Tuesday, October 23, 2012

KPN Travels: Madurai to Bangalore Day time Volvo B9R

Booking tickets for my Madurai-Bangalore trip was a very simple process – no confusions and no hassles. There was only one operator with a day trip, and that was KPN. I wanted to try VRL or SRS, but neither of them had a day trip and I did not have the option of taking a night trip (I had to be in office on time the next morning, and I could not risk taking a night bus). The ticket was booked through the KPN Travels’ website. I chose Seat #43 for my ride. A few days before my trip, a few photos appeared on the net showing a brand new bus running the trip I had booked on. I was excited, and was looking forward for the trip in a new bus - but did it really happen?

October 02, 2012:
A few hours before my journey, I headed out to MIBT to meet a good accomplice of mine and a fellow bus fan. We spent some good moments at MIBT and then returned to my hotel room. I had confirmed earlier in the day that my bus would depart from Periyar only (considering my experience with SRM). The breakfast that morning was too heavy and I did not feel hungry for lunch at all. But considering that the first break for my bus was at least 3~4 hours away, I had a very light lunch and headed to Periyar BS. As we entered the place from where private omni buses depart from, locally known as complex bus stand, I noticed one KPN bus already standing there, along with an SRM B9R.

That KPN bus was heading to Chennai. Jayasankar was taking that bus. Boarding hadn’t commenced then. So we stood outside the bus, till a guy from the office came with charts and started boarding. While Jay got in the bus, I headed to the KPN office to confirm that my bus too would be picking up passengers from there. They confirmed the same, and I returned to the place where the Chennai bus was parked. SRM was still there. The scheduled time for the Chennai bus was 1315, and surprisingly the bus left at 1314hrs – quite unusual for a KPN! There were lots of passengers waiting for the Bangalore bus at that time. My bus was brought in at 1321hrs – for a 1330hrs departure. The bus was KA-51-A-9994, an old and run down silver coloured bus. My hopes of travelling in a new bus shattered – and as if it was some background music, my mobile rang. It was an SMS from KPN reminding me of the journey – the bus number mentioned in that message was of a fairly new bus! Salt to the injury, I thought.
The Bus: KA-51-A-9994. It had run 5.4lakh kms. It looked all bruised and run down on the outside.
I got into my seat as soon as boarding commenced. The first thing I noticed was the humongous leg space – it would be a nightmare for an overnight journey, since I’d keep slipping off the seat every now and then! Boarding was quick – but the drivers had just gone for lunch. I came to know from the bus that was being operated for the 1.30pm from should have actually worked the 3pm trip – but they had to prepone the departure due to some operational issues. So the crew weren’t prepared for the early departure. Despite all this, we managed to depart at 1331hrs – now that is impressive by KPN standards, since we were late only by a minute! The bus took the flyover and went through the route used by city buses going towards Theni road. Our bus also took a turn towards Theni, and then entered the new bypass road from there. The curtains were closed (but I kept a portion of it open) and the cleaner played a movie – the same movie that I had seen on SRM! Sadly, the cleaner had only one more DVD and hence I had no other choice but to watch it all over again.

The driver at the wheels was amazing – he kept pace, was not rash, and used the horn to the minimum. The top speed he hit, according to my gps, was around 105kmph. We reached Dindigul bypass at 1435hrs. We had a couple of passengers to join from here. We left from there at 1437hrs. The driver was back to business. The second driver, in the meantime, was on phone talking to their office in Salem, arranging for new tyres to be sent to their fuel station to be transported to Bangalore. The guy at the wheels was really quick, and his driving style was fairly safe. Our next pick-up was at Karur (1530/1534) – around 11 passengers got in here! The bus had a lot of bookings to Salem from Madurai – I was really surprised by the number of passengers taking this bus to Salem!

Meanwhile, the bus was belting through the 4-laned National Highway towards Bangalore. The run from Karur to Salem was largely eventless. The driving was disciplined. I dozed off for a while, and spent the rest of my time watching the movie all over again. Increasing traffic on the road signalled the arrival of Salem. We were soon running past the iconic NH flyover in Salem and heading towards KPN’s fuel station in Salem. The bus pulled into the fuel station at 1647hrs. There was one more multi-axle bus standing there as we pulled in (guess it was coming from Trichy). I headed to the Bakery and got some snacks and some cold drink, and got back into the bus. After filling up, they pulled the bus out of the pump and slowly parked on the road side. The pick-up bus with passengers boarding at Salem was yet to arrive – the drivers were cribbing about this all the time. Soon, a TATA ACE came with the tyres – that was dumped into the luggage boot. While the tyres were being loaded, the minibus with Salem boarding passengers also came in. We started off from Salem at 1710hrs – with all seats full.

The first driver was still at the wheel. He picked up speed soon after we returned to the highway. KPN uses a mini-bus for all its town pickups in Salem now – the actual bus waits at the pump for the passengers. That is a good thing for long distance passengers. Soon after we started from Salem, the second movie was played – this was an unseen movie, and a very good one too. The driver kept pace all the time, and he glided past the Thoppur ghat with ease. The bus did not stop at the usual A2B post Thoppur, instead kept going ahead and stopped at a new restaurant “Rajabhojanam” a few kms ahead (at 1803hrs). This place had better toilets and a better dining area than A2B. But the hotel was still not being able cope up with the load – their systems need to fall in place. There were three buses including mine at that time – the KPN multi which left before us from Salem, one Sangita B7R and my bus. A while after my bus came, the Conti Travels’ Isuzu from Coimbatore too joined in.
The place where we stopped for break. That is the Conti Travels Isuzu posing with the hotel.
We started from the hotel, after break, at 1827hrs. The second driver took to the wheels now – this guy was disappointing. He was damn slow, and always ended up taking the longest queue at the remaining toll plazas, and even heavily loaded trucks overtook him on the ghat section! This was perhaps the worst driver I have ever seen in the recent past – we lost all the momentum that the first driver had built up. We reached Hosur at 2023hrs – the bus went up to the bus station to drop passengers. It took us two hours to cover a shade over 100kms from the restaurant to Hosur! The Kallada day-service B9R from Ernakulam overtook us just as we got back to the highway – that bus just disappeared from the horizon. My bus stopped briefly before Attibelle toll (2035hrs) and then got moving. The second driver was very disappointing – he was lugging the engine as the road got relatively freer past Chandapura. I was overhearing the crew talking in the cabin – they were talking of KPN getting newer buses, which would be put on the Trivandrum route, and so on.

As we reached Electronic City, the cleaner announced that the bus would take the flyover – there were no passengers to alight before Silk Board anyways. I called up home and my brother was to pick me from Silk Board. The driver was even slower as we got on the flyover – literally crawling in the middle of the road, with the driver talking continuously on phone. The bus finally dropped me at Silk Board, at 2105hrs – taking 7h 34m for the journey. If it was not for the second driver, we would’ve reached at least 30 minutes earlier.  To add salt to my injury, the Conti Travels’ Isuzu came right behind at Silk Board!
Taken during the break..
 Concluding remarks: The bus, KA-51-A-9994, had over 5.4lakh kms on the odo. It looked all bruised and abused on the exteriors – but the interiors were kept in good shape. They had put in very colourful curtains – the seats appeared fresh. Probably they were readying the bus for the next FC testing. The bus was being taken to the workshop the next day for some work, and hence the driver wasn’t taking return tickets at toll plazas. The first driver was great – he kept time and maintained pace all the time. Except for one sudden breaking (due to a two legged donkey on a two-wheeler suddenly jumping lanes), the driving was really disciplined. He had the intention of maintaining time. The second driver was a total let down – he was least bothered about keeping pace. The cleaner was fairly passenger friendly. Overall, an average experience.

Cleanliness: 4.5/5
Punctuality: 4/5
Staff Behaviour: 4.5/5
Overall: 4/5

Will I take this service again? I had taken this service since I did not have another choice. But, Yes, I like KPN for their size and reach. Their services are not the best, but not the worst either. I would surely take KPN again – provided, I do not have another choice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My first on SRM, and first on iShift B9R

Booking a ticket for my Chennai-Madurai leg was no less than a heap of confusion. I had three day journey options – SRM, KPN and Parveen (in the order of departure time). I have never tried the services of SRM or Parveen – so the tie was between them.  SRM departs at 0955hrs, while Parveen leaves only at 1315hrs. I initially booked on Parveen. But later, the late arrival at Madurai gave me jitters, as it could jeopardise all my further travel plans. Not wanting to take the risk, I cancelled the ticket in Parveen and booked in SRM. I and my friend Jayasankar were travelling together. The cancellation process in Parveen was a bit confusing – the website kept throwing tantrums very often. Finally, at the end, the ticket got cancelled, but I got no refund! Their customer care centre in Chennai was very helpful in sorting out the issue, and my refund was arranged through their Bangalore (Madiwala) office.

September 30, 2012:
After the journey from Chennai, I quickly freshened up and got out for some bus fanning. First on the list was some time at CMBT, and later at Chennai Contract Carriage Bus Terminus aka Koyambedu Omni Bus stand. The bus station was no better than a garbage heap – it was slushy all around, and garbage was strewn all around. The buses were parked in puddles of dirty water. After a very short stint, I was horribly disgusted with the experience and I walked out. Jay reached the place around 0845hrs. We headed to A2B for breakfast. A2B, as ever, was an overpriced choice. After breakfast, we headed straight to the SRM bus terminus. The bus station was chocked with buses parked in every corner. There was no clarity on where my bus was – whether it had already gone for pick up at the Omni bus terminus or if it still was at the garage. There was no staff to guide us, except that gatekeeper who asked us to head to the waiting area.
An SRM B9R being refueled at the parking.
SRM gets fuel in tankers fitted with dispensing instruments (including meters). The buses are refuelled at the garage itself. There was a long line of buses outside waiting to be parked inside, as the tanker blocked the entrance into their parking yard. My bus for the journey ahead was parked in front of the waiting area – the engine was on, and they were running the AC too. Boarding had not yet commenced. The waiting area is a crudely made waiting shelter – similar to the ones we find in most government bus stations. There were a couple of dogs for the company of passengers. I got a couple of bottles of water from a shop outside, since I wasn’t sure of SRM giving water bottles. My bus was parked in a puddle of water – so no way to boarding it until they moved it ahead.

Around 0940, they moved the bus (KL-01-BF-6568) ahead, closer to the gate and started boarding. The cleaner did not want to keep passenger baggage in the dickey – my friend had a fairly big bag, and we wanted to leave it in the dickey – but the cleaner wouldn’t budge. He said only passengers beyond Madurai should leave their luggage in the dickey – couldn’t understand the logic though. Most passengers (more than 70%) were to Madurai too! I noticed that the bus had iShift transmission as I got in. The interiors were clean – the colour scheme was a bit dull though. Interiors were well kept, and the bus did not show signs of aging (it was not more than 6 months old anyway). The bus finally started from there at 0945 – the bus had around 15 passengers as we started off. Water bottles were kept in the bottle holders already – 500ml bottles of an unheard brand. I was happy to have bought water bottles, since 500ml bottles wouldn’t last long anyway. The bus headed next to the Omni Bus station for pick up. The road was in horrible shape, and the bus was swaying badly even as we were doing less than 20kmph! The road takes a bad toll on the suspension for sure.
The bus: KL-01-BF-6568, taken during lunch break at Ulundurpet. Lights on request.
We stopped outside the bus station at 0958hrs. The pickup was quite long. A guy from the office checked tickets of all passengers inside the bus in the meantime – they took the tickets with them after checking. We started from there at 1007hrs – with around 30~35 passengers on board. After this pickup, the bus directly headed towards the bypass road. A movie was played as the bus entered the bypass. This was my first long journey in an iShift B9R. I, honestly, did not find anything special in the bus. The gear shifts were similar to the ones in manual transmission – the lag and the kicks were present too. While braking, though, one gets a feeling similar to that in the Automatic transmission buses – the gear comes down going through each ratio, unlike in a manual transmission where the driver just brakes and later downshifts to the appropriate gear directly.

The bus had two drivers and one cleaner – the drivers were in uniform, while the cleaner wasn’t. The first driver was very quick, with shades of being rash. He was blowing the horn continuously – it was seriously irritating. His style of driving gave a lot of “pulling” effect. He kept hitting three digit speeds wherever the situation permitted him. The top speed recorded on my GPS was around 120kmph (I could not track the entire route due to low battery in my phone). There was heavy traffic after we exit the bypass. This was my first journey in this route and my first every visit to this part of Chennai. We reached Perungulathur at 1042, and left at 1044 after picking up a few passengers. After this, we stopped again for pick up at SRM University – at 1101hrs. The crew got off here and we doing something at the office. After taking in a couple of passengers, we got moving at 1104hrs.

This was the last scheduled pick-up. After the pickups, the driver got back to business, and was driving very fast. I concentrated more on the movie, as the surroundings got barren. Except the railway line which ran parallel, I did not find anything much interesting. I dozed off for a while. The bus stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere for a bio break – it was at a barren place, under the blazing sun! I dozed for some time, and later concentrated on the movie! It was an interesting movie starring Karthi. The movie had a lot of interesting moments that kept most passengers glued to the TV screen. As the first movie got over, they played another movie.

The bus got into a hotel at Ulundurpet (I forgot the name of the hotel – this hotel had a KPN office too) for lunch, at 1304hrs. The toilet here was absolutely run down, and they were charging passengers for using it! The restaurant had absolutely horrible service – the bearer did not turn up for quite a long time. He turned up after some passengers started shouting out. The service was absolutely unacceptable. To add salt to the injury, the driver got back to his seat and started blowing the horn very impatiently. I hurried through my lunch and rushed back to my bus. We started off from there at 1331hrs. The second movie was now playing. This one wasn’t very impressive – the script was too hard to digest. We reached Trichy at 1504hrs – dropped a few passengers and then started moving at 1505hrs. After getting back on the highway (we had stopped below a flyover earlier), the bus stopped again, this time for a bio-break (1509/1512hrs).

The driver changed here. The second guy was far more disciplined and relaxed compared to the earlier guy. This fellow was fast, but was not rash. I loved his driving style – just enough use of horn, and proper style of picking speed. Honestly, I felt that this bugger was crawling, but we were doing three digit speeds – now that is called a good driver. The entertainment system was switched off after the movie got over – they did not play any songs (thankfully), allowing for some cool relaxing moments. I realised that we neared Madurai when I spotted some city buses around. The bus went around the High Court of Madras, Madurai Bench and proceeded towards Mattuthavani. The bus stopped outside the Mattuthavani Integrated Bus Terminus, Madurai at 1635hrs. The crew shouted out that this is the last stop for Madurai. I enquired if the bus would drop us at Periyar (which mentioned as the dropping point in the ticket) – the cleaner gave a blunt No. I took a couple of shots of the bus, and we headed off to MIBT’s City bus section to take a bus to Periyar.
After dropping me at Madurai. That is a "Welcome to Madurai" arch in the background.
 Remarks: The bus, KL-01-BF-6568, was fairly we kept. There were dents and signs of patch work on the bus – but that is normal for a vehicle running on the road. One side window glass in the rear half of the bus, right side, was broken, and they crudely pasted some kind of a paper/plastic sheet on it. The overall maintenance was good – the bus had done around 1.4 lakh kms, but not rattles or squeaks. The crew behaviour was good – not exactly excellent though. The run time (6h 28m against an estimated 8h) was good. The first driver was often rash, with excessive use of horn. The second driver is whom I’d call a good driver – really fast, but not rash or scary. The passengers inside did not feel the speed. A small word about the reservation website – the website worked very fine. What I liked the most was a very professional ticket output – no advertisements or excessive use of graphics. It was plain and simple.

Cleanliness: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5
Staff Behaviour: 4.5/5
Overall: 4.5/5

Will I take this service again? Well, that depends. I rarely travel to Chennai, and this trip was a one-off trip. But, I would surely try SRM again to see if they stand up to their reputation (or projected reputation). After a few mixed bag experiences, I now feel it’s better to make an impression after at least two rides in an operator, preferably on different routes. But, SRM surely stands another chance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The new Volvo 9400PX: My experience on it

One fine morning, updates on Facebook scream out that KSRTC is launching India’s longest intercity coach – the all new Volvo 9400PX. This bus is 14.5M long, and is based on the all new B11R chassis powered by a 370-hp 11 litre rear mount engine, with Volvo’s famous iShift automated manual transmission system. There was no news of the bus for a few days after it was inaugurated – but one day it appeared on the KSRTC reservation portal as “Airavat New I-Shift Multi-Axle”. I made a plan to travel on the bus with a good friend of mine – but later, both of us had difficulties and we had to drop the plan. To make up for our inability to travel, we spend a day to shoot the bus.

A few days went past. A trip planned long ago was dug up from the archives – the planning was quick. Trains were unavailable – and, as if it was godsend, I decided to travel via Chennai. The PX was an obvious choice for the journey. The planning of the journey ahead was a bit tricky and I was in a fix for quite some time. Tickets for all legs of the journey were booked about a week prior to the trip. The days in the run-up to the journey were spent tracking the seat availability of the PX almost daily. My adjoining seat remained vacant throughout.

September 29, 2012:
My brother dropped me at Shantinagar at around 2225hrs. My bus was still around 40 minutes away. Shantinagar was very busy at that time – it was buses everywhere. The KSRTC counter was crowded – there were about three inspectors patiently responding to passengers at that time. The layout of Shantinagar bus station tests the patients of passenger heavily – buses are parked haphazardly, and its chaos everywhere. My bus was to come on Platform “3”. Platform 3 is a BMTC platform during the day (used by buses going towards South Bangalore). There was a long line of KSRTC Airavat (and Club Class) buses at this platform –all of them were to Chennai. Every bus had a board or a marking mentioning the departure time, and crew were seen shouting the departure time as well.

Time went past very quickly. The Airavat Gold Class to Chennai (9.40pm departure) came in only at 2245hrs. The bus did not have many passengers. Even as the Gold class prepared to depart (2255hrs), there was no sign of my bus. I decided to find out if my bus was really running, or if they had sent a replacement. I walked past seeing every bus, and found one bus without a time board or marking. I could feel my heart missing a few beats. I mustered some courage, and headed to the driver to find if it was my bus. I asked, “Is this the 2310 bus”. He replied, “NO. This is 2305 bus”. I heaved a sigh of relief, and slowly walked back to the entry point of the bay. There were lots of SETC buses heading to Chennai – some with less than 10 passengers. On the other hand, KSRTC Rajahamsa buses had better crowd. 
 Sometime around 2305, I spot the black whale slowly coming from the depot. The distinct while light from the HID Lamps looked very attractive as the bus slowed down and curved into the bus station. The crew kept the doors locked for some more time, as they prepared the bus for departure. Boarding started at 2315hrs. The crew did not check tickets, but offered assistance to people with heavy baggage.  The dickey was kept open. The engine was switched off as passengers were boarding. I took some photos inside the bus and then headed to my seat. I had chosen a seat in the rear half of the bus to see how the bus behaves at curves, and how it manages tight turns.

 A quick description of the interiors: The interiors have a classy look. All the seats have individual LCD screens, which are plush fitted to the rear panel of the seat, unlike the extra fitting look that is seen in Airavat Bliss buses. The overhead luggage racks have closures – made of aluminum and supported by gas filled support struts. The closures meant that it was difficult to stow luggage in the racks – the size of the opening was reduced. The leg space was humungous. The bus had only 41 seats. Some seats did not have calf support – especially the ones near the pantry. The Pantry and the Toilet ate up a lot of space in the bus.

I left my baggage on the rack and took my seat. Booking was very light, and the conductor was trying to get more passengers into the bus. The engine came alive around 2325hrs. The engine sound was somewhat different from that of the B9R. AC was switched on immediately. The reading lamps were also switched on – but the individual lamps switched did not work! The driver was moving the bus forward as and when the bus ahead moved. The conductor checked the tickets in the mean time. I must write this – the conductor, a very senior crew, was extra polite. He said “Excuse me” while alerting passengers for the ticket, and politely requested people for the ID proof. He thanked the passenger before moving on to the next passenger. KSRTC’s crew behaviour has always left me astonished.

The bus started from Shantinagar at 2335hrs – a good 25 minutes late. The driver handled the bus amazingly – there was absolutely no struggle to get the bus out of the bus station, and manage the 90-deg turn towards Lalbagh road. The pick-up was just awesome – I was enjoying every minute as the bus picked pace. The conductor came around and distributed water bottles. He came later to take back the blankets kept on vacant seats. I decided to play around with the LCD screens for some time – some 5 channels were showing up – 2 of them were displaying Volvo promotional videos, one was showing a static map (guess that was a demo of the option GPS system – it was kind of a moving map, with provisions to show current speed, distance, etc) and one was playing MP3 music. I did not have a headphone (nor did they provide one) – so could not check if that was only a demo display or if it really played songs. One channel was blank. There was a lot of static disturbance – the picture was all grainy and wavy.

In the meantime, we stopped for a pickup at Diary Circle (2343hrs) and later near St. Johns Hospital (2348hrs). The driver was in no hurry – he was maintaining a very sedate pace, may be around 80kmph or so. The iShift was doing a great job by not allowing the engine to be lugged (a characteristic in Airavats). There was no perceivable change in the ride comfort due to iShift – the jerks during low gear shifts were still felt. The engine sounded relaxed though. There was a bit of traffic around Bommanahalli, even at that time! We slowly made our way towards Electronic City, reaching there at 0000hrs. A couple of passengers joined in – this was the last of passengers to board. As the bus started moving, the conductor tied a blanket at the front, to act as a curtain shielding passengers from headlights of oncoming vehicles – being a demo bus, there was no provision for a full size curtain separating the driver cabin.

The lights were switched off and the driver meant business as the bus neared Chandapura. For some vague reason, they did not take Chandapura flyover, and decided to go below. The driver picked pace after Chandapura and we did fairly good speeds as we crossed the border. The bus took the Hosur flyover – there were enough empty seats, and I was expecting the crew to try getting more passengers at Hosur – but they proved that they were a breed apart. I’ve noticed this fact that KSRTC avoids picking up passengers from stations where there is no scheduled pick-up point. I slowly made myself comfortable and tried catching up some sleep – but the humongous leg space meant that I kept slipping from the seat very often! I somehow kept dozing off now and then.

We got stuck in a horrible traffic snarl after Hosur – as we entered the ghats. The bus was standstill for quite some time. I do not know how long the traffic block lasted, but I remember seeing the bus cross the Krishnagiri Toll plaza at 0245hrs! I had a very nice sleep after the toll gate. I woke up only when the bus reached Maduravoyal! The time was around 0555 or 0600hrs then. The driver had done a great job – it was clear that he kept great speeds through the night – but not a single incident of rash driving or braking anytime! The bus got into CMBT at 0611hrs, late by just a minute! The scheduled arrival at Chennai was 0610hrs, and we reached at 0611hrs! We had departed late from Bangalore, but still made it more or less on time! The journey took 6h 36minutes including the horrific traffic block between Hosur and Krishnagiri!
Concluding remarks: The Volvo 9400PX is a great product. The steerable rear-tag axle has helped in improving manoeuvrability of the bus greatly. I was specifically looking forward to how the bus manages the turn from Shantinagar bus station. It impressed me nevertheless. The interior fittings looked great – but quality was not good. The overheard luggage rack doors rattled all the time. The coffee maker installed on the pantry table top also rattled badly – the rattles did irritate a lot, especially when the bus went through bad patches. I did not feel any perceivable difference in jerks at the time of gear shift – I felt well trained and well experienced drivers handle the jerks really well even in manual transmission buses. The iShift certainly does not make any difference to the passenger, as such, IMHO.       The engine sounded less strained – the extra HPs helped the bus really well.
The KSRTC crew behaviour was great as usual. (Not that I am making blanket praise on KSRTC crew – I’ve encountered black sheep many times). I do not have much to write about the service – for this review is more about the hard product (the bus) than the soft product (the service).

Cleanliness: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5
Staff Behaviour: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Ratings for the bus:
Space Utilisation: 3/5 (Too much space wasted – it’s anyway a demo bus!
Quality of fittings: 3/5 (Heavy rattling)
Ride comfort: 4.5/5 (Typical Volvo ride – but not as comfortable as the Mark1/2 Volvos!)
The Volvo 9400PX is a great product... THE END!