Monday, October 31, 2011

My first tryst with a Metro..

I saw the first ever Metro train in my life while passing through Delhi on my way to Chandigarh, back in June 2009. The silver, sleek train rushed through a bridge above my train - I looked at it in awe, but time constraints did not let me have a closer look. Two years down the lane, the Metro descends on my favorite city in the South - Bengaluru. Although the Metro missed a lot of deadlines, it came with all the fun. 

Coincidentally, I was in Bangalore during the time the Metro was inaugurated. Some personal commitments did not let me get on the metro for the first week of its operations. I had planned a ride on the Metro on Diwali day - but that too had to be postponed. Finally, I was going on the day immediately after Diwali - October 27, 2011 to be precise. I took a bus from my place to KR Puram via Ring Road. I waited there in the hope of getting a Metro Feeder bus - I wasn't aware that this route wasn't covered by feeder buses. But there were umpteen buses going there - seeing all of them crowded, I got into an Autorickshaw - making by wallet light by Rs. 50.

The Metro station at Baiyyappanahalli resembled a shopping mall, and it had the kind of crowds that Malls see on weekends! There was a police bus standing outside, and half a dozen cops were sitting near the entrance and chatting off. On entering the station, I went through a Metal detector - they did not check my bag though. Then comes an escalator - I did not see any steps for going up - having them would be a good idea for people scared of escalators. The Escalator was dead slow, and I felt like walking up - resisted the idea though. After the escalator was a long "skywalk" that gives a view of the carshed, and the yard. There were no security guys or cops anywhere in this stretch - people were talking photos of themselves posing on the skywalk. 
The ticket counters are located on the first floor - its a huge balcony kind of thing. The counters had a very huge queue - four counters were open, and each one of them had humungous queues. One of the counters was issuing only tokens to MG Road. After 15 minutes in the queue, I reached the ticket counters - purchased a Varshik Smartcard and charged it for the minimum amount (the card costs Rs. 50, and the minimum recharge is Rs. 50). After getting the card, I walked 'into' the station building. One has to take an escalator to get to the platforms, which are at ground level.
The station has two platforms (sorry - no images. The queue was humungous for me to take any decent images). Arrivals were on Platform 1, and departure from Platform 2 - the incoming train goes towards the yard, reverses and enters the other platform for its return departure. A while after reaching the platform, the train from MG Road came in. The Security guys on the platform had a very tough time to keep people behind the yellow line - the whistles were getting me crazy. Passengers were absolutely non-cooperative - no body was ready to listen to the security guys. When the train came into to our platform, what ensued was reminiscent of Mumbai's Locals - people were pushing each other, with loud howls. The train came in and stopped - the doors weren't opened. Later the train crawled a bit forward for it to align with the door markings, and later the doors opened. All this time, people were pushing ahead all the time.

I got into the coach - the middle one of the three car rake. People were jostling to get a seat - passengers were mainly families who were out to have a taste of the metro. There were lots of guys working in companies around BYPL - the likes of HP. The train got moving by 1300hrs - there was no jerk when the train started. It started gently - slowly crawling ahead, and then picking speed. The train made sounds similar to the DC EMUs of Mumbai - the sound was nostalgic, very nostalgic. The AC was hardly able to cool the coaches - the crowd was too much for it handle. 
There were announcements before the train arrived a station - they announcements were in Kannada, English and Hindi (in the same order). The English announcements were horrible though - there were plenty of grammatical errors - an Example: "Train will arriving MG Road station" - this announcement plays when the train would just be entering the platform. The announcements also included details like which side the platform would arrive, and also reminded people of the gap between the coach and the platform (the gap was too less for people to fall, though). The train reached MG road around 1312 - thats a 12 minute ride for 7 kilometres. A road journey on the same route would take atleast 45 minutes!! 
Now the next drama - the train empties and goes out to reverse. The security guys still want people on empty platforms to stand away from the Yellow Line - a couple of guys talked rough to the security guys for going overboard - I took a couple of images and headed out. But wait - the exits were all chocked! I took the exit that seemed less crowded to me. Getting to the exit gates itself was a task in itself. More than the number of passengers, the gates were often getting stuck, and people were trying to get past the gates without dropping their tokens - the security guys had a tough job here.
I decided not to be a cultured citizen - and cut across lines and reached the gate quickly. Since I had a Varshik Card, I just swiped it and walked out. The scene outside was interesting - the entry gates were closed - I presume it was due to some problem at the ticketing counters. Interestingly, at Baiyyappanahalli, a counter was closed since the tokens got over! Perhaps the same happened at MG Road as well. There was a HUGE queue to get into the station - the queue was stretching till the point I could see far in the horizon.
I got into a Metro Feeder bus that was waiting outside - thankfully BMTC does not keep a board as to where the bus goes, other than a useless board which says the route number was "MG-MF-4", with the origin/destination reading as "MG Road Metro Station". They did not bother listing out the route the bus would take - forget writing in English, they did not write it even in Kannada! The rude behaved controller there did not bother replying to passengers either. The conductor was shouting out "Majestic, Majestic" - I got into it, there were no seats though. I changed buses at Shivaji Nagar and proceeded to Majestic later.

The Metro service was too good - the coaches were well finished. The crowd would surely come down - to less than 50% of what it is at present. Being a short corridor, that does not serve any of BMTC's Milk Routes (ITPL/E-City/ORR/Bannerghatta Road), the Metro shouldn't be looking at high riderships until its next reaches open. But surely the Metro has a bright future in a city which sees traffic blocks as its favorite time pass :P

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Club Class'd.. finally!

Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) is a pioneer in introducing newer age technologies among the Government run Transport Corporations. KSRTC was the first to bring out Volvo buses, way back in 2002. From then, KSRTC built up a strong fleet of those white swedish beauties, naming them after the Mythical character, Airavat. KSRTC increased their presence on many routes, and became the preferred premium operator on every route they ran on. About 8 years after they created history, they repeated history again with the introduction of Multi-Axle buses - the first for any state transport undertaking.
The Multi-Axle buses of KSRTC are called "Airavat Club Class" - the buses are a notch above their regular Airavat services. The buses come with 49 seats - 44 of them with calf-support, and the rest are regular limited-recline seats. Airavat Club Class was initially Volvo B9Rs. The Multi-Axles were flagged off on 27th November 2010. These buses have replaced regular Airavats on many routes and are an instant hit with passengers. On the trail of success, KSRTC introduced Multi-Axle Mercedes Benz buses this year - on 29th September 2011. Unlike the two-axle Mercedes Benz buses, the Multi-Axle buses get the same name and livery as the Volvos.

Almost a year after the "Club Class" came into being, I managed a chance to travel in an Airavat Club Class bus this month. I traveled in a KSRTC Airavat Club Class Mercedes Benz bus on October 27, 2011 from Bangalore to Thrissur. This was also my second ride in a Mercedes Benz Multi-Axle bus. To begin with, I was never a fan of the boxy looks of the Merc buses sold in India - I love the curvy design of the Volvo. I was at the Shanti Nagar bus station around 2040 for a 2120 departure. Roamed around the bus station for some time, clicking a couple of buses. The conductor came in around 2105 and started boarding.
I left my baggage in the undercarriage and they stood outside for some time. Although I didn't have much baggage, I preferred leaving them in the luggage hold since the overhead racks in Merc buses are too small for even medium sized bags. The racks are best for backpacks or small bags - nothing more than that. I roamed around the bus until about 2110 - later headed too my seat: #36. It was a Left-Window seat on the 9th row - my glass was partially obscured by the sticker on the glass. The Airavat Club Class buses have a huge sticker of a baby sleeping on a pram, along with a couple of toys lying around. This sticker obscures the glass of the window right above the rear axles.
The AC was not yet switched on, and it was getting somewhat hot inside. The conductor came in to check tickets and also switched on the entertainment system - a bollywood movie was played. I love this attitude of playing a neutral movie. The bus was switched on around 2115, and the AC too was started. The bus was very noisy - the growl of the engine was heard clearly inside the bus. I discounted the noise since the door was open. The clock in the bus was about 4 minutes ahead of my watch - the driver got in sharp at 2120, but we didn't start. Around 2124, the driver slots the bus to the first gear and prepares to move - but the bus doesn't budge. Smelling something wrong, the driver gets off and rushes to the back. He opens the engine door, plays around something and closes the engine door. The engine shuts down on itself!
The driver comes back, switches off all lights and the TV - turns the ignition switch - but no response from the engine! After a couple of tries more, the driver gets off the bus. Other Volvo drivers too join in - the trace the problem to a "loose AC Alternator". They call up the depot and get hold of a mechanic. The driver informs the mechanic of the problem and ask him to rush immediately. Around 2140, the mechanic turns up. Around 2155, the bus was fit to depart. They switched off the engine and restarted it a couple of times, started the AC, and so on to test if things were all right. Finally at 2158, the conductor signals the driver to start. The bus finally crawls out of Shantinagar bus station, takes a right and heads towards Lalbagh. From there the bus turned left and headed straight towards Dairy Circle.

We had about 37 passengers on board as we started from Shantinagar. We picked up another 3 passengers from Dairy Circle and one more from Madivala - we finally had 41 passengers on board in the 49 seater bus. The seats were of Harita make - the Fabric had red and beige colours. The fabric was soft, and the upholstery was well done. The seats also had calf support. We took the route below the elevated highway - thankfully traffic was really light since the time was already past 2215. Since the windows were partially obscured, I had nothing much to see outside, and kept the curtains closed. I watched the movie for some time, and later fell asleep. We pulled into the food plaza at Shoolagiri, at 2303. While the crew and majority of the passengers headed to the hotel Krishna Inn, I headed straight to McDonalds. Grabbed a cold Coke and a McVeggie and returned back to the bus.
We started off from there at 2322. The movie was stopped, and the screens were folded up. Sadly, there is no curtain between the driver cabin and the passenger cabin, other than the two small drop down screen - light from the oncoming vehicles were a disturbance. My co-passenger moved to an empty row behind, leaving me the two seats for my self. The cold air coming out of the open vents between the rack and the windows were annoying - there was no way I could close them. (May be I'll have to carry packing tapes for my next journey). You can see those vents in the image above. Thankfully, the AC was left at 23~24, and the blower speed was low. I slept soon after we started off from the break - I vaguely remember crossing the first toll gate.

The engine noise was penetrating heavily into the cabin - even the retarders could be heard loud and clear. The engine grunt was annoying at times - and it felt as if the bus was crawling. I woke sometime around 0300, when the bus hit a blunt pothole - that was perhaps at the point where a new surface met the old one. While the engine noise deceived me into thinking that the bus was very slow, but in reality we were almost close to Coimbatore already! That was just 5 hours! I slept soon after we entered Coimbatore bypass. Woke up again when the bus ran through a rough patch and stopped somewhere on the road side - just as I opened my eyes, the lights in the coach came up. The conductor shouted "5 nimisha idhe.." (We have 5 minutes) - that was another break! The time was 0356.

I got off the bus - we were at Ettimadai. Right outside Amrita University campus - on the highway. There was a small teastall. A lot of buses were crawling in from Kerala - and almost all of them stopped at Ettimadai, for passengers getting off. While we were just preparing to leave, another KSRTC bus - an Airavat heading to Thrissur, came in. We started off at 0408. I vaguely remember running through Walayar. We made a brief halt at Palakkad to drop off a passenger (0440). The road was in poor shape, and the suspension did not help much - the bus was swaying side to side and each pothole was felt inside - despite all these, I managed to sleep again. I woke up just when the bus stopped somewhere - I thought that to be Mannuthy, but we were already at Thrissur - somewhere near the Round. I hastily packed up my luggage - just while the conductor switched on the light and shouted "Thrissur"... the bus passed Sakthan Stand and headed straight to the KSRTC bus station.

I headed to the front to see how the bus manages the road - the long creature had no troubles getting in to the bus station. So finally a multi-axle calls on at Thrissur bus station!! I was dropped inside the bus station at 0558 - exactly 8 hours after we started from Bangalore! I was terribly impressed with the speed of the bus - the ride quality wasn't great. The engine noise added to the misery. Merc buses have a very narrow aisle - its almost impossible to walk through with baggage, especially if the seats are full. The awfully placed air vents facing the windows are a pain for passengers - it'll freeze passengers.

A few tips: If you need to travel in a Mercedes Multi-Axle: Make sure you get a seat towards the middle of the bus - those awful air vents pointed at the windows aren't present here. If its a Club class, the rear rows have a completely obscured window - so a seat around the middle of the bus would give a clear window as well. I'll try out the Mercedes once again to see how the sound levels are, when sitting at the seats towards the front.The aisle is an absolute pain to walk through - so sitting towards the front would save you the trouble of having to walk through the aisle.

My ratings: 9 on 10 for the service and 6 on 10 for the bus.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My first on KPN

KPN - K.P.Natarajan - Travels is an infamous travel operator based in Salem, Tamil Nadu, India. The operator is credited with perhaps the highest reach to places in TN from Bangalore - but has earned a misreputation of being an unreliable operator in the past few years. KPN is a very old operator, existing since the mid 1900s. The operator started expanding sometime in the mid 1990s, and is now a formidable operator on many routes. They also have to their credit a good transparent online ticket booking system. They are also the biggest Multi-Axle Volvo operator between Bangalore and Tamil Nadu.

I had been planning a trip on KPN since a very long time - It had even reached the point of booking a ticket. But that ticket was cancelled later due to some other issues - this time, I was determined to make it. Accordingly, I booked a ticket on KPN's Multi-Axle Volvo departing from Coimbatore on October 16, 2011 at 1300, to Bangalore. I reached Coimbatore by a KSRTC bus from my place, and did a bit of bus spotting at Coimbatore. After a sumptuous meal at Sri Annapoorna, I headed to the Omni Bus Stand, from where I was to board the KPN bus. The KPN office had basic facilities for passengers waiting for the bus.
The bus - KA-25-D-1 - came in sharp at 1255. Only two of us got in here and the bus left at 1257 itself. The bus headed straight to their Dr. Nanjappa Road office (near the Central Bus Station). We started off from here at 1330. The next stop was less than a kilometre away, at "Sow-Maa" complex. We returned to the Omni bus station at 1342. The cleaner got here in - we had two drivers, and two cleaners now. A guy from the KPN office got in and made a final head count before letting the bus leave. We started off at 1350. The bus ran straight through Ganapathy, on to Sathy road. We took this route upto Annur, from where the bus took the State highway to Avinashi. We had a pickup at Avinashi.

The bus was well kept - it was a two year old bus, with over 5 lakh kilometres on the Odometer. The bus did make squeaks when going through rough patches, and the transmission noise was loud when the engine was being lugged. The seats were in good shape - the cloth covers on the head rest were clean. Curtains were in good shape. The interior lighting was redone - the camouflaged lamps were replaced with open lamps - the ones we see in Volvo City buses.

In the meantime, the bus continued its good run towards Bangalore. We maintained speeds in the range of 100~110kmph (on my GPS) on the four laned road. We went into Chitode town to pick up a few passengers, leaving from there at 1542. We went inside Bhavani as well to pick up passengers - leaving from there at 1552. From Bhavani, the bus took the route through Mettur Dam, to reach Dharmapuri. The Bhavani-Mettur-Thoppur section is two laned, with potholes in many sections. However, the driver maintained very good pace through the run. We stopped at Mettur for the last pick up - the bus took a "leak" break as well here. The break was about 8 minute long, departing at 1645. The pickup at Hosur was the last - the bus had 100% occupancy now. KPN Multi-Axle buses are configured with 44 semi-sleeper seats. The last row seats are replaced with a berth for the spare driver to sleep.

The driver let the beast rip after Mettur. Their experience of driving on the route daily showed up - they made the correct maneuvers, avoided big potholes, all while maintaining decent pace. The bus finally pulled into A2B Restaurant near Dharmapuri Toll. The break was from 1748 to 1813 - every passenger made use of the break to stretch their legs, and also for some pet pooja. The drivers stretched after the break - the ghats were messy like always. One slow moving truck decides to over take the one ahead of him - in the process jamming the entire carriageway. Cars resort to off-roading, while long vehicles like the Multi-Axle bus are forced to crawl behind. I was finally dropped at Silk Board, at 2030 - 6 hours and 40 minutes after the bus started from Coimbatore. The running time is decent considering the traffic in the section.

Side notes: The cleaner did not bother pulling down the rear LCD panel - so passengers in the rear seats were forced to strain their necks to see the movie on the front LCD. They played one horror movie - I feel such movies should be avoided in buses, since the audience would not always love such movies. The horror movie had to be stopped at between after the disc stopped automatically. Later, they played a couple of classic Kamal Hassan flicks. The service was "no-nonsense" - the crew were not ill-behaved. The berth at the rear of the bus let the spare driver stretch well - which keeps them fresh for their duty. They adhered to timings as claimed by their website - and the bus also seemed to have regular passengers.

KPN has a very transparent booking system - they do not jack up fares during peak seasons as well. They have the biggest reach with Multi-Axle buses in TN. They do waste time at various points - for loading luggage, or waiting for the odd passenger to turn up. The bus was fast enough - and I'd surely give KPN the benefit of doubt. I'd surely dare try them again.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Do Not overtake from the left...

This is one rule that is seen on highways often - a rule that needs to be followed meticulously. In many places, traffic police seem to enforce this rule with enthusiasm. Recently, the Kochi City Police came with an idea of "Model Road".  They declared the Edappally-Vyttila-Aroor section as a "Model Road" - where all motorists were required to follow all highway rules. The rules imposed were - maximum speed of 70kmph for light vehicles, strict lane discipline and no overtakes through the left.

The cops were enthusiastically pulling up violators - overspeeding was caught using speed radars, and traffic wardens were posting at many places on the road. So far so good. However, the police said "No Overtakes from the left" - but they never tried understanding why motorists were overtaking through the left. The Government of Kerala even launched a video campaign as part of their "Road Safety Campaign" - the videos included those intended to induce alertness about use of mobile phones while driving, using zebra mark for crossing the road, lane discipline and so on.

In one video which was intended to convey the message "no overtakes through the left" - the message was conveyed by showing a trucker driving slowly (crawling would be the correct word here) on the fast lane (the right lane on a 4 lane road) and a car driver honking continuously from behind. The car driver finally overtakes through the left. The message comes up "even on four lane roads, one should overtake through the right". All is well - BUT - why on earth isn't the video focusing on the trucker who does not change lanes to allow the vehicle behind to overtake him??

In the two years of driving in Kerala, I find that overtaking through the left is inevitable while driving through the few kilometres of four-laned roads in Kerala! The reason: the head-weighted average Malayalee would not let any one overtake them! Try this on a road: the moment you start overtaking a slow moving car, he'll start pulling to the right - the reason: you have not finished the tenure of tortoise race punishment. You try overtaking through the left, he'll pull left. So on four lane roads, the tactic would be - try overtaking on the right, he'll pull right. Use that moment to overtake him from the left!

While I don't support overtaking through the left, it is inevitable in our ill-mannered state. The lack of road sense is shocking. Our RTOs insist on drawing "8"s and "H"s for getting a licence. The simple solution - driving schools teach wannabe drivers only to drive "8" or "H". These drivers after confidently winning their license, get on to the road to try out "8" or "H" on the road - in the process pulling out all the senses out of other drivers.

Here is one incident - I was driving back home today, on the typical one-and-a-half laned "Non" Highway in Kerala (once called the NH-17, now NH-66). There one one old white coloured yellow-board Ambassador crawling at 30kmph. This bugger would start pulling to the right the moment I try to overtake him - I really do not understand what did he achieve by that. After testing my patience for a good 10 minutes, I managed to overtake him at one tricky point. The next time you crawl on the road, remember that you are putting the life of the guy following you into risk - because he'd make dangerous attempts to overtake you. What do you achieve by not letting him overtake? You have anyways decided to go slow - why force others too to go slow?