Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Multiplex & traditional Cinema Halls... a different experience indeed

Foreword: I am not a movie buff, nor do I work for a cinema house. I am just an average movie goer, who likes seeing 'brainless' comedy, and family sentiment movies - preferably in Malayalam. Not that I don't love movies in other languages, but I usually prefer watching them on TV. I am one movie goes who like to watch movies in an air-conditioned theatre, and that rules out watching movies at my hometown - for the fact that we don't have an airconditioned movie hall here!

To the best of my knowledge, there is only one proper Multiplex in Kerala - the Cinemax multiplex at Oberon Mall, Kochi. The multiplex was opened earlier this year, and has since offered a very different movie experience to movie goers. I have heard people often terming the high ticket charges of Multiplexes a daylight robbery - but, is that true?

IMHO, No! The Multiplexes offer clean halls to passengers - each hall is cleaned before every show, and they ensure that no layovers of the previous show remain. The seats are comfortable, the sound system works perfectly and the screening is of high-quality. During interval, one is greeted to clean toilets - and the "No Smoking" norm is strictly implemented. You need not mob the cafeteria - the food comes to your seat.. and so on are the attractions. But what makes me think the multiplexes are seriously value for money is the fact that one gets a really clean hall - you need not sit in the midst of garbage put back by people from the earlier show!

I recently had two cinema experiences - one at Cinemax (Kochi) and the other at a very famous cinema hall in Kochi (on MG Road - those familiar with the area would guess out the hall soon). The Cinemax experience was picture perfect - a small hall, limited audience, comfortable seats, carpeted floor, an extremely clean hall, etc. The experience at the cinema hall on MG Road: the ambience at hall was good, the seats too were good. But the hall was very dirty - at the end of the show (which was full) the hall resembled a war field with litter every where - plastic covers, empty tetra-packs (which once had fruit juice), papers, empty bottles etc. The litter was much more than what would be generated in one single show.

Multiplexes are certainly the way ahead to attract family audiences. Many families are turned off by the garbage filled movie halls, non-availability of good quality halls - with the right ambience. Multiplexes seat half - or less - the number of audience than a regular movie hall - and charge upto double the regular ticket rates. But, I swear, they are worth it. I'd be any day ready to go for a movie if its in a multiplex - the normal cinema halls are turning me down, big time! Am waiting for the day my hometown too gets a good hall!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Exercising franchise... a new record in Kerala

Kerala is known as a hot-bed of politics - with almost every single citizen interested in the daily political drama. Kerala has two major political fronts - left and the "right". The left, "Left Democratic Front", is led mainly by the Communist Parties, while the "right", "United Democratic Front" is led by the Congress (Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee). In addition to the two fronts, the national party, Bharatiya Janata Party, too has been unsuccessfully trying to make a dent. In a state that is so interested in politics, the state assembly elections usually work on an anti-incumbent wave - the ruling party has to move to opposition irrespective of their performance.

In what could be termed a curtain raiser to the State Assembly elections, the state went to polls, to elect new Local Self-Governments. Perhaps, ours is the only state where almost all the Panchayats/Municipalities/Corporations go to polls together - giving a feel of a full fledged state elections. The state has been under the Model Code of Conduct for more than a month now. The state went to the Ballot in two phases - the first on 23rd of this month, and the second yesterday (25th October). The state recorded very low voter turnout last time - just in the range of 50-odd percentage.

This was my first ever franchise - although its been 6 years since I became eligible, and have gone through about 4 elections since then (in various places), I haven't been able to vote anywhere. It was a pretty excited start to the day. The polling station is the next compound to my home, and just walked in around 9 AM. There was a very small queue, and the entire waiting period was less than 10 minutes. The new voting machine has made matters very simple for both the voter and the counting officials! The franchise is just a beep away!

This time around, my home town tops in voter-turnout in the District - Kodungallur recorded 80% voter turnout, the highest in Thrissur district, which managed an overall turnout of 73% (Compared to only 58.76% in 2005). Is this high turnout a sign of change? Will the normal trend of voting out the incumbent change? The Local bodies in Kerala has been doing a horrible job with road maintenance - making driving a nightmare anywhere in the state. Take the case of Kochi - a city often called the busiest and the most happening city in the State: Kochi has the most non-motorable roads in the state. Rain or no-rain, one should be ready to drive avoiding all the "ponds" in the road. See this one:

That bus is not going for a bath, but one falling into a trap! The pothole - er! Pond! - is right opposite the office of the Corporation of Cochin. Will Kochi vote for a change this time? The current front has been ruling for over 25 years now, and they have only taken the city downwards - no solution has been found till date for the umpteen problems city residents face! Newer craters appear each day on the road - so much that a famous FM radio station holds "Miss Kochi" contests to find out the most beautiful crater on road! The traffic chaos sees no end - traveling a kilometre takes more than 10 minutes even during the worst non-peak hour!

I have only one question: Does this higher voter turnout signify a change? Will the current trend change?

Monday, October 25, 2010

The derailed railfanning attempt..

Metre gauge railways always have a sentimental aspect is a railfan's mind - I am not different! The news that the final piece of Metre Gauge railway in Kerala, the Punalur-Shencottah line was closing down brought tears to the eyes of many - and a ride on the last train would be a fitting send-off for this humble train from railfans. Although elaborate plans were made, everyone dropped off at the last moment, and I was left all alone to make the trip - not be let down in any circumstance, I decided to go solo. My initial plan was to take a train from Ernakulam to Kollam, then the new passenger from Kollam to Punalur and finally the metre gauge ride. The return was to be by bus. However, being a weekend, trains were heavily waitlisted - I first thought of going unreserved.

However, on reaching Ernakulam station, I was greeted by heavy crowd and found that my train was running pretty late. I wasn't interested in missing the passenger and hence decided to take a bus instead. After a sleepless bus ride, I was in Kollam (Quilon) by 5 am. (a post on the bus ride would come later). Took a rickshaw from the bus station to the railway station, and decided to get my ticket first. Surprisingly, the counters had a very long queue even at this hour on a Sunday! I asked for a ticket to Aryankavu (so that I can return pretty early) - the lady at the counter warned me that she is not sure if the train would run. She said that they have received notification not to issue tickets from Monday onwards. I got a ticket to Aryankavu and walked into the station. The station was still asleep - no stalls were open any where. I had this faint hope of seeing the Vegetarian refreshment room being open - but that wasn't. Finally, saw one open stall - had a hot coffee and stocked some biscuits as a precautionary measure. Earlier, Kollam had Platforms 1-3 in MG and 4-6 in BG. Later, Platform 7 and 8 were added to the BG side. After the MG section was closed, the platforms weren't renumbered. Therefore, the BG section of Kollam currently has Platforms 3 to 8.

All set to leave from Kollam - the Punalur Passenger, with WDM2 #18533 of Erode in charge.

The rake of Punalur Passenger was parked on Platform 3 - the rake appeared pretty long, about 14-15 coaches long. The boards on the passenger clearly indicated that it has an RSA with the Nagercoil-Kollam passenger. The platform was wet after heavy rains the previous night. The passenger started off exactly at 6.30. The Maveli Express (the one that I was planning to travel from Ernakulam to Kollam) from Mangalore arrived just a while before the passenger left - I thanked my stars for not taking that train! Meanwhile, our train headed by WDM2 #18533 of Erode slowly pulled out of Kollam. There is nothing special about the line, other than the fact that it is pretty twisty with slight grades all along. Almost all stations have proper full length platforms - and the crowd today was pretty heavy. We were in Punalur at 0750.

The crowd on the platform was heavy - perhaps putting stations in Mumbai Suburban section to shame! There was a huge gathering, full with traditional drummers and people holding posters and banners! There was not an inch of space on the platform to move around - so much that I got off the train to the non-platform side and walked through ballast. I got outside the station to see that the station was literally bursting to seems! The queue at the ticket counter had already overflown out of the station building. The GRP and RPF guys were caught completely unaware of the crowd and they were struggling to control the crowd.

I was back into the station - the MG portion of the station had enough crowd for three trains! Seeing the crowd, I was doubtful if my plan of taking the train would happen - I was almost sure it wouldn't. Railway Employees were preparing to give the train a befitting send off, and were ready with banners, garlands and posters. The drummers were busy playing out traditional Keralite tunes (the famous Chenda Melam). The crowd on the platform was swelling by the minute and all my hopes of traveling in the train were quashed. There were videographers and photographers from almost all major media firms, plus a dozen local newspapers. The horn of the train was heard a minute past 8, and the cute little train made its appearance shortly - with more people than it can carry - passengers were everywhere, even on the catwalks of the loco! 
YDM4 #6310 arriving at Punalur, from Shencottah.

The train got filled in hardly a couple of minutes, and there was not a single inch of space to even get a foothold in the coaches! People got on the loco even as it was shunting, long before the loco was attached to the train. The loco was shunted around, and the decorators got into their job. The loco was all decorated, banners hung and posters were stuck on the coaches. After all the melee, the train was set to leave - sharp at 0830. The departure was delayed, perhaps due to the heavy crowd. The starter was given at 0840, and the train pulled out a couple of minutes later. With no possibility of getting on board the train, I decided to take a bus to Aryankavu instead.

The train all set to leave Punalur...

Dejected, I walked out of the station and took a rickshaw towards the bus station - only to be greeted by very heavy crowds at the bus station! The bus station was crowded beyond belief, and buses were leaving with not even an inch of standing space. I tried getting in, but all buses were crowded. Finally, I decided to call off all my plans of taking a ride, or capturing another scene of the train. Headed straight to a nearby hotel for breakfast, and finally I headed back to Kollam in a KSRTC bus. By now, I had a splitting headache, and I couldn't concentrate on anything that was going around. I finally reached home around 6 in the evening, and straightaway hit the bed, only to wake up at 7 AM the next morning!

Although I couldn't travel in the train on one of its last rides, I was atleast content of being able to see off the train. Local people had come in to the station to send off the train - almost all were heavy hearted about the loss of this charming train service. After having served local passengers for close to a century, the train is now destined to the pages of History. The railways are expecting to reopen the section in BG, in about three years - with an all new alignment. If at the railways are going in for a new alignment, what was the need to shutting train services? Whatever, the cheap means of transporting goods, and also travel for daily passengers is now no more - will remain so for atleast the next few years! I left Punalur that day with a promise to be there for the inauguration of the BG line - I hope I would be able to attend the inauguration!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Shama Big Bus...

After ten rocking days in Bangalore - including runs on the Mercedes Benz buses, a visit to a hospital casualty, getting two IV Injections, and laying on the bed for a full day down with fever (what more can I ask for???), it was time to head back home - to God's own country. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I never considered traveled in a State bus anywhere during planning for the return journey - both the KSRTCs were kept off my consideration. This time around, Kerala SRTC stood no chance of being even considered, while Karnataka SRTC was kept my last choice. Reason why Kerala SRTC was not even considered: A horrible hard product. The only feasible option for me is the 2200 AC bus from Bangalore - while the bus is known for punctuality, the ride and comfort is horrible.

Once the STUs were thrown out of the window, the choices were simple: A tie between Kallada and Shama. Only these operators run a decent Volvo service, touching Thrissur town. Others prefer taking the bypass, especially at odd hours. The tie was simple to break - I opted for Shama. Especially since they are now operating a brand new Volvo B9R on the Bangalore-Ernakulam route. Shama has named their B9Rs as "Big Bus" - they indeed are big buses! Their online booking portal showed that only the rear row was remaining -  I chose to get a ticket from their office instead. On Sunday (October 17) evening, I got my ticket from the Shama office at Madivala. I was given seat #10. From the chart at the office, I could understand that the bus already had more than 60% bookings.

I was just about recovering from a bout of Viral fever on the day of my journey - but the journey was essential on account of some other commitments. I had some business at SP Road (the place in Bangalore to visit, if you are interested in computer peripherals!), and went there around noon. Did some busfanning during the visit, but had to return early with my ill-health not permitting me to hang around for long. Returned home, then headed out again after dinner and a hot bath. Headed out of home at 2055, and we reached Madivala at 2110. I was dropped at Madivala by my brother. Since the bus was still long off, we decided to stay put in the car. Meanwhile, the Padikkal Isuzu to Kannur arrived, and was parked near our car - the bus had the name "Pranam" on its windshield, and "Padikkal" on the sides and the rear.

I decided to head to the Shama office around 2115 to report and get my boarding pass, when I saw a Shama "Big Bus" heading towards the office. I headed off to the office and got my boarding pass - my request for a seat on the left side was turned down, we were running 100% full! I got Seat #10 as indicated on my seat. The bus came at 2120, and boarding started immediately. I got in, left my bag and came out - the engine was shut down, and it was getting too stuffy inside without the AC running. Although the AC was off, a movie was playing on the AV system. Passengers were boarding pretty quick, while the driver went about checking something in the bus. His assistant was helping passengers leave their baggage in the under-carriage. By 2135, all passengers were in. I got in at 2140, when the driver too got in. A couple of minutes later, the engine was powered, and the AC was switched on. The blowers were at full flow.

The bus, KA-01-AA-2012, slowly inched forward, exactly at 2145. We slowly inched forward, went right upto St.John's signal, and took a complete "U" turn and headed towards Silk Board. The bus stopped again, opposite the Shama office - just realised that one passenger was yet to join! We kept waiting, and the passenger came in only around 2200. The engine was left running all this while, and I must admit, one couldn't feel the engine was running, except for the AC blowing cold air! No vibrations or noise inside. We started off at 2200, ran through Silk Board flyover, and headed straight on the new BETL Road towards Electronic city. I was elated when the bus took the flyover instead of running through the traffic blocks below. The driver meant serious business as he picked pace quickly.

We were past Hosur in less than 30 minutes from Madivala. We crossed the Krishnagiri around 2320, and kept going at a great pace. The movie got over at around midnight - the pull down screen around the middle of the bus was closed, and the AV system was shut down. I pulled up the thigh support, and tried sleeping. But my health condition stopped me from sleeping - I got an uneasy feeling through out. Around 0030, I noticed that we were no running past Vinayaka Missions University, on the outskirts of Salem! We were past Salem in less than 2:30 hours!! The high-speed run kept going, and but it felt like the bus wasn't very fast! The noise levels and vibrations were well under control, and the ride was too comfortable inside.

I somehow managed some sleep, and woke up when the bus was just pulling into a fuel station - at 0250! And, we were past Coimbatore!!! We were at a fuel station near Ettimadai - thats a distance of more than 360 kms in less than 5 hours, an average of over 74kmph!! The stop at the fuel station lasted over 30 minutes - with passengers using the break to stretch themselves and also have a leak. We started off at 0325 and headed at our steady pace! We stopped at Chavadi (outgoing) checkpost briefly. We stopped again, just after Walayar. The crew went in for a round of hot tea - two other Kallada buses, one B7R and one Multi-Axle, were parked there. We started off first, despite reaching last! We stopped at Walayar Checkpost to pay up entry tax, and get the papers checked.

We started off after a 5 minute halt. The roads were in sorry shape after the border, and overtakes were a painful affair now. It started raining down now - the ride was still comfortable inside. Only the major potholes were known, but the driver showed no sign of slow progress. A lady sitting at the first row kept stopping the bus often for her to vomit - the driver did stop the bus every time, but the rain outside meant she couldn't off the bus. We stopped at Palakkad bypass to drop off a passenger, then once again at Vadakkenchery to drop off another. We finally stopped at Mannuthy Bypass at 0510 - about 12 passengers got off here, all were from a group of pilgrims heading to Sabarimala. I was finally dropped off near Sakthan Thamburan Bus Station at 0520 in the morning - just 7 hours and 20 minutes since starting off from Madivala. My fastest ever, and by far my best Volvo ride as well!!

I had a long halt at the bus station, but no buses turned up to my place. Later, took a rickshaw to the KSRTC bus station, and took the second bus to my destination, at 0545 (The first bus is at 0530). RNA164 of Thrissur did the honours to dropping me back at home - interestingly, the same bus took me out to Thrissur on my outbound!!

Concluding remarks: Although the widespread word on the Internet about Shama talks of poor buses and highhanded behaviour, I was in for a pleasant experience. May be this is a one-off experience, but I would certainly dare try them again. The bus was still new - plastic covers on many seats were still on! The ride was excellent - silent and absolutely comfortable. One does not get a feeling of the sheer speed inside - but the bus was certainly rushing in at three-digit speeds throughout the night. This is supported by the fact that we managed a decent average speed of over 74 kmph from Bangalore to Coimbatore - the roads get worse after Coimbatore, and it did dent our overall speed. The B9R is an excellent product for such highway sprints, while guaranteeing passenger comfort. But what blew me off was the fact that a Kallada G4 Volvo (a 2004 model Mark-II bus) kept pace all the way from Bangalore to Thrissur along with us! I see myself using private buses for my forthcoming journeys, atleast till Kerala SRTC replaces their vibrating cold boxes on the Bangalore route!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mercedized.. Part-2

After the good experience on the MCV C120LE City bus, we (Myself and Bharat) returned to Majestic to find our way back home. We did some train spotting on our way back, and content with that short Mercedes experience, we were walking towards the City bus section of Majestic. All of a sudden, Bharat suggested we have a look at the "Mofussil" section to see if the inter-city Mercedes Coach was anywhere in sight. I wanted to see if the MSRTC Shivneri was still running as well. We, thus, headed in. The Mysore platform had a huge queue of Volvo buses, and an almost parallel line of Rajahamsas/Sheetal/Meghadootas. Dejected, we decided to return home, and just turned back.

OH! Wait a minute... did I just see that square box rolling towards us? Yes, it was. The much awaited Mercedes Benz O500R two-axle RE bus was rushing towards us. The bus just rushed past us.. with the boards reading "Bangalore Mysore". No seconds were spared.. if the bus was going to Mysore, we decided to make a quick run. Indeed, it was! The bus stopped a few metres ahead, and backed up to the "Mysore Platform". Bharat was the first to run towards the bus.. both of us called home to intimate the change in our programs, and go set to head out on that bus. The driver announced that tickets would be sold on board the bus, unlike the Volvos where we need to get them from a counter. A few snaps later, we both were inside the bus. The conductor said we'll leave only after 20 minutes. We replied, "doesn't matter".

First Impressions.. The body looked very boxy to me (personal opinion). The bus looks slightly narrower and a bit taller than a Volvo 9400 (the sole competition in the segment). The rear looked bland to me, while the front did have a few curves. The finish is far from being called "classic" - it had all the shine and whistles of an Indian product. In comparision, the Volvo 9400 looked strictly sleek and modern. In the interiors, the bus did not have anything special to boast about. The interior lights were unhindered - hence interiors were better lit. The seats were regular ones from Harita. The leg space appeared a bit low. The aisle were narrow as well - syncing with my observation of the bus being narrower. 

The driver panel did not look as "modern" as the Volvo. The meters were all analog, no multi-information displays (a default these days even on low-end cars), screws visible outside, etc. Not really a layout aimed at a "modern" market. The 'partition' between the driver cabin and the passenger section appeared to be made of FRP - to very sturdy to hold a passenger falling on it in the event of a hard braking. The leg space at the first row seats were not humongous as in the Volvo or even the Isuzu. The entertainment system for passengers is by means of two foldable LCD screens - the one at the front appeared to be 17 inches, and the one at the middle  of the bus was 15 inches - having two screens is an amazing idea. Both were of Xenos make. The speakers can be switched off individually - another marvellous idea. The interiors were clad with a lot of plastics - there were plastics everywhere including the hat-rack.

Into action... Around 6 (1800), the bus was switched on, and backed further into the platform. The engine was now left on, with the AC blowers running at the maximum speed. The vibration levels were negligible (on par with competition). The sound levels inside were well under control. We finally started off at around 1820 or so, with about 30 passengers on board (out of 45). The bus was very sluggish at the start - it literally struggled to get moving. The conductor issued tickets to all passengers, and then distributed bottles of water. (Yes! KSRTC still provides a 500-ml bottle of waterto all passengers on the Volvo/Mercedes) The rear LCD screen was pulled down, and the DVD player was switched on. The run was painfully slow, and we ended up taking about 40 minutes to reach Satellite bus terminus itself. We had a 10 minute break at Satellite, for passengers to use the washroom, and also have some light snacks. No passengers joined us here.

Back on the road, the run was even more slow. The slow run continued until we crossed Kengeri. Once past Kengeri, our boss meant business. He started picking speed quickly. Overtakes were mindless, left-right-center! The Retarders gave a "slicing" sound everytime the brakes were applied. BUT, sharp brakes meant passengers leaping forward - the same feeling carried over from a Volvo. I was swept off my seat atleast twice in the run (I turned cautious after these). The brakes were damn good. The bus had great grunt for overtakes, and one could sense the flow of raw power as and when the driver attempted overtakes. Many brakes and dives later, we were in Mysore at  2140, 3 hours and 20 minutes after we started off from Bangalore.

We headed out for dinner. Just while heading out, I spotted another Merc heading out to Bangalore. Just as we were back, it was the same bus that brought us preparing to head back. While Bharat was pestering me to travel in the same bus, I was adamant at taking a Volvo. The next bus was indeed a Volvo, an 8-year old Mark-I Volvo!!! Despite his numerous requests to take the Merc, I remained adamant we take the Volvo. Finally, at 2300, boarding for the Volvo started. The first impression on getting into the bus was.. the bus has held up really well. The interiors, although a bit weary, still looked intact. The bus was vibrating as if the engine was mounted without bushes. We started off at 2330 from Mysore. There was no conductor on board, the driver doubled up as a conductor as well. There were all of 5 passengers on board! The lights were switched off soon after we started off. 

The bus, although 8 years old, was riding so smooth, putting many of the new buses to shame. The noise levels were well under control, and so were the vibrations during the run. There was a bit of noise from the rear axle while going through rough patches. The driver had this nasty habit to shifting to neutral the moment the bus hit a down grade - it was downright irritating, and we ended up idling often. The bus was dependent more on its momentum to reach back, than any tractive effort. Despite the horrific driving style, we crossed Kengeri at around 0130 - two hours since leaving from Mysore. Once past Kengeri, the driver expressed some sense of urge, and he kept accelerating often. We were finally at Kempegowda Bus Station at 0145. We had called up for a Meru Cab.. I was dropped at home by around 0215, and Bharat continued his journey home..

On a comparo.. While I might be branded biased to a particular brand, I felt the Mercedes Benz Intercity coach had no specific advantage over a Volvo as far as a passenger in concerned. Except the fact that the bus is made by a brand known for premium cars, the average passenger would equate the ride with the 'now household' brand 'Volvo'. The ride comfort was more or less the same, except may be for slightly less vibrations at Idle (not in my opinion). The interior lighting was certainly 'light years' ahead of the Volvo. The leg space, and seat width were certainly lower, and too tight for comfort. The bus picks up amazingly well, and the driver was all in praise for the pick-up of the bus (not sure if that was a sarcastic remark, since the bus struggled to get moving from Majestic). The driver, who was in charge of our ride, rated both buses equal - none was claimed to be better than the other. 

Small yet significant things.. Excessive use of plastics in the interiors gave an overall cheap look to the bus. For some reason, Plastics are not associated with durability in India (atleast among the general public). The Air-conditioner appeared to be RPM specific - the bus hardly cooled when it was at idle (despite the AC panel displaying the set temperature to be around 21*c), but it cooled amazingly well once the bus started moving - better when we hit better speeds. While this might help improve fuel efficiency, the general public might get irritated sitting in a stuffy bus in traffic snarls. The AC vents can only control the direction of air flow, not the volume. In case of the Volvo, once can adjust both the direction and volume of air flow.

Conclusion.. Certainly not worth the hype the bus has created. The bus is equal to its competitor, the Volvo 9400. While the Mercedes Benz O500R is powered by a 305-hp 7.2 litre engine, the Volvo 9400 comes with a humble 290-hp 7-litre engine. Both buses seat 45 passengers, in 11 rows, with regular push-back seating configuration. Both buses come with retarders, and similar bells and whistles. At the end of the ride, both the buses are strictly equivalent to each other, strictly from a passenger perspective. While Volvo revolutionized the bus industry, and made 18+ hour bus journeys more comfortable, it would be fair on our part to expect Mercedes to further revolutionize the segment. What ever be said, the most benefited by having two amazing products are passengers, who now have more choice!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mercedized.. all in a day!

Monday, October 11, 2010 was a day I would not like to forget in my life.. a red lettered, three-pointed star day! The day was earmarked for "Travel(ing) with the Star". Yes, you guess it right - that was the day I did a back-to-back trial on two Mercedes Benz products in Bangalore. The two reviews would come in two parts. Presenting part-1.

One fine evening while crossing the foot-over-bridge from the mofussil section to the city section of Kempegowda Bus Station, I saw this pink (or rose?) coloured bus parked all set to head to the airport. Unable to believe my eyes, rushed off to the bus - yes - it was the MCV C120LE City Bus that Mercedes Benz has provided for trials with BMTC. I was thinking that the bus was returned after trials (coinciding with news paper reports that the bus was to head to Mumbai for trials with B.E.S.&T., and some rumours that the bus would be tried by KSRTC in Mysore). The spotting appeared as a surprise for me. But the time was already past 5, and I did not have enough time to have a short run in the bus. A program was set for the next day.

Front view of the MCV C120LE

Rear profile of the MCV C120LE

Accordingly, I landed at Majestic (the common synonym for Kempegowda Bus Station) around 1 in the afternoon. I was partnered in crime by fellow busfan Bharat Narayan. The stream of Volvos to the Airport continued all the time. The bus (Mercedes) came in at around 1350, and was parked behind a Volvo. As soon as the Volvo left, the Mercedes was parked ready to leave. On enquiring with the conductor, we came to know the bus would leave only at 1420. The crew went out to have their lunch in the meantime. We got into the bus and started feeling the bus.

First impressions.. The interior design is pleasing. The curves are smooth, and the colours are too good. The designs make the bus look spacious. The seats were of a different design, but were too hard. Very little cushioning. The leg room was tight. The bus had a total of 38 seats. The bus has 6 row of four seats (2x2 layout) and the last row of five seats in the "upper" section of the bus. The forward section has 9 seats - 2 rows on each side, facing each other, and one single seat over the wheel well on the right side. The exterior looks old school. The finish is far from being called a "premium" product. The colour is pleasing - a welcome change from Red. The rear door opens inwards and not swinging outside.

The engine was switched on 10 minutes to go for the journey. The AC was switched on. The AC vents do not have controls to adjust air flow volume or direction. The controls are sorely missed - especially given the mixed weather of Bangalore. Some passengers like to have air blowing on their face, while some others like to keep the vents closed. The rear door was closed well before the journey began. The bus started off dot at 1420. The vibration levels at idle were really low. The bus felt a bit sluggish at the beginning, especially when starting off from a stop. The power delivery seemed linear, substantiated the fact that there was no jerk whenever the driver pressed the accelerator pedal. Those familiar with the Volvo will also be familar with the jerk everytime the bus starts or stops.

The jerk was thankfully absent in the Merc - the bus just glided out of bus stops every time. It was sluggish every time it started from stop. The ride comfortable was nothing great to mention, except that the annoying vibrations at high RPMs were absent. The bus rattled heavily, directly pointing fingers are poor quality of fittings inside. Our ride was about 25 minutes long (Majestic to Hebbal) - coverirng a lots of signals and enough up grades. The bus feels a bit underpowered initially, but picks up later.

On a comparison note.. The annoying jerk and vibrations of the Volvo are absent in the MCV C120LE. However, the quality of interior fittings leaves a lot to be desired, especially with the "premium" image the manufacturer seems to project. The seating capacity in both the buses are same - 38 each. Volvo provides three extra foldable seats in the lower portion, in addtion to the 38 fixed seats. Space utilisation seemed much better in the Volvo. The legspace and the cushioning in the seats are anyday better in the Volvo. The Merc also seemed to have slightly narrow seats - fatsos like me wouldn't like them :)

The Volvo is powered by a 290hp 7-Litre diesel engine, while the C120LE is powered by a 256hp 6.4-Litre diesel engine. Both buses feature Automatic Transmission. The MCV has two openable side windows while the Volvo has sealed glasses throughout. The C120LE has a rigid opaque partition between the driver and the passengers, while the Volvo has left the area open.

The MCV C120LE is a true competition to the Volvo 8400 (B7RLE) in terms of ride, but the quality of interiors needs to improve a lot. The exterior design could have been far better than the current design which reminds us of old desi-buses. Overall, a good product - if only the pricing is right.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Conti... A nostalgic journey to the past

Conti Travels, or UMS Conti, is a established bus operator based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. UMS, or United Motor Service, was launched in 1920. Since then, UMS turned into one of the most efficient passenger transport company in this part of Tamil Nadu. Conti Travels was the first Inter-city coach service in Tamil Nadu. UMS operated a few city buses in Coimbatore, under various names. I have vague memories of them, but I distinctly remember that their buses were well maintained during the mid-90s. UMS diversified into various business, and are now a formidable name in the electronics manufacturing industry.

The Conti Travels "bus stand" on Avinashi Road

UMS is headquartered at Avinashi Road in Coimbatore, not very far from the Railway Station. I was a regular passenger in Conti Travels during the mid-90s, traveling very often from Coimbatore to Alappuzha and back in their coaches. Their buses used to be white in colour, with "Intercontinental Coach" painted in blue on its side panels. The buses used to have 2x2 seating, with a single front exit door. They never had any TV or other entertainment system. The drivers were unpredictable - some guys were damn quick, while some others crawled along. They always sent two drivers for the 6 hour journey to Alappuzha from Coimbatore. If my memory serves me right, they were the first operator to introduce Air Buses out of Coimbatore. Conti had regular services to Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Chennai and Bangalore back then. The services to Kerala started returning losses as newer operators started operating.

The services to Kerala were consolidated, and they cancelled all services to Kerala and retained one to Trivandrum - which too fell through very soon. Currently, Conti operates only to Bangalore and Chennai. Conti Travels operate out of their own "bus station" near the Avinashi Road flyover in Coimbatore. The bus station used to have a decent snack outlet, and passenger waiting area as well as restrooms. My last visit to their "bus station" was in October 1998 - a good 12 years back! And, my last trip was in one "Azad" built Airbus running to Alappuzha. 12 years down the lane, I desired to travel once again in their bus... and this trip was special, very special.

One trip to Bangalore was hovering over my head for over a month, and one fine evening, I decided to make it the next day itself. I called up Conti and inquired seat availability - thankfully, they were available. Bags were packed quickly. I started off from home at 7 in the morning, and luckily got into a KSRTC bus to Thrissur. The first thing I did on reaching the Thrissur bus station was to get details of the next bus to Coimbatore - that was at 0850. The bus, RAK675 of Kottayam, came in at 0830, and we started off only at 0900. The run was uneventful - the road was horrible, but the driver did a good job. The bus reached Palakkad at 1030, and we started off at 1045. The halt at Palakkad was supposed to be only 5 minutes long, but it turned out to be 15 minutes long after a few passengers went 'missing'. I was dropped right outside the Conti office at 1150.

My bus to Bangalore..

The first thing I did was to get my ticket - the bus was more than 50% full by now. The ticket fare was only Rs. 370. I was initially allotted seat 27 (the last-but-one row). After paying for the ticket, I went out for lunch.  Lunch was from Sree Annapoorna, near KG Hospital. I returned soon to Conti, and just as I reached there, my bus was brought out from their garage - the Isuzu LT1 (Swaraj Prestige) bus. The bus has an Irizar designed body, powered by a 230hp Isuzu rear-mount Engine. Complete with all bells and whistles, the bus has 36 semi-sleeper seats. The bus features a 7-speed manual transmission. I got my boarding pass, and left my baggage inside the bus. My seat number was now changed from 27 to 22. The bus was clean - both inside and outside. All curtains were drawn and the seats were in their regular position. An air-freshener was used, and the smell inside was pleasant. The engine was started at 13:20. The departure was perfectly on time, at 13:30. The bus had some 10 passengers when we started from Avinashi Road.

Inside the Isuzu bus..

The Driver cabin..

The 'conductor' came around checking if everything was well, and if any one had any specific request. The entertainment system was playing out a local FM station. The AC was noisy at the beginning, since the blowers were set to the highest speed. The engine noise was feeble, and the ride was amazingly smooth. It started drizzling a while into the run, even before we reached Gandhipuram. We had three pick up points at Gandhipuram, and at the end of all pick-ups there were 26 passengers on board. We next pulled into the "Omni Bus Stand" at Ganapathy. Conti Travels has an office inside the bus stand, and a guy from the bus stand came into carry out a headcount of the actual number of passengers inside. Satisfied with the papers produced by the crew, the guy signalled the bus driver to start. We finally started off at 14:00.

On the run...

The bus takes the route via Sathyamangalam, Athani, Anthiyur, Mettur Dam, Thoppur, Krishnagiri, Hosur and terminates at the Conti Travels office on Richmond Road in Bangalore. Although the route offers some (very little) advantage interms of distance, the route is predominantly two-laned, with quite some rough patches in between. The main road, via NH47/NH7 is now 85% four-laned, and offers much faster travel between Coimbatore and Bangalore. The driver was initially slow. The ride was really comfortable, and the bus was taking rough patches very well. Forward jerking while braking were less intense as compared to a Volvo/Mercedes. The noise levels were low - important considering the fact that I was just two rows away from the engine! Vibrations were absent (at idle as well as on the run, even at high RPMs).

The two Contis together at Mettur Dam

The driver maintained a very good pace through out. Overtakes were a pain on the two-lane road, since the traffic appeared pretty high on the day. We were soon trailing the KPN Multi-Axle Volvo, which started off a while before us from Coimbatore. We stopped for a break at Mettur Dam, around 1645. The restaurant was small, and there were no washrooms. I felt pity for the ladies traveling by the bus. While we just stopped, our pairing bus (from Bangalore) too arrived. Both buses were parked one behind the other. The break lasted till 1715. Our bus was the first to start off after break. The bus ran around the dam, and then the thermal power plant and finally hit the state highway to Thoppur, via Mechery. The drivers changed after the break. The run from Mettur to Thoppur was painful - we were running through towns during evening peak hours, when factories were just leaving out General Shift Employees. A huge number of trucks and buses on the road made matters worse. We had to trail trucks for long periods before a gap to overtake was found.

The road condition got worser as we neared Thoppur, but the ride inside was amazing. Once on to the National Highway, at Thoppur, the bus started picking up speed again. The bus faltered badly at Thoppur Ghats, and it struggled to climb up the ghats - However, more than the underpowered nature of the bus, I felt the driver wasn't gearing the bus properly. We struggled up the ghats, while a KPN Multi-Axle volvo overtook us through the left with ease. Our struggled repeated at every ghat section, and we were losing time at every Ghat. The toll-stations were chaotic, while just one or two lanes kept open despite heavy traffic. Our driver kept losing his cool every time we reached a toll-station, and it took an average 15-20 minutes to clear each toll. We stopped at a fuel station near Shoolagiri, for passengers to stretch themselves. We reached Hosur around 8pm. We had a longish halt at Hosur for some unknown reason. I was finally dropped at Bommanahalli around 2100. The journey took 7 and a half hours.

Another view of the driver cabin..

Some miscellaneous points... The Isuzu LT134PR (Swaraj Prestige) bus was launched in India, in June 2008. Two years into the market, the bus has been making ripples recently. Off late, many major operators in Bangalore have purchased these buses. Conti Travels were operating Isuzu buses initially on the Coimbatore-Chennai route. They were only recently introduced to Bangalore. The crew were not very happy with the bus - mainly because its underpowered. However, on flat roads, the bus picked up speed at an amazing pace. The AC is of Denso make. The passengers get individual ac vents and reading lamps. The overall ride was excellent - on par with other premium bus offerings in India. The engine did feel underpowered for the Ghats, but is reportedly fuel efficient, and would save money for operators on the long run. The bus is definitely recommended, for its excellent ride quality.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why is Kerala RTC's premium services proving dud?

The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation offers various "premium" services both within the state and on selected Inter-state routes. The premium portfolio of KSRTC includes 33 "Super Deluxe", 20 "AC" and 3 "AC Garuda" buses.

A Super Deluxe bus..

Super Deluxe buses are non-AC buses with Air-Suspension and 40 push-back executive seats. All the existing Super Deluxe buses were built by KSRTC's Central Workshop, on Ashok Leyland Viking 222" WB Chassis. These buses feature sliding glass windows, and a single entry/exit door. As evident from the image above, the buses lack a very important 'feature' - Attractiveness. The bus looks like a badly built contraption, which no-one would in their wildest dream think is an Air-suspension bus. The interiors are pretty decent, and the seats are comfortable. There is no partition between the driver cabin and the passenger section - this results in light from oncoming vehicles directly flashing on passengers' faces.

An "AC" bus...

The "AC" buses used currently by KSRTC are the first generation TATA Globuses. The buses were built by ACGL, on TATA 1616 Chassis. These buses have a fixed glass, and are airconditioned using Thermoking overhead AC units. The buses have 45 seats, all with push back facility. The seats are regular ones, and do not have thigh support. These buses are maintained poorly (as evident in the image above) - more than maintenance, the bus itself is of poor quality. Yours truly was "un"lucky to have traveled in one of these just 3 months after they were introduced - the buses rattled badly and the ride was no where near being called "comfortable". One gets to know each rough patch on the road very clearly inside the bus. The Airconditioning in most buses are faulty, and buses are often cancelled due to fault in the AC system. Leakage has been an issue with these buses since a long time, and the media had recently highlighted the issue.

An "AC Garuda" bus.. Its a Volvo 9400..

The "AC Garuda" are Volvo 9400 buses. KSRTC operates three such buses - but has suffered seriously from reliability issues. Given the less number of buses, there has been increasing incidence of service cancellations, with the scheduled bus going to the workshop. There has also been incidence of certain antisocial elements disrupting the services by stone-throwing and other damaging measures.

Why are these services proving a debacle?
This is the million dollar question for KSRTC. The premium services of KSRTC (56 buses in all) form only a shade more than 1% of the corporation's fleet strength (of 5556 buses). The main reason why most services fizzle is reliability - service cancellation without any information is the norm in KSRTC these days. In a recent incident, the Ernakulam-Trivandrum Volvo service was cancelled, and no information was provided to passengers who were waiting for the bus for a long time. Not only that the bus was cancelled, no alternative was provided. What ensued was a mad rush for the buses that came later, and at least a handful of passengers who would think twice of planning to travel by these buses.

Reservation is not provided on a substantial number of these services - the reason why they are kept off the reservation system is: KSRTC is not sure if the bus would run. Providing reservation would mean refund of the money to passengers, and also bearing associated losses. The Trivandrum-Palakkad AC service was recently taken off the reservation system. The reason: The scheduled bus spends more time at the workshop than actually running! AND, KSRTC has no spare bus as a back up!

Of the 56 'premium' buses with KSRTC, only a handful operate on intra-state routes. Others are on Inter-state routes - to be more specific, on the Bangalore route. While private operators run AC buses out of Kerala on many lucrative routes, KSRTC is still to wake up and run buses - its good that they don't start another unreliable service.

What can be the solution to this problem?
Purchase more buses, from reputed manufacturers. There should be adequate spare buses for each class of service. Introduce more such services so that they are more visible among passengers, and have more recall. Introduce reservation on all such services - this forces a level of reliability. There are more ways of improving the service.. it is just that the authorities should wake up and dare think beyond introducing more and more ordinary services. Make a humble beginning by replacing long distance services with premium services - nobody with a sound mind would decide to travel from Kottarakkara to Mookambika, or Trivandrum to Mangalore by a Super Fast bus. Introduce a premium service, and encourage people to upgrade.

A testing month!

Its been just 12 days since this month started, and its already been testing! Oh! Don't get me wrong: I've been testing different buses over the past week. It all started on October 8, 2010, with my first ever ride on an Isuzu LT1 (Swaraj Prestige) bus. Yesterday had something bigger, two tests back to back! A Mercedes Benz (MCV) City bus (C120LE) running on trial with BMTC, and then the Mercedes Benz Intercity Coach (O 500 R Two-Axle bus), recently introduced by KSRTC (Kar).

Other than these three new products in the Indian bus market, I had two more firsts in my life. My first ever journey in a Kerala RTC "Super Deluxe" bus, and also a Kerala RTC "Super Express" bus. So the days ahead will be dotted with a few trial reports, and some photographs. Be sure to be right here!

For the railfans: Sorry to disappoint again - the only bit of railfanning I did was seeing the 2008 Shatabdi rushing through Bangalore Cantonment yesterday behind a WAP1.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Exploring the controversial freight ghat! (Part-2)

...It was more of a doze than a sleep. I could clearly hear whistles blown by gangmen, gurgle from umpteen streams and falls on the route, and the regular clickety-clack. We were certainly crawling (the ghats have a limit of 30kmph) - the weather was cold. I remained partially awake as we continued our crawl up the ghats. All this while, my coach was a beehive of activity, and the lone TTE was pulling apart his hair one by one - and was continuously being mobbed by passengers with unreserved tickets. To make matters worse, almost all stations between Mangalore Junction and Hassan issue manual tickets - the TTE is handed over a chart at each station. Each station has a quota of 8 seats each, and for these 8 seats, there would be atleast 20 passengers waiting!

The commotion over seat allocation, and the rightful occupants making their claim over the unreserved passengers added to the show. I jumped out of my berth as the train neared Sakleshpur. The hum of a consist of WDG4s were barely audible, and it slowly got stronger..It got even stronger as we entered the loop line at Sakleshpur. I got off the train - it was pinching cold outside, and I had no protective clothing as well! I decided to check out the bankers first. The bankers were already uncoupled. My train was quickly cleared, and crawled its way out very soon. I headed straight to the canopied portion of the station, and settled on a bench. A railway staff quickly directed me to the waiting room, when I informed that I'd be waiting till the pairing train arrives.

The waiting room is about 12x12 big, with three metal benches lined up around the walls. The walls were damp, from the recent rains. I managed to doze off for a while on one of the benches - by the way, two were already occupied. I woke up around 2 AM. I walked around on the platform - it was unbearably cold now. I took a couple of pics of the station, and then waited for the pairing train to arrive. The Yeshwantpur-Kannur express arrived around 0240. The train was brought in by a KJM WDG3A. My partners in crime, Jayasankar (from Chennai), Bharat Narayan, Vibin and Sanket (all from Bangalore) got off the train, and we all ganged up to decide our next course of action.

The day began off at an unearthly 5 AM. We were to take a freight down the ghats. (The trip was done with due permission from relevant authorities). Twin WDG4s did the honours of take the empty BTPN rake down the ghats, 55 kms away to Subrahmanya Road. We were told that the train would take 4 hours to finish the run, including a crossing at Yadekumeri. We went down to Subrahmanya Road and returned up the ghats on the Mangalore-Yeshwantpur 'day' express. After a sumptuous meal, we headed down the ghats in another freight. We were down by around 1830. I am leaving the 'juicy' part for you all so see. The slideshow below will display selected images of the awesome journey we had through the misty ghats.

After freshening up and some heavy dinner, we were back at the station to get into our link back home. We all were taking the Kannur-Yeshwantpur express. I was to get down at Mysore, and the rest were off to Bangalore. All I remember about this journey was the rush and the commotion at the station. There was little, or no, information on coach positions. We were booked in S4. On enquiry, the guy at the ticket counter said it'll come right near the counter. (Thankfully, it did). The crowd waiting to get into the train was heavy, and made for a stampede like situation when the train came in. We had 'compact' accomodation. I got on to a Middle berth as soon as the train started off. I vaguely remember seeing the TTE - I fell dead asleep even before we started ascending the ghats. I woke up at 4am, just as the train was pulling into Mysore station!

We traveled down the ghats twice and up the ghat twice (I did it thrice) over the day. It was tiresome - none of us were 'tuned' to this kind of travels. But, the ghat route is a must-do for any railfan! Please do it just after the monsoons - the climate would be cool, plus the misty mountains would make for an amazing view. 

Read Part-I of this post here. I returned from Mysore to Kerala by bus. I had posted a travelogue of the bus journey a while back right here (Read the post here).