Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Inaugural Experience

It is not everyday that an inauguration takes place - No! I am not talking of shops or establishments being opened... not even new trains or lines.. but an all new Bus service! The City of Kochi, smack in the middle of the South-Indian state of Kerala, holds a very important place in the economy of the state. The city has over 650 buses constitution a very efficient (err! Over efficient) city public transportation. All the buses are owned and operated privately, with the Regional Transport Authority standing a meek spectator to the gory road races. The high number of buses mean an astonishing frequency of as high as a bus every minute on some routes! The high frequency means very low 'gap' between two buses, this in-turn results in high competition between buses to garner each ones' share of passengers. Kerala is not one state known for wide roads, and Kochi City is no exception to the norm - the roads here are too narrow to sustain buses rushing through at 60+ speeds.

It has been a long standing demand from the passengers of Kochi City, that KSRTC (the state-government run transport company) start city buses. The KSRTC on its part has reserved 50 city permits for itself - which has never been used, even partially. The Central Government's JNNURM Funding for buses gave a much needed fillip for Kochi's needs. This scheme issued funds for purchasing as many as 200 buses, exclusively for the city! Of the 200, 50 were AC Ultra-Low Floor buses (from Volvo), 120 Low Floor Non-AC buses (from Ashok Leyland) and 30 Mini-buses (orders are still to be placed - likely to be scrapped). The Volvo buses were flagged off in a lack-lustre function on December 28, 2009 by Union Minister, KV Thomas. The non-AC Ashok Leylands were flagged off by State Transport Minister Jose Thettayil on May 14, 2010.

Like I mentioned earlier, Inaugurations to not happen daily. Being a fulfillment of a long-pending demand from citizens, I thought it would be right event for me to attend. The event was scheduled for 5pm at a small ground near the Kerala High Court, on Marine Drive in Kochi City. I had confirmed the programme the previous day from appropriate authorities at the bus station. The next day, I landed at the venue around 4.15 pm. Two buses (out of 9, to be flagged off that evening) were already brought to the venue. A small complement of policemen were standing guard to the ground, while a larger contingent of KSRTC officials were seen arranging for the event. The buses were being parked in serial order, in straight line, parallel to each other. The buses continued pouring in one by one. I was joined by fellow bus (and rail) fan Jimmy Jose.

The buses were opened up, and the public could have a feel of them. Press photographers were busy clicking left right and centre, while myself and Jimmy captured as much details as possible. We went about clicking the buses. Officials arrived at the even very soon - the first to arrive was the Mayor of Kochi. She was quickly accompanied by senior officials from the KSRTC Regional office, and officials from Kochi Corporation. They decided to start off the event before the chief guest arrived - the Transport Minister, was expected to arrive very soon. There were too little audience, but almost all of them were excited. Once the public settled down to the function, myself and jimmy went on the rampage clicking the buses from every possible angle. We talked to some KSRTC employees present at the event and to some technicians from Ashok Leyland.

The buses lined up for the inauguration...

The transport minister arriving at the venue...

The transport minister arrived a while after the function started - things went lightning fast after the chief guest arrived. The Mayor of Kochi was praising her non-existent achievements and highlighted her corporation's policies - it must be remembered that it is the very same corporation that played spoilsport in the introduction of services in the City. Once the minister got his chance to speak, he was all praises for the Ernakulam Zonal office. The JNNURM services in the city was earning much more money than expected, and the services were far far better in financial health compared to the ones in the capital city. He promised that KSRTC would start city bus services in the city before winding up his talk.

The buses being flagged off!

The minister got to task soon. A green flag was brought out, and the inaugural bus - JNK58 - was brought closer to the stage. The minister symbolically flagged off the service before the doors were opened for passengers. The driver on the inaugural run was one Mr. Surjith, and the conductor was Mr. Xavier. Xavier was all in smiles about being able to man the maiden run of the bus! We (myself and Jimmy) jumped in to get a good seat for ourselves. Passengers flocked into the bus, and soon all seats were taken. Meanwhile, one stamp-pad organisation, which proudly took credit for introduction of the services, decorated the bus with a garland and stuck up a notice on the windscreen. The engine was powered to life - but no noise, barring a whisper at the front! There were no vibrations or harshness at idle or when the engine was 'raised'.

The Inaugural bus.. JNK58 all set to head out.

The crew of the inaugural bus: At the wheel, Mr. Surjith. The Conductor is Mr. Xavier.

The bus crawled out of the venue quickly, and stopped at the very first bus stop. The bus was filled up in a couple of seconds. The bus moved without a grumble even as it was reeling under heavy crowd - every inch of space was taken. The driver had some trouble putting the right gears, and the bus "regurgitated" at some occasions. The bus was "welcomed" at every other stop. The bus was decorated further, and was showered with petals on each occasion. We finally reached the destination - Njarakkal. The last stop was on a narrow piece of road - where there was no space for the bus to wait for passengers or for the crew to stretch their legs a bit. Forget all these, there was no way a 12M bus could turn around!!!

At one of the welcomes given to the bus en route.

The driver took the bus further towards Cherai - he drove some 3-4 kms to enter a parking ground. It was a pain turning the bus around, and almost every one in the bus had to get off to control the traffic on the road, to let this bus turn. The bus blocked up traffic on the road - the return departure took some 15 minutes to commence. There was a huge traffic block by the time the bus moved out. In the process of giving way to the traffic, the bus hit a stone block, and the rear left lower portion of the bus was slightly damaged. The return departure was eventless - the driver let the beast rip. Only a few KSRTC officials, yours truly and some passengers were present on the return trip. The driver did stop at some places to pick up passengers. I was dropped off near the High Court. I picked up my car and returned.

Notes about the bus: The bus looks impressive at the first look. The colour is soothing, and the designs are simple. On close observation, the finish is poor. There are rough patches, and sharp edges in many parts of the body. The sealant used along the glass was put up roughly. The interiors was well done - simple and spacious. The seats were of Harita make - they had thick cushioning, and appeared pretty sturdy. The flooring was chequered aluminum and the internal finish was polished steel. The NVH levels were low - while idle and on the run. The suspension was amazing - it buffered crater sized potholes with ease. Humps were not felt inside, and the harsh joints of the bridges were cleared without discomfort. Overall, the bus is an amazing experience. From hearsay, the newer versions have a better dashboard. Leaving you with some images of the buses. (You can see the album containing images taken during the inauguration here):

At the end of the inaugural run!