Tuesday, March 27, 2012

My first experience with APSRTC's Garuda

As the Coromandel express to Howrah was rushing past Guntur, I received a call from my home, breaking the sad news of the death of my cousin. I had to discontinue my journey at Vijayawada and head to Bangalore and then home. I was in a state of confusion was we neared Vijayawada - I had absolutely no guess about the City. I was sure that I wouldn't get any trains to head back home (in Kerala) or to Bangalore at that time - the busfan in me led me to the obvious conclusion of taking a bus. The train got into Vijayawada a while past 3. I bid adieu to the rest of the gang heading to Kolkata (for the IRFCA Convention), and headed towards the exit. I enquired at the exit if I can get a refund on the untraveled portion of my ticket - the lady just said you apply on IRCTC. Since I did not have time to go behind the refunds, I headed out of the station.

I wanted to take a bus to the bus station (I had seen the bus station while coming by train) - but I had no idea where would I get a bus from! An auto driver approached and asked in Hindi if I wanted an auto - he asked for Rs. 35 or so (I don't remember the exact sum) - I got in the rick and headed to the bus station. The rick driver dropped me at a place that looked like the rear end of the bus station - I directly entered a dark corridor, which had one of APSRTC's old buses plinted. That was the arrival block, if my memory serves me right. From there, I kept walking, searching for an enquiry counter. Almost all the signages in the bus station were in Telugu - with not a single word of English anywhere.

I suddenly saw a desk with a few RTC staff sitting, and many people rushing around. I guessed it would be enquiry counter - headed straight there and asked for the reservation counter. The lady at the counter wasn't interested in answering to a question in Hindi - but a good samaritan, a conductor with APSRTC, quickly directed me to the counter. I headed straight in the direction the gentleman had pointed his fingers to - there the counter was. A small kiosk kind of thing, with grilles all around - resembling the teller's counter in a Bank. There was a huge board with the timings of services that had reservation facility - but the entire board was in Telugu! I asked the gentleman at the counter - thankfully he responded in English! I asked for a ticket to Bangalore - "5 'O Clock - Garuda" came the answer. I quickly asked for a ticket, with a request for a window seat. He issued a ticket quickly - the cost was Rs. 994. (Private buses on the route would've been cheaper). The ticket had a surprise for me - the bus was heading to Electronic City, Bangalore! That was a bumper for me, since I can get off at Bomanahalli directly from this bus!
Vijayawada's Pandit Nehru Bus Station.
Once I got a ticket, I headed out to find a cloak room - there was one very close to the ticket counter. Left my baggage there, and headed out to explore the vast bus station - "Pandit Nehru Bus Station, Vijayawada". One thing that struck me was - there were two blocks in the bus station. One called an "Arrival  Block", while the other was called "Departure Block". I did see passengers getting into buses at the arrival block - so not really sure what is the significance of an Arrival block. The city bus station was just outside the Departure block. I got busy taking some pictures - setting myself a target of 1615hrs to wind up exploration, and to head to the restaurant for some food. I roamed across the bus station, and stumbled on a very unique liveried bus - that was one from Odisha! After capturing a couple of shots (by now, the clock ticked past 1620hrs), I headed straight to a restaurant in the bus station premises. I did not want to wander outside the bus station - for the fear of getting lost in an alien city.

The restaurant had a huge menu card - printed as a banner, pasted on the wall. Sadly, this one was also in Telugu! I was sure there would be Dosa - so asked for one. Like in most bus stations, this one was also a self-service restaurant. The dosa was served with a deep red chutney - it looked spicy and it surely was. After downing the dosa, I headed straight to the platform where my bus would depart from. I decided to take a photo of the bus as it comes from the depot, and remained near the gate - the bus (AP-29-Z-1800) came out at 1640hrs. Interestingly, the bus went straight and parked next to a KSRTC Airavat, also heading to Bangalore! I now rushed to the cloak room and retrieve my baggage. Got a bottle of cold drink on my way back, and headed straight to the bus. The baggage was left in the baggage hold, and I got into the bus.
My bus - AP-29-Z-1800 - being brought out of the depot at Vijayawada.
APSRTC has an inspector who would check your tickets as you get into the bus - the conductor would not check your tickets. He would only issue tickets to unreserved passengers. The Inspector checked my ticket at the doorway, and guided me to my seat - #29. The interiors of the bus surprised me - it had only 10 rows of seats. 41 seats in all, in a B7R - that gave humungous leg space to every passenger! The seat was very comfortable - the leg space was huge. The draw back of the huge legspace was that one had to stretch his/her legs to reach the leg-rest! Water bottles (1 ltr bottles) were kept in a plastic crate - passengers could take the bottles from there. The bus had a driver, a driver-cum-conductor and an attendant. The attendant did not seem like an APSRTC employee - he did not wear a uniform. This chap was responsible for handling passenger baggage, distributing water bottles, blankets, playing the movie, etc.

The bus had decent patronage as it slowly backed out of the platform - at 1705hrs. That was a delay of 5 minutes at the starting point. I was traveling in a B7R after almost a year - the engine sounded very silent to me, after being used to the rather harsh tone from the B9R. The bus headed out of the city, straight to the bridge over River Krishna, and headed straight to the highway. The driver was really well mannered - he wasn't using the horn unnecessarily, or did not attempt rash overtakes. The top speed our bus did was only 95kmph - that too in brief bursts. The bus stopped in the middle of no-where - ticket checkers got in! They checked all passengers while the bus continued its journey. We turned off the highway, and headed into Guntur town. I was feeling very tired by now - I hadn't slept properly the previous night, plus the news of the death of my cousin - I was totally drained out. I called the attendent and asked for a blanket - he quickly fetched one for me. The blanket was properly packed in a plastic cover - and it was a proper fleece blanket, not the typical shawls provided by other operators.
Inside the bus. The legspace was humongous.
Our bus got into Guntur at 1800hrs - the ticket checkers checked the baggage hold as well (may be to check for unaccounted parcels). A few passengers got in here. We got moving at 1815hrs. I slowly reclined my seat and got into a power nap. Meanwhile, the AV system was playing an Allu Arjun starring Telugu movie (I had seen this movie dubbed in Malayalam earlier). I slept intermittently - while the driver maintained decent pace. Road widening was in progress and hence there were very frequent diversions. Just as I woke up from a short nap, our bus was pulling into Ongole bus station - 2025hrs. The bus was parked in the yard - they were still playing a movie (the first one got over, and this was another one). The crew just got off the bus and walked away, leaving the engine and AC running all the time. The bus did not move well upto 2045hrs, and I wondered if this was a dinner break - by now, many passengers had brought food from the stall outside and we having their food. I got off the bus and got some biscuits and packed lemon rice for dinner.

By now the bus was brought to the platform, and the driver was busy washing the windshield. The bus got moving at 2108hrs. Our bus was surely wasting a lot of time getting into bus stations. I was back to sleep soon after the bus resumed its journey. I woke up briefly around 0215~0220 - the bus was stationary at Tirupati bus station at that time. The guy at the ticket counter had promised a 0500hrs arrival at Bangalore - that seemed doubtful to me by now. I fell asleep even before the bus started off from Tirupati. I woke up at 0530hrs - we were still running! A private operator's B9R overtook soon after I woke up - I do not remember the name of the operator. We stopped at Hoskote to drop a passenger - at 0542hrs. We stopped at Krishnarajapuram again, at 0555. Then again at Tin Factory, at 0601hrs. This halt was fairly long - a lot of passengers got off here. We reached Shantinagar at 0623hrs. We were an hour and 38 minutes late now! The halt at Shantinagar was really long - the conductor had to get his waybill signed, and there were a lot of conductors at the control office.

In the meantime, a Volvo on 356C headed to Electronic city - I could've changed buses.. We started off from Shantinagar at 0630hrs. There were just three passengers in the bus now - a lady, another gentleman and me! The lady got off at Madiwala (0643hrs). I headed to the front seats now, and asked the driver if he would be taking the elevated highway. He quickly replied that the corporation does not pay for the toll! The driver asked where I wanted to get off - He stopped at Bommanahalli for me. The attendant got into the baggage hold to retrieve my baggage, which was now lying in one corner of the huge boot. I was in Bommanahalli at 0653hrs! That was 13hours 48 minutes in an APSRTC Volvo!

Remarks: The bus was well-maintained. I did not see the mileage readings - but it did not make any noises. I was traveling by a B7R after a very long time, and was really enjoying the engine notes as compared to the harsher tone of the B9R. I loved the extra legspace - I slept well since the seating was not at all cramped - it was really spacious. The service was too good - the attendant responded to individual requests very well. The blanket provided was big, and that made for a comfortable journey. The blanket was fresh, and was provided in sealed plastic covers. I loved the service - overall. Will give it a 3.5 on 5. (marks deducted for the delay and the lack of a dinner break!)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

KPN's white beast to Chennai

The seventh annual get-together of railfans - the IRFCA Convention - was set in Kolkata in the last week of January. I had not attended one since my first and last convention that we hosted in Bangalore (January 2009). This time around, I decided to make it to the convention - tickets were booked in advance, rooms reserved.. all set. I was to take the Coromandal express from Chennai to Kolkata on the 26th of January 2012. I decided to be in Chennai a day earlier, so that I could do some local bus-spotting and some trainspotting. I was sure that I would take a bus from Ernakulam to Chennai, but was confused on which one to take.

Kallada was ruled out since they go via Pondy. Parveen was ruled out because it was a Mercedes, and they too go via Pondicherry. Now the tie was between KPN and SRM. Sona never featured in my thoughts at all. I decided to take KPN since it leaves late from Ernakulam, and I had no deadlines to meet in Chennai. I made a booking through their office - the ticket rate was Rs. 1110 (Rs. 80 less than their website). They issued a printed ticket, printed on their preprinted ticket stock - that was professional. Their service departs at 2015hrs and they 'claim' an arrival at 6AM (impossible, I said to myself).

January 24, 2012: Fresh from a late-running experience for a KaSRTC bus at Ernakulam, I decided to leave home much earlier than required. During my previous experience, I left home late, and managed to successfully delay my bus (read here). I left home around 1730hrs, for an 8pm bus. I got in a KSRTC bus to Ernakulam from Kodungallur around 1755 or so - thankfully it was a Leyland (RAM215) this time. The bus dropped me at Ernakulam by around 1915 or so. Since I had to reach KPN only around 2000hrs (just about 1.5~2kms from Ernakulam Jetty, where I got off the bus), I decided to try my luck getting a bus there. I got a bus around 1940~1945 (I left a lot of buses, playing inky-pinky-ponky..). I was at KPN by 1950 or so. KPN's office at Ernakulam is on MG Road, next to Hotel Woodlands. It is at the basement of a shopping complex - its a small place, with chairs arranged along the walls. The office was not very clean - paint peeling off from the walls, dirty seats, et al. It was pretty hot in the office - there was hardly any ventilation at all.

The guy in the office did not want to check my ticket - he just asked "which bus". When I replied 'Chennai', he just asked me to wait. The clock ticked past 2000hrs, but there was no sign of the bus. Some passengers got impatient and asked where the bus was - the guy said it'll come in 5 minutes. The TV was switched on, and played a Tamil channel. The bus came in at 2015hrs - the drivers walked into the office. There was some traffic restriction on the road, which delayed them badly, it seems. Boarding commenced at 2020hrs - there was no cleaner or attendant. The drivers themselves took care of passenger baggage, while a guy from the office checked tickets. We had 9 passengers from the starting point. The ticket checking, and cross-verification took some time - the waybill was signed (yes.. KPN has a government bus style waybill) and we were good to go. We started off at 2037, late by 22 minutes.
The bus: KL-01-BB-1757. It had over 2.14lakh kms on the odo, but well-maintained.
They did not play any movie or music in the bus. The AC was set to a comfortable 23 deg. The drivers were chatting to each other, and were commenting on the general driving habits in Kerala. We picked up 2 passengers at Kalamassery and kept going after that. The driver at the wheels was a guy with salt-and-pepper hair - he had very good control of the bus. He kept good pace and used the horn to the minimum. Our next pickup was at Angamaly - two passengers joined here. One of them did not have a print out of the ticket, but had the message. The driver insisted on getting a printout, but later agreed to the message - he wrote down the ticket number on a bit of paper and kept it along with the ticket counterfoils. We left Angamaly at 2131. We pulled in to Hotel Jubilee for dinner at 2141hrs. I had brought dinner from home - finished it during the break and headed out for some fresh juice, and later went shutter-happy. We started off after the break at 2216hrs.
During the break at Pongam. Its a Bharathi Tri-Axle Merc behind.
Even as the bus was crawling out, the drivers were busy discussing something. It later came out that they had missed one pickup! The drivers checked the chart provided to them again and again - it mentioned only 13 passengers, and all the 13 were on board - so how did they miss a passenger? Later, a couple of rounds of phone-calls to the KPN office in Ernakulam followed. The passenger was to be picked up at Aluva, but the drivers were not told of the same. They were told of the pickup well after the bus passed the point. KPN then sent the passenger in a following bus and our bus was told to wait for the following bus. The drivers found out the telephone number of the following bus guy and called him up - that bus was just pulling in for dinner! Our driver was irked by the callous attitude of the guy at Ernakulam office and a round of expletives followed. Enraged, our driver decided not to wait for the following bus - since it would catch up with us at Salem anyways during refueling. We finally leave at 2245hrs from the hotel (we spent over an hour here due to the confusion). Our bus had over 2 lakh kms on the odo - but was riding perfectly well! There was neither squeaks anywhere nor abnormal noises from the bus.
Inside the bus..
The co-driver headed to the berth at the rear, while the guy at the wheels clearly meant business. He The driver's phone kept ringing all the time, but he did not attend the call. Later, the guy at KPN's office called up a passenger in the bus and asked him to give the phone to the driver - the driver was hesitant to attend it, but later answered. That was a call from KPN-Salem. The driver was asked to explain why he did not pick up the passenger at his pickup point - some long drama ensued, with the driver complaining about the Ernakulam officer. Later, our driver said we'll stop at Walayar - for not more than 10minutes. If the following bus does not catch up then, we'd keep going. I slept sometime after this communication. I woke up when the bus was parked at Walayar - it was around 0030 then. Less than two hours from Koratty to Walayar was decent - given the state of roads in Kerala. the wait continued till about 0100hrs, when the following bus (KPN's Multi-axle coming from Trivandrum) joined us.

The passenger joined our bus - the driver asked him what the 'story' was: It turned out that the ticket was sold by an agent just a while before the bus left Ernakulam. The dumb-head agent called KPN after he saw the bus just zipping past his office! He then called up KPN and complained the bus went without stopping, and all the drama unfolded. In the meantime, the driver got back to the wheels and we were back to flying. I slept after the bus got moving - wokeup only as the bus stopped somewhere near Salem for a "headcount". After a quick headcount, we continued moving. We pulled into KPN's Fuel Station at Salem, sharp at 0345hrs. That is one huge petrol pump - can take in four buses together. It has one huge toilet complex - very clean and well-lit. The place has a small bakery and two ATMs! Our bus got a pump as soon as we reached there - so we did not have to wait.
During the fuel break at Salem. The bus on the extreme left (white) was mine. The other two were heading to Bangalore.
Our bus took in 310lts of diesel, and we got moving at 0400hrs. The driver now changed, and the second guy was quite fast. The first driver got off at Salem - so it was now a "single" crew operation. The driver picked up speed very quick and we were doing close to 110kmph in no time. I was asleep in no time. I woke up around 0630~0700hrs - we were still belting at 110kmph. The driver used the horn to the minimum - there were no sharp brakes, not dangerous turns or rash overtakes. We were running past Walajah bypass around 0730hrs - my GPS kept showing speeds in the range of 105~110kmph all the time.

We dropped a passenger on the highway at Sriperumbudur. Traffic worsened after Poonamalle - it was literally bumper-to-bumper traffic as we neared Chennai. It was an absolute crawl from Maduravoyal to Koyambedu. FM Radio was switched on in the bus as we neared Chennai - quite a lot of melodious songs were played on FM - this perhaps kept passengers a bit relaxed even as the bus was getting delayed. I was dropped outside Koyambedu CMBT exactly at 0925hrs - 13hours end-to-end from Ernakulam, including heavy traffic from Poonamalle bypass to Koyambedu - not bad, I felt.

Remarks: Mis-communication between the agent and KPN's office in Chennai created a very huge delay for the bus - we lost over an hour of precious time in Kerala itself due to the confusion. Both the drivers had very good control on the beast - they were well behaved to passengers, and kept their cool to questions. Both of them were properly uniformed. The drivers maintained pace for most past of the journey, and despite traffic and the confusion, managed to get to Chennai in 13hours. The bus was well maintained despite its age. Good going KPN - just make sure you successfully regain your lost reputation - you have the capacity to become the bus in the industry.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ernad to teakland.. Part-2

(This is the continuation of a post made earlier. Please click here to read the earlier post.)

The loco was coupled to the rake and was all set to make its return journey. In the meantime, we changed our coach, and we were in the 3rd coach from the loco now. This was a 1996 built coach, with refitted cushion seats. We grabbed the emergency exit window bay. Vibin took the emergency window - both of us then began the struggle to open the grill. The superintelligent brains at Shoranur coaching depot had inserted a screw on the panel in such a way that the window wouldn't open, no matter what. This was one very interesting emergency exit window - One rupee coins came to our rescue, as we loosened the screw and pushed the grill up. Finally, our uninterrupted window to the world was ready. A while after we finished this adventure, Vibin suddenly found out that there was a 190 year old rosewood tree in the station premises - both of us headed to see the tree and after a few photos, we were back in the coach.
Our train preparing for the returning journey. The rake of Rajya Rani Express can be seen to the left.

..I just remembered an interesting thing that happened on our journey to Nilambur. I had mentioned that we got our lunch packets from Shoranur. The three of us got digging into our packets a while after the journey began. A while into the lunch, both Vibin and Jay were busy with nets to see if there were pieces of fish in the fish curry they got from Shoranur. Both us them had a very long fishing session - Vibin got something hard, but that turned out to be a piece of Tomato! Finally, they had Fish curry that did not have any piece of fish at all!

By the time the passenger (56618 Nilambur Road - Shoranur Jn. Passenger) was all set to return. There was decent crowd in every coach. Since the line has very little traffic, the train would stop for passengers at each station. That is, if the guard or the LP spots a passenger running towards the train, the train would wait for him/her. The return journey was relatively eventless, except the fact that the train attracted more and more crowd at every station. We had some co-passengers who traveled all the way to Thrissur and beyond in the same train. We crossed our pairing train at Angadipuram. Interestingly, every passenger train would have a crossing at Angadipuram. In our case, we were made to wait at the home signal, while the other train entered the loop. Both the trains departed simultaneously from Angadipuram. By now, Vibin was digging into the railway timetable to figure his way back home. He had purchased a Superfast ticket from Nilambur itself, so he had the liberty of taking the Mangalore-Palakkad intercity from Shoranur - while I suggested him to take the Mangalore-Coimbatore fast passenger. I and Jay were continuing in the same passenger, all the way to Ernakulam!

The Nilambur line is a typical branch line, running through remote Kerala villages. The abysmally low ticket rates in trains attract crowds heavily and there would not be a single train that runs empty in Kerala. In our case, we just paid Rs. 25 for a 160+km journey! With a running time of around 5 hours, the cost is surely a killer. The passengers in our train varied from working men/women to school/college students. Most of the return journey was spent chatting, and we hardly noticed the world outside. Our train pulled into Shoranur well before the scheduled time of 1615hrs. We were taken on Platform 4 at Shoranur. The Coimbatore Fast passenger was already on Platform 6, with a WDM3D in charge. Vibin got off our train and rushed to get into the passenger - which departed a long while later.
Our new locos coming in. The loco that brought us here can be seen to the right.
In the mean time, our loco (WDM3A #14046 of Ernakulam) was detatched, and the loco rushed out of the platform. A while later, WDM3A #16457R coupled to  dead WDM3A #16479R (both of Ernakulam) came in to work our train. The pointsmen in Kerala do not couple locos to the rake - it is the job of the ALP to perform coupling. The train was full by the time it departed - we had standing passengers in every bay by now. There were 5 passengers on every long seat, and in some bays, passengers were seated even on the luggage racks. The Shoranur-Ernakulam passenger is an office goers favorite, and it always runs packed. A couple of years back, this passenger used to get an electric loco - with the puny 8 coach load, the WAP4 used to toy the rake around like a toy train. The emu styled braking and pickup is now gone. The run out of Shoranur was eventless - the train crawled out as usual. The train picked up speed soon after we entered the main line.
All set to leave from Shoranur.
The run after Shoranur was eventless. Our halt at Wadakkanchery was pretty long - we crossed the New Delhi Express soon after reaching Wadakkanchery. About 5 minutes into the halt, the Guwahati-Trivandrum Express overtook us. We had to wait another 5 minutes for the block ahead to clear. Right after the train got on the main line, the train stopped suddenly - I spotted the ALP getting off the loco and doing something on the rear loco. It was a very quick stop - and we started moving quickly. The coach was jampacked at this moment - every luggage rack had passengers on it, while the long seats had 5-6 passengers each. The train entered Thrissur in style - the usual high speed approach, then a quick brake and coming to a halt at the right point! The crowd eased down at Thrissur. It was my first journey in the Thrissur-Ernakulam section in a passenger train - I was excited about seeing stations that I usually just zip through.
Our train picking up speed after Wadakkanchery.
It was getting dark as the journey progressed. I was on the lookout for good spots for some train spotting - the Thrsissur-Ollur section had lots of curves and gradients running through fields - I vow to come here once. The crowd remained constant all the way upto Aluva - an equal number of passengers got off or boarded everywhere. The profile of our neighbours changed at every station - a college student giving way to a middle aged office goer, to an older office goer and later to an old lady traveling with her family. This journey introduced me to an amazing spotting location near Irinjalakuda (had been there for a couple of times after this journey). I saw for the first time that Irinjalakuda's starter signals had  repeaters. The main line is on a curve and has very poor visibility of the starter signals. I waved in excitement as we reached my favorite hunting location - Koratty Angady.

I and Jay were engaged in predicting which train would cross us next - since it was dark, we could not identify any of them, though (except the Jan Shatabdi). Our train more or less emptied out at Aluva. We had a race with a KeSRTC JnNURM Volvo soon after Aluva - the bus driver surely enjoyed the race - we soon reached Kalamassery. The last leg of the journey was eventless. We made the customary halts at Edappally and Ernakulam North. KSRTC stand announced our arrival at Ernakulam Junction - we were received on Platform 1 at ERS. I ended my journey from the very place I started off, 12hrs earlier in the day. That was my longest journey in a passenger train - and also the longest in Second sitting in recent times (the earlier incidence was in the mid 1990s). Traveling by passenger trains in an experience in itself - one gets to see stations in their entirety. In some cases, one would even get to know that there are stations that weren't heard of earlier. The first two months of 2012 has been railfanning packed - hope the rest of the year shows a similar trend.