Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Club Class.. Back-to-Back: Part-2

Like I had said earlier, a back-to-back trial of the Volvo and the Mercedes Multi-Axle buses was on my agenda for a long time. I had posted my review of the Volvo ride earlier (read here). Here comes the review of the Mercedes Ride:

Part-2: November 20, 2011. Bangalore to Thrissur by KaSRTC Airavat Club Class (Mercedes Benz) [Trip Code: 2120BNGEKM]

The day was tiresome - I had attended a wedding of a friend that afternoon, and later had a get-together of fellow railfans near Majestic. I reached home pretty late - only by around 1900hrs. Since my bus was to leave at 2120, I had to leave home latest by 2015hrs. I did manage that feat - my brother dropped me at Shantinagar Bus Terminus. My bus was already there, and they had also started boarding.  I left my baggage in the luggage boot - this time, they gave a baggage tag (The last time I got a Baggage Tag in KaSRTC was three years back!).

This was the same bus that I had traveled about a month back (read here): KA-01-F-9278 of Depot-2 Bangalore. The bus had added some 13K kms since my last journey - this time the odo read some 25000-odd kms. I got into the bus at around 2115 - the conductor was still standing outside, should "Thrissur, Ernakulam..." - I was happy for the fact that they did not want to enter Coimbatore city. The driver got in at 2120, and switched on the engine (and the AC). They played one slap-stick confusion comedy Bollywood movie (its a recent flick). The driver just moved the bus forward, closer to the exit, and we continued to wait for some more time. Finally, the bus got moving at 2126 hrs - a 6 minute delay at origin.

We had pickups at Dairy Circle (2135), Madivala (2145) and Electronic City (2210). It was during this journey that I noticed this fact: KSRTC has appointed inspectors at all these pick-up points. The Conductor has to go to them and get his waybill signed. This did cause some delays, but timekeeping allows passengers to remain relaxed devoid of the fears of the bus going without them. The driver sped up after Electronic city - we were decently fast. The only road block was the toll gate at Attibele - it was crowded. I tried to sleep a bit - but the loud comedies of the movie did not net me sleep.
We pulled into the food plaza near Shoolagiri at 2252 - made a quick run to McDonalds and grabbed a McVeggie, and returned to the bus - only after capturing a few shots. The engine was, unusually, left on during the break. I was back at my seat now. My aisle seat was empty, and I had the liberty to use both the seats. We started off from there at 2316. The movie was still playing. After the movie finished, the conductor came around and closed the rear LCD panel. Curtains were drawn - yes! They had fixed an extra curtain to reduce lights at light.
Now, the bus meant business - I could hear the engine, but the sound was subdued compared to my previous experience. I was ahead by only a row this time - so the seating position would not make much of a difference. Engine sound was still audible - transmission made a lot of noise. The airconditioners were set to very low temperatures now - the ugly window vents was freezing me down. The cold temperature wasn't helping matters much and I found it really hard to sleep. Ride quality, as usual, wasn't great - the bus sways at bad sections.

The adjustable leg rests are the worst I've seen ever - this is not the fault of the bus manufacturer, but the seat manufacturer. The leg rest wouldn't lock at positions that are comfortable for passengers - it would either be too high or too low. I also felt that the leg space for the particular row was poor - my leg was hitting the bottle holder every time and it pained badly. I slept intermittently - I do remember traveling through the bad patches between Avinashi and Neelambur. We pulled in for yet another break at Ettimadai - at 0410. It was hot and humid outside - very different from the cool environs of Bangalore. This time too, the engine was left running.
As we prepared to start, at 0423, the Airavat to Thrissur came in. Our driver meant business as we started off from Ettimadai. Thankfully there was no traffic snarl at Walayar - I slept through the section, and woke up only as we stopped to drop a passenger at Mannuthy. The run from Mannuthy to Thrissur was brisk as usual - I was dropped at Thrissur exactly at 0630 - a 20 minute delay over the promised arrival time. The bus took 9 hours and 4 minutes to finish the journey - the time taken is on the higher side, but the driving was really relaxed and decent.

Comparision: I felt the ride quality in the Volvo was somewhat better than the Mercedes. The leg space in the Volvo was better as well - in fact, I had a co-passenger in the Volvo as well, and I could still sit comfortable. About noise insulation - cannot make a fair comparision. The Volvo had over 2.49lakh kms on the odo, while the Merc had all of 10% mileage of the Volvo - at just 25000 kms. So age would have had an effect - but still, I'd rate Volvo a bit higher than the Mercedes. The window air vents of the Mercedes is the biggest thumbs down for me - I'd not take this bus for this sole reason.

The overall atmosphere in the cabin of the Mercedes is a notch higher than the Volvo - the sleek gear lever, fake wood finish on the instrument panel, the dark MID, etc are some features which attract me. The aisle is very narrow in the Mercedes - walking through with luggage can be a royal pain. The awfully shallow overhead rack is too small to hold anything bigger than a backpack - so passengers had left baggage on the gangway - a safety threat in case of an accident. The brakes are another feature that I like in the Mercedes - One wouldn't slide off their seats during brake application - the retarders are very effective - but the side effect, is the awful noise from the retarders inside the cabin.

Overall: I'd rate both buses equal - but, if there is an option, I'd take the Volvo. Mercedes needs to do a bit of homework to improve noise insulation and also to improve width of the gangway. And, please close those window-aimed air vents too..

Monday, November 21, 2011

Club Class.. Back-to-Back: Part-1

A back-to-back trial of the Volvo and the Merc Multi-Axles was on my mind for a long time. Although there has been close incidences, I've never been able to do a "back-to-back" trial till date. A personal reason gave me a chance to make a very quick journey to Bangalore (A real quick journey). The tickets were booked only a day prior to the journey - both ways by Airavat Club Class. I took the Volvo B9R from Ernakulam to Bangalore, and the Mercedes Multi-Axle from Bangalore to Thrissur.

Part-1: November 18, 2011. Ernakulam to Bangalore by KaSRTC Airavat Club Class (Volvo) [Trip Code: 2035EKMBNG]

My bus was to leave from Ernakulam KSRTC Bus Station at 2035  - I left my home (about 42 kms away) at around 1835. I missed a bus just as I reached a bus stop - there began my delays. I got into a small bus (can't be sure if I can call it a bus - it had all of 18 seats!) which dropped me at the nearest Town - Kodungallur - by about 1855. I got a bus towards Ernakulam (RAM972 of Parur) by about 1910 - the 15 minutes I spent at the bus stop was agonising. The official running time from Kodungallur to Ernakulam is an hour and 25 minutes - so the bus would be reaching there only by 2035!

The driver was in no mood to speed and he crawled for most of the time - to add to my agony, it was one horribly vibrating Tata! We reached Parur at 1930 - the official running time from Kodungallur to Parur was 25 minutes - we did it in 20 minutes despite the super slow driver! This lightened by mind, and I was now hopeful of making it to the bus station on time (atleast just in time). The bus continued its crawl. It was 2005, when we neared the infamous Edappally Railway Level Cross - Damn! It was closed! I lost all hopes of making it to the bus on time. It took about 10 agonising minutes for the train to go, and the gates to open. The bus crawled at a leisurely pace towards Ernakulam. A small block at Palarivattam made me more tense - there was a worse block at Kaloor.

2030 hrs - a call from an unknown number. The person at the other side of the phone asks me if I had reserved a ticket to Bangalore - I understood it was the conductor. I replied Yes - he asked me if I was coming - I said yes, and I'd be there in another 5 minutes (knowing well that it was impossible to be there in 5 minutes). He mumbles that the bus is already late and asks me to hurry. In the meantime, my bus crawls into the bus stop at Kacheripady (this bus goes to Ernakulam Jetty, via Menaka - information for the people with an idea of Ernakulam). I literally jump off the bus and run towards the rickshaw stand - get into a rickshaw and request him to speed up. He concedes to my request, and he drops me at Ernakulam bus station at 2036. I run to the Airavat Club Class parked at the "Interstate bay".

The bus: KA-01-F-9151 of Depot-4, Bangalore Central Division. The bus was about a year old, and about 2.47lakh kms on the odo.

The conductor mumbles something as he sees me - I was very sorry. He double checked that it was indeed me who was "missing" - he checked my ticket, and confirmed it with an identity proof. I presented an "m-Ticket" - KSRTC sends a copy of the ticket as an SMS to your registered phone number. You just need to show this SMS - no need for a printout! He just saw this SMS, and asked me for my identity proof. I left my bag in the undercarriage and took only my backpack inside the bus.

My seat was #29 - a Left window seat in the 8th row. My co-passenger was already seated. I just made it to the seat, and the bus got moving. The time was 2039 (a delay of 4 minutes). The bus runs via Rajaji Road - Chittoor Road - SA Road to reach Vyttila, where they have a pick up point. The turn from Rajaji Road to Chittoor Road was real tight - and a stupid biker made it tough for the driver as well. We reached Vyttila at 2053 - this is where most passengers joined the bus. We had some 35 passengers on board - not bad for a Friday from Ernakulam! We started from Vyttila at 2057.

A Kannada movie - Hudugaru - was being played. I hadn't seen the beginning of the movie, but one scene was a clear give-away of which movie it was - I had seen the same story in Tamil and Malayalam as well. This movie is a remake of the Tamil hit, Nadodigal, which also made in Malayalam as Ithu Nammude Katha. The three versions were similar, scene by scene - except for some adaptations to suit local tastes.

Coming back to the bus - the driver was driving horribly - he never bothers to change gears, and the bus was being lugged every time. We got held up at Edappally signal - we could get off the junction only in our third attempt - the line was so long! Once on the highway, the driver did a good job - we did not have anymore pick ups, and the bus just kept running. We overtook the Bharathi Multi-Axle Merc at Aluva. In the meantime, I had my dinner - packed from home. The bus stopped for dinner at one "Hotel Jubilee" at a place called "Pongam" just at the border of Ernakulam and Thrissur districts. This hotel is beside a fuel station and has a lot of parking space for buses - a lot of operators have now moved over to this hotel from those umpteen shady motels on the highway.

The dinner break was from 2143 to 2210. The exit from the hotel was a mess - due to construction work of service roads. The bus got back to the highway after a bit of circus. The driver was decently fast - there was one Shama Big Bus trying to overtake us badly - that driver was very rash - he attempted a few very close overtakes - thankfully things did not take an ugly turn. The cat-and-mouse game continued till Thrissur bypass - our bus took the flyover. I am not sure where the Shama went. I vaguely remember seeing Mannuthy bypass - I slept soon after. I remember waking up when the bus ran through the rough patches upto Kuthiran - the ride was matured, and did not throw us around.

I woke up around 0130 - the bus was stationary then. The engine was running, and there was one Multi-Axle Merc (of KSRTC) ahead of us, and the Trivandrum-Bangalore Multi-Axle Volvo of KSRTC standing parallel to us. The bus was crawling once in a while - just when I realised that we were stuck in the infamous traffic snarl at Walayar - on the Kerala-TN Border! I slept off again and woke up around 0230 - we were running through Coimbatore town then. All I remember seeing is "The Residency" at Avinashi Road, Coimbatore. I slept off after this. I woke up exactly at 0600 - when I woke up, I saw there was daylight already.
We stopped for yet another break, at 0635 - at Hotel Surya, at a place called "Kurubarapalli" - somewhere between Krishnagiri and Hosur. Started off from here at 0647. When we pulled in for the break, it was the Conductor at the wheels - not sure when the change happened, since it was the driver at the wheels when we started off from the dinner break. When we started from that "glorifed tea stall", it was the driver again at the wheels. The driver was driving better than the conductor - this conductor guy had a habit of shifting to neutral the moment the bus reaches a down-grade!

There wasn't much traffic on the road - but there were enough trucks to slow down our progress at the ghats. We made a halt at Electronic City to drop a couple of passengers - at 0756 AM. The next stop was at Bommanahalli, where I got off - 0813 AM. The driver did not mumble when I requested him to stop - he patiently pulled the bus to the left, so that the conductor could open the luggage hold. Airavat crew are certainly a class apart (there are rotten eggs here, for sure) - but their service is warm, considering the fact it is a government company.

The bus was in good shape - it did have bruises from the battles it battled on the Bangalore-Pune route (the bus has a regular permit on the Pune route, and perhaps also has a spare permit for the Ernakulam route). Even with 2.47lakh kms on the odo, there were no rattles from the bus - no "out-of-note" sounds from the suspensions or the tranmission. The leg-room was really great - I had a long sleep in the bus for the first time! The seats were a bit worn out - may be due to its colour combination. A "super-civilised" not-so-gentle-man had stuck chewing gum on the window glass - wonder when our people will have basic sense of cleanliness. I certainly loved the ride in the Volvo - much more than the ride I had on the return.

Part-2 coming soon...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

TN finally bites the pill

Its inflation every where - the value of every commodity - except currency - has appreciated in the recent times. Petro Cos announce price hike as if they were calling in at an auction - One increases the cost by Rs 2 today, the next Co responds next month with a Rs. 2.50 hike and so on. I still have a copy of a bill for refueling diesel at Rs. 9 a litre (that was back in 1996/7 period)! With the cost of fuel increasing almost on a daily basis, every transport corporation in the country revised their ticket rates. The State Government of Tamil Nadu were hesitant to increase fuel prices since a very long time - a hike in prices would hit their vote banks badly - who cares of the health the Transport Cos. For every loss they make, it is the Common man who has to fund by the way to increased taxes.

Fares of buses in TN was hiked last in 2001 - the price of diesel has doubled since. TN buses charged 28 paise a Km (For Ordinary/City/Town buses) and 32 Paise a km (Mofussil buses). Now, the new government of TN has finally decided to bite the hard pill, and open their eyes to reality - keeping the fares artifically low has cost a lot on the Transport Corporations. Transport Companies in the TN were among the best in efficiency, maintenance, punctuality, reach and what not - they've slipped down on many counts now. Corporations (in TN, there are 8 transport corporations - the Chennai City operator MTC, the pan-state long distance operator TN-SETC and finally 6 TNSTCs controlling short distance services and town services) were adopting backdoor methods to collect higher fares - they introduced "branded" services which charged upto twice the rates of regular buses (I had blogged about this earlier - read here).

Finally after almost 10 years of downward roll, the state government of TN has finally decided to hike rates - a good hike as well. They've almost doubled rates (not exactly though) for their services. The ordinary buses would now cost you 42 paise a km (up from 28ps), while the mofussil buses would cost 56 paise a km (up from 32 ps). Now, I'd call these fares realistic - they reflect today's operating costs. This hike might perhaps give the most required Vitamin-M for the corporations in TN.
These tickets would now be history - the minimum fare in TN is being hiked to Rs. 3. The above ticket cost only Rs. 2!!!

A short comparision of fares with other transport corporations in South India (and Maharashtra too) would give an idea of how the fares are in other places. The fares are as below: (all fares are Paise per Km)

Tamil Nadu: Ordinary 42 ps, Express 56ps, Super Deluxe 60ps, Ultra Deluxe 70ps.
Kerala: Ordinary 55ps, Fast Passenger 57ps, Super Fast 60ps, Super Express 65ps, Super Deluxe 75ps, AC 90ps, Volvo 110ps
Karnataka: Ordinary 69ps, Express 75ps, Semi-Deluxe 80ps, Super Deluxe 107ps, Hitech 117ps.
Andhra Pradesh: Ordinary 50ps, Express 62ps, Deluxe 70ps, Super Luxury 82ps, Volvo 140ps
Pondicherry: Express 27ps, Deluxe 75ps, AC 150ps
Maharashtra: Ordinary 80ps, Night Services 93ps, Semi-Luxury 107ps, Sheetal 142ps, Shivneri (Volvo) 198ps

I'd discount the fares in Pondicherry since all the territories of Pondicherry are very small - the fares charged in Pondy would not make much of a difference for inter-state vehicles. The lowest ordinary fares are still in TN (42 Paise), while Andhra follows them at 50ps. The highest is in Maharashtra at 80ps. Ordinary fares are an indicator of the state's transport business - since its ordinary buses that are used the most by daily commuters.

The Karnataka government gives a more free hand for their operators when it comes to fixing prices for premium services - the fares for Volvo/Mercedes buses can be decided by the operator without the consent of the government - this gives the operator more flexibility in operating services. They can charge high when the demand is high and charge low when the demand is low and thereby attract more passengers. 

Keeping ordinary fares low is a great idea - since it benefits daily passengers a lot. In Kerala, even Ordinary fares are not spared - mainly because a good share of the public transportation scene is handled by private operators, who operate mainly on Ordinary permits. In the two states where ordinary fares have been kept low (TN and AP), the transportation scene is ruled mainly by Government operations. With this hike in fares in TN, operators of other states would be less scared to operate to TN. In the earlier scenario, other state operators had to operate to/through TN charging very low fares. Take the following example:

The Ernakulam-Bangalore route - there are three different routes between these two cities. The first route goes via Coimbatore-Hosur, the Second via Thrissur-Nilambur-Gudalur-Mysore and the Third via Kozhikode-Bathery-Mysore. In the first and second routes, the buses would have to travel through TN. Let us take an example of an imaginary Super Express of Kerala SRTC running between the two cities, in all the three routes.

In Route 1: Via Coimbatore - the bus would travel 171 kms in Kerala, 358  kms in TN and 35 kms in Karnataka. (Total Kms: 564) The bus would be able to charge an end-to-end fare of Rs. 277 (Kerala rounds off its fares to the next multiple of 5, so the fare would be Rs. 280). Breakup of the fare would be Rs. 111.15 for the 171kms in Kerala (@65 ps/km), 136.04 for the 358kms in TN (@38ps/km - SD Fares) and 29.87 for the 35 kms in Karnataka (@85 ps/km - Semi-Deluxe fares).

Route 2: Via Gudalur-Mysore - the bus would travel 229.9 kms in Kerala, 38 kms in TN and 238 kms in Karnataka (Total Kms: 505.9). The end-to-end fare would be Rs. 367 (rounded off to Rs. 370). The breakup would be Rs. 149.4 for 229.9 kms in Kerala, Rs. 14.44 for 38 kms in TN and Rs. 366.17 for 238 kms in Karnataka.

Route 3: Via Kozhikode-Mysore - the bus travels 329 kms in Kerala and 236.2 kms in Karnataka. Total kms: 565.2. The end-to-end fare would work out to 414.6 (Rounded off to 415). The bus makes Rs. 213.8 for the 329kms in Kerala and 200.77 for the 236.2 kms distance in Karnataka!

To summarise things - the bus earns Rs 280 for running 564 kms in Route 1, Rs. 370 to travel 505.9 kms through Route 2 and Rs. 415 for running 565.2 kms via Route 3!! So by avoiding running via TN, the bus manages to earn an extra Rs. 135!! This simple calculation explains why corporations like KeSRTC or KaSRTC were hesitant to operate "low end" services to TN, due to the unrealistically low fares. This increase in fares would also increase the availability of "low end" services to passengers on interstate routes. Hope the TN government continue with its realistic attitude, and not blindly follow vote-bank politics, which finally ruin the health of state run companies.