first opportunity came when I got a short vacation last week. My leave request was approved quite late in the evening, meaning I couldn't travel that day. I decided to have a very nice sleep that night and travel the next night. I booked the ticket at the Shantinagar bus station ticket counter - only the last three rows were available, and I had to settle with seat #37.

November 08, 2015:
Since this was a trip planned at a very short notice, I had very little time to pack. After a quick dinner, I left home at around 2015hrs, with my brother. He dropped me at Shantinagar bus station sometime around 2045hrs. My bus, KA-57-F-1620, was already parked at the platform (#1). Boarding hadn't started since they hadn't received the reservation chart yet. I went around the bus station for sometime - all the platforms were already choked with buses. With Deepavali round the corner, there was heavy rush on most of the routes out of Bangalore - especially ones to Tamil Nadu. I returned to the platform by around 2105hrs - by now, boarding had already commenced. Since mine was a regular counter issued ticket, the conductor did not ask for identity proof, and he stuck off my number on the reservation chart and let me into the bus.
KA-57-F-1620, taken after I got off at Thrissur
My seat (#37) was located in the third last row of the bus - and, as I had feared, the baby was sleeping on my window! This meant, I'd not be able to see anything outside, and it would be a blind journey for me! Well, thats good in a way - I'd sleep instead of looking outside. Since buses queue one behind the other, buses do not depart on time from Shantinagar, but depart on the first in first out style. My bus kept moving ahead every time a bus ahead in the queue departed. We finally started off from Shantinagar bus station, at 2128hrs (11 minutes behind schedule). My first impressions were - the engine was silent (compared to the competition), but the ride was very very stiff - the bus threw up its passengers at speed breakers and potholes. The horizontal sways were also on the higher side. The steerable rear axle made things very comfortable for the driver - tight turns were handled with ease.
The emergency exit row - XL sized leg room is available here.
Interiors - seen from my seat. Notice the narrower gangway.
The bus was mostly empty when we started from Shantinagar - more passengers joined us at Dairy Circle (2136hrs) and Madiwala (2144hrs). Traffic came to a standstill as we reached Madiwala Market. We crawled till Silkboard flyover - where we had to stay still for some time. Traffic eased after Bommanahalli. The driver was very calm. One thing I really liked was that the bus wouldn't give an opportunity to the driver to lug the bus - its an automated manual transmission (Scania calls it the OptiCruise) and the gear would shift down the moment the rpm drops. We reached Electronic City at 2214hrs and left at 2216hrs - that is almost an hour from Shantinagar to Electronic City (its actually less, thanks to it being a Sunday).
The last row has only 4 seats, and is also a semi-sleeper.
I was expecting heavy traffic snarls at Attibele border region - Bangaloreans have a fetish of buying crackers from Hosur, and it was Diwali season. For some reason, traffic seemed very light this time - we passed Attibele at 2231hrs, and reached the Hosur pick-up point by 2239hrs! As we finished the last pick-up, the bus had all of 7 vacant seats! That is 39 seats occupied out of 46 seats on a Sunday night! Absolutely great loads for a Sunday. I decided to sleep. Interestingly, no movie/music was played - setting the atmosphere for a nice sleep. The only irritant was the bright night lamp - the night lamps were so bright that you really don't need other lighting in the bus.
This is how it looks with the night lamps on - its too bright!
The bus pulled into Hotel Saravana Bhavan Classic just before Krishnagiri for a dinner break (2314hrs). The Bangalore-Thrissur Airavat Club Class, which left about 5 minutes before us, was just preparing to depart after dinner. The ac was switched off as we stopped for dinner - it was getting sultry inside, and I got off the bus. I walked around outside taking some pics - very few passengers got off the bus, and hardly anyone went into the hotel. I always felt they need to skip this dinner break, and instead offer a washroom break later in the trip. We started off after the break at 2335hrs (a 21 minute break). I had a nice long sleep after the break - I had two seats at my disposal, and used most of it.
The bus when we stopped for dinner. Notice the lighting on the steps.
The AC vents of Scania buses have a unique problem - they have a very shallow range of directions - they move hardly 10 degrees. The problem is complex if you push back the seat backrest to the maximum - the air flows only until your waist. The most user friendly ac vents are in Volvo B9Rs - no doubt. It took me sometime to find a comfortable sleeping position. I slept in no time after I found the comfortable position. I had a very nice, undisturbed sleep - bad patches of road did wake me briefly. The suspension was too hard, and it transferred the roughness of the road to the passengers. Body roll was on the higher side, especially when the driver took turns at higher speeds. The sleep was so comfortable that I woke up when the bus was actually starting off from Sakthan Nagar bus station in Thrissur! I jumped off the seat, collected my belongings as headed towards the cabin. By now, the bus entered the KSRTC bus station. The actual driver was fast asleep and the driver-cum-conductor was at the wheels - he stopped the bus, switched on the lights and then started calling for passengers alighting at Thrissur. The time now was 0604hrs - a good 6 minutes before time!

The 480-odd kms journey took 8h36m, including a 21 minute break - so that brings the actual running time down to 8h15 minutes. Thats a great running time - considering the fact that the Bangalore-Thrissur Airavat Club Class, which left atleast 20 minutes before us from the dinner break point, arrived a good 10 minutes after I reached Thrissur! Airavat crew are known for their attempts to extract the maximum mileage out of buses - and the most commonly used trick is to shift to the highest gear and maintain rpms closer to the idle rpm. While this is not a great thing to do, the drivers extract the maximum mileage. This happens at the cost of timing - the bus never sticks to the schedule. The new automated transmission system (OptiCruise) makes this impossible - the bus would downshift if the driver attempted this. The only solution here was to ensure the bus picked pace, and maintained decent speeds and thus keep rpm under control and extract mileage. This is what happened with my bus - this meant the bus actually travelled faster than a Volvo and hence reached before time. I'd suggest people to book in an Airavat Diamond Class, solely for the fact that the driver has to drive faster and hence you, theoretically, have the possibility of reaching on time!

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, and kept ON throughout
Entertainment: Available, not used

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 (Left 11 minutes late, reached 6 minutes early)

Overall: 5/5

Will I take this service again? Sure! And Why wouldn't I ? Definitely recommended.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pune to BLR: on a Niner Whisky B738

I hadn't flown a Jet Airways B738 anytime before this trip. I had to opt for a Monday morning flight since Sunday evening flights were selling at astronomical rates. It turned cheaper to stay overnight at Pune and take a Monday morning flight instead. The cheapest flight of the day was an IndiGo, and the next was a Jet Airways - the fare difference being under Rs. 300! It made sense to pick Jet over IndiGo - since I'd anyway spend that difference in another way. Ticketing was done on the Jet Airways website itself, and the eticket popped up in my mailbox within minutes.

October 05, 2015:
I was wary of Pune's traffic and hence opted to leave my hotel early. I was also wary about the last minute availability of cabs in Pune (my previous experience was scary). I prebooked a cab the previous night itself, and opted for a 0900hrs pickup. The cab arrived perfectly on time, but checkout from hotel took longer than expected. We started off from there around 0905hrs. As expected, the traffic on the way was heavy - it was complete standstill at some places. Despite all, we reached the airport by 0945hrs. I got into the airport quickly, and completed check-in by 0948hrs. I cleared security by 0951hrs. The airport looked quite deserted, and I had almost two hours to go for my flight. Pune is a very dry airport - there was no activity in the airport at all. But my opinion changed rapidly in the time that came after.
My Boarding pass..
I was continuously tracking the incoming aircraft. The aircraft would fly in from Kolkata to Pune, via Mumbai, before flying as 9W2842 to Bangalore. I was in for another Boeing Sky Interior aircraft again this time! It would be Juliet Foxtrot Alpha flying me to Bangalore today! The aircraft was sitting in Mumbai at that time. I was getting bored to the core, as the clock crawled slowly. I was hooked to FR24 all the time, and spotted no less than three aircrafts holding around Pune! The runway was closed due to air force operations through the period. As I was looking at the various aircrafts roaming around Pune, I find one of them entering finals. In the meantime, the IndiGo gate comes alive and a gate agent begins calling boarding for Nagpur/Delhi. In no time, a long line was formed, but they hadn't begun letting passengers.
Snapshots from FR24 tracking the incoming aircraft..
The first aircraft to come was IndiGo A320, VT-INS (1027hrs). As the aircraft taxi'd into the apron, the IndiGo agent's radio crackled INS operating One Three Four. I was expecting this rotation to go to COK, since that is the rotation normally. Soon after, VT-IED came in (1036hrs) - this was to head to BLR/COK instead. By now, boarding for both flights were in progress. Boarding for NAG/DEL was almost one. By the time passengers from the incoming sector deplaned, the passengers for the next sector were ready to board. The apron got busy by now - two IndiGos were already here, soon a SpiceJet B738 (VT-SGH) came in. Soon VT-INS was pushed back, and around the same time, VT-IEM came in. The apron was kept busy all the while with continuous streams of arrivals and departures.
The security hold area..
The aircraft that would work my flight was already holding over Pune. The steady stream of arrivals continued. In the meantime, the gate agent announced a delay in departure due to technical reasons, and our ETD was now revised to 1145hrs. A long line of impatient passengers had already formed, and quite a lot of them were mobbing the counter already. The aircraft finally landed at 1116hrs. As soon as the aircraft came to the apron, they began boarding for my flight. I decided to remain till the queue reached where I was. In the meantime, another Jet Airways aircraft (VT-JGR) came in. My turn to board came at 1133hrs - it was a very long walk from the waiting area to the aircraft. One has to walk a long way from the gate to an escalator to head to the lower level, and then walk out to the apron to reach the aircraft. There was a mix up of passengers in the apron - passengers were deplaning still from VT-JGR, while passengers boarding for my flight were crossing each other on the apron.
Boarding VT-JFA
Date of Journey: October 04, 2015
Flight No: 9W2842 || Seat: 35F
Aircraft type: Boeing 737-800 (WL) || Regn: VT-JFA
Sector: PNQ-BLR
STD: 1125hrs, ATD: 1144hrs
STA: 1255hrs, ATA: 1312hrs

The ground staff at the aircraft had to check every boarding pass thoroughly before letting passengers in. I boarded from the rear stairs, and got into the aircraft by 1141hrs. By now, boarding was mostly complete, and the attendants were already closing the overhead racks. Boarding was completed by 1143hrs (even before I reached my seat), and doors were armed by the time I sat down (1144hrs). The attendants prepared the cabin for departure. Safety demo commenced soon after. In the deck were Capt Riyaz and First Officer Sitanshu. Amol, Dheeraj, Sandesh, Karan and Soha were in the cabin. It was predominantly male crew - Soha was the sole female attendant on board. We were pushed back at 1147hrs. Taxi commenced at 1150hrs. Since Runway 28 was in use, it was a very very long taxi. We reached the holding point for Rwy28 at 1156hrs - at the very same time SpiceJet's Q400 VT-SUL came in (from Hyderabad?). We took off from Rwy28 at 1158hrs.
Inside VT-JFA..
We climbed quite fast in the West direction before turning around to head South-East. The seatbelt sign was turned off at 1203hrs. Soon after the seatbelt signs were turned off, the attendants got to their job. Passengers with special requests were served first - I was in one of the last rows (#35F), and my food took a long time to come. The service on this leg seemed better than what it was on the outbound. Food was served in a tray this time as well. The tray was well laid out - it had a veg roll packed in a paper cover, a bottle of water, KitKat chocolate, imli candy and the dairy whitener kit, along with the SkyMart brochure.
The meal tray..
The roll - had to tear open the cover to see how it looks like!
Beverage service..
The vegetarian roll was overheated this time as well - it stuck to the cover badly, that I had to tear open the entire cover to have the roll. The filling was less tasty compared to the outbound. I absolutely hate substituting a dessert for a chocolate - instead of a chocolate, they could've given a muffin! The meal service was followed by beverages - I opted for tea this time as well. The flight was largely uneventful - it was cloudy for quite some time. Landed was announced at 1251hrs. By now, the airport was already in sight far away. We were flying Eastwards now, before turning around to align to Rwy27 of Bangalore. We finally touched down at 1306hrs.
Somewhere enroute..
Spotting Bangalore airport far away...
Banking to align to the runway
Full reversers deployed after touchdown...
The AI A319 being pushed back to let us enter our parking stand..
We vacated the runway quickly and entered the apron - but had to wait for quite sometime, since an AirIndia A319 was being pushed back. We finally parked at a jetway stand at 1312hrs. I was out of the aircraft only by 1323hrs - I waited till the crowd to de-board settled down. But waiting in the aircraft turned beneficial to me - baggage took a very very long time to come. I got my bag only by 1332hrs. I had to rush to office after that - a very heavy rain followed afterwards.
VT-JFA after reaching BLR..
Check-in: 5/5 (Had web checked in - used the counter to get my boarding pass and drop my baggage)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 3/5 (Left late, reached late)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 4/5 (Overheated, no proper dessert)
Overall: 4.5/5
Tracking from FR24..
Summary: Overall a good flight. Delay was improperly handled this time too. Food was overheated, and substituting a dessert with a chocolate in unacceptable. This was another normal flight - nothing special to cherish, and nothing worth cribbing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Shirdi to Pune, via Nagar: An MSRTC Experience

I wanted to reach back in Pune before it was too dark - and I wanted to have a very peaceful sleep before I head back to Bangalore on Monday morning. I had the option of taking a private Volvo, or trying my luck in the long distance Volvos that operate out of Shirdi towards places in the South. I ruled out both, and briefly thought of taking a non-ac bus through to Pune from Shirdi. The lure of travelling in an MSRTC Shivneri after long 8 years kept me in suspended animation. Since there were no direct Shivneri services to Pune from Shirdi, I had two options - one, to go to Nashik and take a bus from there to Pune (adds to my travelling distance and time), second - to catch a Shivneri from Ahmednagar (Nagar) - this was the most feasible of options. 

The MSRTC online reservation website is a bit confusing - it doesn't show the pick-up timing at your pick-up point when you search for buses. On searching for Shivneri buses from Nagar to Pune, a list of 15 services popped up - I initially thought the timings shown were for pick-up from Nagar. The timings that popped up were a bit unfeasible to me - but out of curiosity, I opened the detailed stops list and realised that the timings shown were the time at the service origin. I finally picked a bus that would pick me from Nagar at around 3pm - this bus would leave Aurangabad at 1300hrs, and the ticket mentioned a pick-up time at Nagar, of 1515hrs. This meant I could leave Shirdi around 1100hrs, have lunch at Nagar and still have some buffer time for my onward bus. 

Shivneri is a brand used by MSRTC for their premium luxury lineup of buses. The brand name was first used sometime in 2002, with the initial services operating on the Dadar - Pune route. Volvo B7R coaches with a blue colour scheme was used for these services. Although a lot of routes were tried, the services succeeded only in a few, and they grew strong on those routes. The Pune-Aurangabad was one such route. The Shivneri services were unique in the fact that they generally operated without conductors (except the long routes), and one had to purchase a ticket before hand and then enter the coach. 

October 04, 2015:
After a very contenting darshan at Sai Baba's samadhi, I came back to my room to take some rest. On my way back from the temple, I quickly checked the availability of buses to Nagar from Shirdi - I was told, they are available in plenty. The crowd was average as well - so I had no reason for worry. I checked out of the hotel room by around 1100hrs, and crossed the road to reach the bus station. Since I had baggage with me, I had to ensure I get a seat in the bus. The busfan in me also wanted me to travel in an "Ordinary Express" bus of MSRTC - which is the lowest class of service (by fare) operated by MSRTC. I also wanted to travel by a newer bus. Sometime around 1130hrs, a green coloured bus pulled in, with a board reading Pune. I checked with the conductor if it would go to Nagar, he replied in affirmative, and I got into the bus. Only the last row was available - although that means a rough ride, I decided to go ahead. 
The Ticket - its entirely in Devnagri, including the total fare. The fare was Rs. 95.
Interiors of the bus. The bus had 2x2 seating with fixed back.
The bus, MH20BL3385 of Shirpur depot, was working a Shirpur-Pune schedule. We started off from Shirdi at 1136hrs. The, approximately, 90kms ride cost me Rs. 95. The driver was fast from the word go. The bus kept making stops every 20 minutes or so - all the stops were at bus stations en route. My phone kept recording speeds in the range of 80kmph most of the time, and the roads were mostly 4 laned. The stops en route were all very brief, except the stop at Rahuri - where we stopped for 11 minutes. Amazingly tasty Vada Pavs were sold at Rahuri. I was finally dropped outside the Ahmednagar Maliwada CBS at 1332hrs - 4 minutes short of two hours from Shirdi. I was bemused since the bus did not enter the bus station, but stopped outside on the road itself. 
The bus that I traveled in - MH-20-BL-3385 of Shirpur depot.
I had close to two hours to go for my next bus - I headed for a relaxed lunch - I gobbled up about an hour at the restaurant itself. I headed to the bus station next - I was still intrigued about why majority of the buses weren't entering the bus station. Only local route buses entered the bus station. The person at the enquiry counter replied incoherently when I asked him about the pick-up point for my bus. Finally, a person at the reservation counter explained in detail that my bus would come at a bus station about 200 metres way from this bus station, and I had to go there. I walked up to that bus station, and realised that all long distance buses call on at that bus station, not the one I went earlier. 
My Shivneri, MH-04-G-9093 arriving at Nagar.
The scheduled time for my bus was 1515hrs. I had no idea where the bus would park, and hence waited near the entrance for buses. My bus appeared at 1524hrs - it headed directly to a platform. Soon after it stopped a uniformed MSRTC employee, with a ticketing machine got into the bus and checked for availability of seats. Two reserved passengers (including me) were joining at Nagar - he quickly checked our tickets and let us in. There were no empty seats and many seat seekers had to be sent back. The overhead racks were full, and I had to do a bit of juggling around to leave my bag there. We started from Nagar at 1532hrs. The driver was calm and was slow initially. 
Taken during the break..
We pulled into a roadside motel, Smile Stone, for a break at 1556hrs. There were huge boards outside the hotel announcing that the place was an authorised break for Shivneri buses. I did not want to eat anything, since I had taken a fairly heavy lunch. Hence, it was just walking around for sometime, and clicking some pics. In the meantime, another Shivneri (heading to Aurangabad from Pune) joined us at the motel. Since the AC was left on during the break, I got back into the bus soon after. We started from there at 1621hrs. The driver meant business now - he maintained great pace from there on. It started raining as we neared Pune - the rain got heavier as we went closer to Pune. The maintenance of the bus wasn't great - water slowly started leaking through the glass pane. 

Traffic got thicker as we neared the city. It was absolute chocked as we neared Viman nagar - rain only added to our misery. The bus kept stopping on the way to drop passengers - I couldn't note down the landmarks. The only place I instantly recognised was Pune Station - we dropped some passengers there at 1824hrs, and continued towards Shivajinagar. We crawled through traffic, and finally reached Shivajinagar bus station at 1834hrs - a whole 94 minutes late. Interestingly, the bus headed straight to the platform, since it was already late for its return departure! 

Summary: The ordinary bus journey was really enjoyable - what really left me surprised was that the interiors haven't changed even a bit from my last experience in 2008. Shivneris continue to be the good ol' no-nonsense service. No entertainment is played. The bus has only 1 crew member - the driver. No attendant or conductor is on board. The bus I traveled in, MH-04-G-9093, had clocked about 9.13 lakh kms, and did show its age. The maintenance was very average - no rattles, but leaking window pane is not acceptable. The bus wasn't very clean either. Driving was great - no hard brakes, or rash maneuvers. Overall, it was a good experience. I must add this - there is no time savings, and its better to travel by the direct bus all the way from Shirdi to Pune. It isn't worth wasting time changing buses at Nagar.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

MSRTC Asiad: Pune to Shirdi

I was very confused when I sat down to book tickets from Pune to Shirdi. I first checked on RedBus and found that only one operator had buses on the Pune-Shirdi route - that was an operator I did not want to travel with. I turned to the MSRTC website, and found no premium buses on the route, but plenty of non-ac buses. I decided to select a bus leaving over an hour after my flight lands - I wanted to be in Shirdi before midnight, since I had opted for an early darshan at the samadhi. I selected a hotel that was right opposite the bus station - so that I'd not have to hunt around for the hotel at night. I finally selected an MSRTC Asiad (now called Hirkani) bus that leaves Pune (Shivajinagar) at 1830hrs, and was scheduled to reach Shirdi sometime before midnight.

Asiad buses are 2x2 non-airconditioned buses operated by MSRTC across the state. These buses were technically called "Semi-Deluxe", they were popularly called Asiad buses since they were introduced around the time Asian Games were held in India in the mid 1980s. The buses were initially operated on the Mumbai-Pune route and then expanded across the state. Sometime in the last couple of years, the buses officially got a name - Hirkani. Along with the new brand, they also introduced air suspension (rear axle), and very recently introduced push-back seats as well. These buses are mostly built at MSRTC's own workshops. 

October 03, 2015:
After landing at Pune almost an hour behind my original schedule, I had to rush in order to catch my 1830hrs Pune-Shirdi bus. The first thing I did on getting into the cab was to inform the driver of my situation, and requested him to go as soon as possible. He understood my predicament, and stepped on the pedal. He took a lot of short cuts around the airport to get on to the main road. I was locked on to GMaps throughout the period, while he kept asking me which route is relatively free according to the map. Finally after wading through traffic, and some smart driving by the driver, he dropped me near the exit of Shivajinagar bus station at 1826hrs. As we neared the bus station, I got the confidence that I would be successful in visiting Sai Baba's samadhi after 10 long years. I rushed out of the cab, thanking him profusely for driving smart - he returned a nice wide smile, and told me to rush. 

As I walked into the bus station, a bus with a board reading "Pune - Shirdi" was pulling out - I waved at the driver - he stopped. I enquired if it was the 1830hrs bus - the conductor said its the 1730hrs bus! What? I look in disbelief. MSRTC was known for its punctuality - what happened now? I couldn't still believe what I heard, as I walked to the bus station building. I had a tough time finding where the enquiry office is - although it is located centrally, it did not have proper signages. The lady at the counter was disinterested in answering queries. She did not bother answering me at the first attempt - the second time, I shoved in my eticket print out through the counter, and she had to take a look at it. She checked the schedule, and enquired with another person sitting there whether the bus had left. He said, its yet to arrive, and is expected soon. I was relieved on hearing this. The lady quickly told me that the bus would arrive right opposite the counter, and will have a board "Pune - Shirdi", and asked me to wait. 
Inside Shivajinagar BS - its too small for the crowd it handles.
I went to a shop nearby and stocked up a bottle of water and some snacks. The bus finally appeared at 1850hrs. It was a TATA bus, with an ACGL built body. The bus looked very tired, and had a lot of scars on its body. As soon as the bus came, people just mobbed around it - they shoved in their baggage through the windows in an attempt to reserve their seats. I confirmed with the driver that this was the 1830hrs bus, and then calmly got in - someone had already occupied my seat, and look at me in disbelief when I told I had a reservation for the seat. Thankfully, the person seated behind that seat quickly supported me and asked the person occupying my seat to vacate the seat for me. It seems the conductor had announced the seat number soon after the door was opened. 
The bus: MH-07-C-7558 of Shivajinagar depot
Just before 1900hrs, the conductor came in, and called out my seat number and enquired if I had come. Finally, at 1900hrs, the bus backed out of the platform and started off. The bus was packed when we started. Soon after we started, the conductor came around to issue tickets - he just glaced at my ticket. Traffic in the city was probably at its worst, and to add to the misery, it started raining as well. The driver picked pace where ever he could. We stopped at Kasarvadi at 1931hrs - every possible inch of space was occupied when we left Kasarvadi. My bus was running via Sangamner to Pune - I took this route because it seemed shorter, and I expected this to be faster. We stopped at Bhosari next, then at Chakan. The bus was crowded for most of the time - and between stops the interior lights were also switched off. I felt that was an unsafe method - people crowded all around, and there were not even night lamps inside. The bus emptied only at Manchar - at 2058hrs, almost 2 hours after started. Until then, the bus remained crowded. 
The bus has a full size partition - helps keeping the cabin dark at night
The seating - its 2x2, well cushioned seats. There was no pushback, however.
It was raining all through the time, and we ran through fairly heavy ghat sections, with awful roads. To add to my misery, the bus rattled all the time as well. The next stop was at Narayangaon - at 2117hrs. The crew got off the bus here, took a walk around and then started off at 2120hrs. At this point, the bus fully emptied out, and we had only seating passengers around. I had two seats all to myself as well. I dozed off for some time - but the awful roads did not let me sleep properly. We pulled into a hotel somewhere near Alephata for dinner, sometime around 2150hrs. The crew announced a 15 minutes break and walked out. There were two other buses for company here. I was not very hungry, but wanted to have something - I had some light dinner, and got back to the bus. We started off from there at 2121hrs - exactly 30 minutes of break. 
During the break..
I slept soon after we started from here - the bus shook violently as it went over rough patches at fairly good speed - but I was too tired to remain awake. I woke up only when the bus stopped at some bus station, and the lights were turned on - the time was 2323hrs, and it was Sangamner. We had to be in Shirdi by this time, according to the schedule. The bus emptied out here, and only three passengers (including me) remained when the bus left Sangamner at 2325hrs. I slept soon after the bus left the bus station - I vaguely remember the bus stopping two times on the way - everytime, I person got off. Finally, I was the sole passenger for the last 18kms or so. I was finally dropped at Shirdi Bus station, at 0025hrs - about 55 minutes late. I just got off the bus, and lugged myself to the hotel, which was located on the other side of the road. The guy at the reception was quite shocked seeing someone with a reservation walking in past midnight. I got a nice room, and all I remember was crashing on to the bed. 

I still thank my stars - a delayed flight, a smart cabbie, a delayed bus - I could make it to Shirdi, to have a darshan at Sai Baba's samadhi after 10 long years!

I am not rating the bus - its too irrelevant to rate it. The bus was from Shivajinagar depot of Pune division - it was not in a great condition. It wasn't clean inside, and it leaked - rather poured inside during the rain. The windows rattled throughout, ensuring that I didn't sleep continuously. Poor roads only worsened my situation. The driver was sane - no harsh overtakes, and no sudden brakes. The route had heavy truck traffic and hence our progress was slow. The hotel where the bus stopped was surprisingly very clean, and the rates weren't too high (compared to the rates at the hotels in Shirdi or Pune). I liked the trip - I'd have enjoyed it had it been during the day. The end-to-end running time was 5:25hrs, and a fare of Rs. 299 (including reservation fee). Its a nice option for the thrifty traveller.