Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ernakulam to Coimbatore by KSRTC - the tale of a quick Super Fast!

After booking my Bangalore-Ernakulam ticket, I was busy searching for return tickets. I had to reach Bangalore by Sunday night (since Monday was an important day in office). I wanted to try the new Conti Travels’ Volvo 9100 – they do not have online booking. So called their Coimbatore office and they replied that they did not have any seat. KPN Travels too was full on that day. I checked Kallada Travels’ Ernakulam-Bangalore bus, and that was full as well. It was after a long weekend – and hence the crowd was understandable. I checked Hindusthan Travels, and lo! They had tickets! I quickly booked a seat on the first row, and chose to board from Omni bus stand in Coimbatore.

Now begins my search for tickets to reach Coimbatore from Ernakulam. There is only one day operator from Ernakulam to Coimbatore – Supaa Travels. They did not sell tickets online, but gave a phone number to contact for seats. I’ve notice that they usually reach Coimbatore only around 12noon – this would be late for me, since Hindusthan leaves from Omni bus stand at 1230hrs. The options left for me were Kerala SRTC’s Super Express and TN-SETC’s Salem Ultra-Deluxe. My stay in Ernakulam would be at Edappally, while TN-SETC has boarding point only at Ernakulam BS. They do not permit Ernakulam-Coimbatore reservations as well. The only option left was the KSRTC Super express. I did not reserve online for some vague reasons.

After the tiring journey by SRS (Read here), I was busy the entire day with various works. Sometime in the afternoon, I headed to the KSRTC bus station and booked a ticket at the reservation counter there. I returned home around 4pm, and immediately crashed on to the bed – woke up only around Dinner. After Dinner, I noticed that my phone had some 3-4 missed calls from a landline number in Ernakulam. I usually do not call back on seeing missed calls, but this repeated calls from a landline made me curious. I called up – the person at the other end picked up the phone and said “Hello, KSRTC Ernakulam”. I was surely shocked.

I told the person that I received some calls from this number. He immediately replied, “Have you booked a seat in the Super Express to Ernakulam?” “Yes”, I replied. He said, “Sorry sir. The schedule has been cancelled due to some technical reasons. We will provide you full refund against the ticket, and you may collect it from the reservation counter”. I thanked him to informing me, and disconnected the call. I was now wondering how I would make it to Coimbatore on time. I momentarily thought of leaving early from home and getting into the SETC bus from the bus station – but the thought of crawling for 5 hours to reach Coimbatore was not something I wanted. I hate the driving style of TN buses – they just keep lugging the bus all the time. I used the KSRTC SMS service to find out some buses that leave in the morning, and I zeroed in on a Trivandrum-Mannarkad bus that leaves Ernakulam at 0530hrs.

November 18, 2012. 0515hrs:
I woke up early that day, and was ready to leave by 0515hrs. I bid bye to my hosts and started walking from home at 0525hrs. The place was around 0.5kms from Edappally bus stop – I had a brisk walk towards the bus stop – reaching there by around 0535hrs. Just after I reached the bus stop, an FP to Munnar and a Super Fast to Guruvayur (via Kodungallur) came in. Just behind these buses, another super fast was seen – that was the Mannarkad bus. It was RAC264 of Mannarkad depot. The fairly aged-but-young bus was decently crowded – I did not find any seat, and had to stand. The bus started from Edappally at 0543hrs. Most seated passengers were fast asleep – and all the windows were closed. It was fairly cold outside and hence the temperature in the bus was comfortable.
RAC264 of Mannarkad (File Photo)
 We reached Aluva bypass at 0555. Some passengers got in from here. We reached Ankamaly bus station at 0607hrs – lot more passengers got in. Now, the bus had good crowd. Just as the bus neared Chalakudy, a lot of passengers got ready to get off. The first row of three-seater got vacant – and some people rushed to take the seat. I did not rush – that seat is reserved for ladies. Thankfully, another “three seater” at the place I stood also vacated – I grabbed the window seat. We reached Chalakudy at 0625hrs. Some empty seats were filled, while some more standees got in. When the bus stopped at Koratty, a few ladies got in – the three proud gentlemen who grabbed the first row seats now had to vacate their seats. The bus did not enter Pudukkad bus station – we rushed past through the highway.

We reached Thrissur bus station at 0700hrs. I got off the bus to have tea and some snacks. There was one bus to Coimbatore parked in the next track – but that one was full. I did not want to travel standing again. The crew did not want to have breakfast at Thrissur – we started off at 0711hrs. The driver went ballistic after Thrissur – he did not care for the bad roads. The driving was typical KSRTC style. There was a minor block at Kuthiran – due to the narrow bridge at the foot hills. We reached Vadakkencherry at 0805 hrs. Super fast buses do not enter the town, but stop only at the highway. Our next stop was at Alathur – 0816hrs. Finally, the bus reached Palakkad at 0844hrs. Two KSRTC buses to Coimbatore were parked outside the KSRTC canteen in Palakkad – one was RAE331 (of Thrissur) and the other was RAE332 (of Palakkad). Both were full.

The inter-state departure bay of Palakkad bus station had one SETC (with Coimbatore board), two KSRTC 12M Fast Passengers and one TNSTC as well. I decided to take the first 12M bus – that was RAE815 of Palakkad. This bus was literally empty – I was actually the first passenger to board this bus. That SETC to Coimbatore was still loitering around trying to get passengers. The crew in my bus was happy – those guys were running in KSRTC’s slot and were soliciting more passengers. Finally, the KSRTC security crew intervened and made the SETC guys to leave the bus station. We waited for some more time to make up some gap. I had taken the hot seat – the first row seat on the left side. In 12M Fast passenger buses, that is a double seat. We left Palakkad at 0850hrs – this was my second fastest connection at Palakkad.
RAE815 of Palakkad, at Ukkadam.
We overtook that SETC bus just after Chandranagar bypass itself! We had about 75% occupancy by now. The driver maintained fairly good pace all the time. I found out that this bus was a “stay” bus – their duty starts in the evening, then work trips upto night. In the night the bus is parked at Palakkad depot and the crew restart the next morning. They sign off past noon. Traffic picked up after Chavady, slowing our progress significantly. The bus finally pulled into Ukkadam BS at 1015hrs. My end-to-end travel time was 4 hours 32 minutes – including a bus change! Edappally to Palakkad took only 3 hours and a minute (Edappally to Thrissur was 1:17hrs and Thrissur to Palakkad took 1:33hrs) Palakkad to Ukkadam took 1:25hrs.

Getting a bus from Ukkadam to Gandhipuram was a royal pain – it seems they had modified that dedicated Ukkadam-Gandhipuram bus (#150 – this is a very old service, launched sometime in the mid-90s. It was initially called “JJ” – Junction-to-Junction, and later renamed as “PP” – Point-to-point. The route got a number only sometime in the past 3-4 years). In the older days, Ukkadam-Gandhipuram had fairly frequent services – the buses on that route used to have a characteristic livery (blue diagonal stripes with yellow route boards) in the olden days. Later the livery went, and now the service itself has been modified. After wasting some time waiting for the direct bus inside the bus station, I decided to take a bus to Railway Station and then change over to another one from there – this journey was really expensive. Ukkadam to Railway station cost me Rs. 7 and Railway station to Gandhipuram was Rs. 9! About 4 years back, I remember travelling Ukkadam to Gandhipuram for Rs. 5! The review of Hindusthan Travels, coming up soon.

Monday, November 26, 2012

SRS Travels: Bangalore to Ernakulam by Volvo B9R

I had just got off the bus that morning – after a scintillating run in a Kallada G4 iShift Volvo B9R. To top it, I reached office later than usual. I was already sitting in front of my computer browsing on RedBus! I found that SRS and some others had tickets for the next day night to Ernakulam. Another trip? Yes! I was booking another trip to Kerala that very weekend! I initially thought of calling my contacts for seats – but then thought of trying something different this time. Headed straight to the SRS Travels website and found some 6 vacant seats in their B9R to Ernakulam (Thiruvalla bus) the next night. The only window seats were in the first row – without much rethinking, I booked seat #2 – first row, left side window seat. The system showed it was a 44 seater bus – I thought it would be a new bus, since SRS’ old B9Rs were 49 seaters. I was excited about my first journey by SRS - but was that really worth the excitement?

November 15, 2012:
In my office, it is almost fixed that there would be meeting at evening on the days that I have to travel. This day was no different – but thankfully, the meeting got over quite early. I left office on time, and made it to home by around 6.30pm. My brother dropped me near SRS office in Madiwala around 2100hrs. I showed my ticket the office – the guy at the counter replied “Please sit down sir”. First impression – excellent!

I went out to meet some people around Madiwala, and also met one busfan as well. I’ve spoke this person quite a lot of times, but never had the fortune to meet him – it was a nice time meeting you Rejoy! I went around meeting my contact at G4 – he was furious on hearing that I was travelling by SRS that night. He even offered a ticket to Ernakulam in G4’s Kottayam bus – I politely declined. I headed back to the SRS office at 2140hrs – the bus was scheduled at 2145hrs. I decided to check out the office – it is a fairly big office – no fixed furniture was present, but a lot of plastic chairs were strewn around. There was one fairly clean toilet as well. They were announcing buses over a PA system. The seats were full, and I decided to stand on the road. There was a steady stream of Kerala bound buses at that time – the petrol pump outside Friend’s travels was bustling with activity all the time.
My bus: KA-01-AA-2087 at Madiwala
I saw an SRS multi-axle bus approaching the office at around 2159hrs – it was an old bus (KA-01-AA-2087). Just as the bus passed the office, they announced on the PA system, “Bangalore-Ernakulam-Thiruvalla Volvo Multi-Axle bus via Thrissur, Ernakulam, Vaikom, Kottayam, Changanassery”. Oh! So that old bus was for me! The bus went a bit ahead and parked near the signal. I took some shots of the bus and then joined the (un)orderly queue to board the bus. There was one person from the office standing with the chart, checking tickets and letting passengers board, while the cleaner was standing near the luggage bay. The bags were clearly tagged before being stowed into the dickey. I got into the bus – the interiors appeared tired, but was clean and well kept. The lights had metal garnishes (similar to those in Airavat Club Class Volvos).

My co-passenger was a fairly elder gentleman – he had booked to Thiruvalla! The bus started off at 2208hrs – the person checking tickets informed the driver that they had to pick parcels from Hosur. All the 44 seats in the bus were taken – and all of them boarded from Madiwala! There were two drivers in the bus – the person at the wheel was in uniform while the second driver was in black dress (preparing to go to Sabarimala). The second driver was on his first trip with SRS, while the first driver seemed to be a veteran. The cleaner was also on his first trip in the route. There was light traffic upto Silk Board – after that the road freed up. The bus took BETL and headed towards Hosur. (BETL is now a standard for almost all private operators heading to the south – KPN is an exception, since they have a pick-up at Bommanahalli).

The second driver asked the cleaner to play a movie – he switched on the system, and started playing the DVD that was inside the player. It was an unidentified Tamil movie – the disc started playing from the climax. Volume was set to very low levels – there was no point even trying to watch the movie. The rear screens were opened and lights were switched off too! SRS had modified the night lamps and they had installed strips of LED lights along the gangway – so light does not fall on ones face, but the walkway is well illuminated. I switched on my GPS and tracked the bus for some time – the driver was consistent at around 95kmph, hitting a top speed of around 107kmph at one point on the BETL.

The driver maintained speeds of around 90~95kmph all the time. Attibele was a mess as usual – the toll gate was chaotic and so was the TN RTO Check post. The driver moved over to the opposite lane and beat the traffic. The bus stopped at Hosur (opposite to the bus station) at 2249hrs – I was expecting them to take forever to load parcels. But they finished the entire operation in a minute – we started moving at 2250hrs! The movie got over now – the crew weren’t aware of the same. I asked the crew to switch off the tv – the driver was surprised! How did the movie get over so quickly?? He immediately asked the cleaner to switch on the TV – he went behind the closed the rear screen too (+1 to the crew for this). As the bus passed Shoolagiri pump, the crew were saying that this hotel is a self service and they waste a lot of time – c’mon boss! The hotel has service, and they are fairly quick too.

I slowly started sleeping as were crossed Chinnar. There was some traffic on the road and the bus was moving fairly slowly. I woke up hearing some commotion outside and someone was blowing a whistle – almost continuously. Our bus was stopped as well – I quickly recognised the place. We had stopped for a dinner (!!) at that shady wayside shack called Hotel Uthaiyah! This is a place frequented by those local government buses and some private operators – this place specialises in selling everything at double the price. I was wondering why did our bus stopped for dinner and that too at such a place! Btw, the time was 2342hrs. I got off the bus and walked around for some time – it was chilling cold outside. Buses were parked all around haphazardly – and the security guys were whistling all the time. It resembled a government bus station. The crew got back to the bus around 0010hrs, and the bus got moving at 0014hrs. It took us around 5~7 minutes to get out of the place.

The bus stopped again at Krishnagiri to pick-up parcels! We started moving from there at 0035hrs. I slept off after this pick-up. Given the pace of our progress, I was sure we wouldn’t reach Ernakulam before 8AM. I resigned to fate and started sleeping. My co-passenger was finding it very hard to sleep – after all, it’s an XXL sized person on the nearby seat. I slept peacefully till I realised that the bus had stopped somewhere (again!). The time was 0215hrs – and the place was Salem. The driver had stopped for a tea break – that too less than 2 hours after dinner break! We started off at 0224hrs. My GPS had recorded the top speed till then to be less than 100kmph. I slept off again – this time, the sleep was undisturbed for a fairly long time. I woke up only when the bus shook violently as it hit a rough patch near Vadakkenchery – the time was around 6AM now. So, I managed to sleep around 3.5hrs continuously. The second driver was now at the wheel.

The second driver was now on the phone trying to find out where was the Thrissur office, since he had to drop parcels! But there was no response from the other end. I tried sleeping for some more time, but the roads were horrible and the bus was rocking all the time. After some minutes of futile attempts, I decided to sit straight. The second driver called up the SRS office at Ernakulam, and they informed the Thrissur agent to pick-up the parcels. We stopped at Mannuthy around 0716hrs. Around 5 passengers got off here, while the crew were busy unloading the parcels. The agent’s guy was there – they had to sign on a register while taking possession of the parcel! The driver used this as a tea break as well. The bus started off at 0723hrs.
The bus during tea-break at Mannuthy Bypass, Thrissur
We had parcels to unload at Chalakkudy as well – the driver got busy calling the consignee there. The bus made slow progress towards Ernakulam – the driver stepped up speed to around 95kmph after entering the 4-lane section. We stopped at the beginning of Chalakkudy flyover at around 0800hrs – the wait continued till 0809hrs. We waited and waited for the consignee to come and pick-up the parcels – all because the crew need to get their register signed! (Awful policy). The bus continued it slow progress and we reached Ankamaly around 0825hrs. Around 2-3 passengers got of here. After Ankamaly, the bus turned towards Ernakulam and continued its progress – my co-passenger felt something was amiss and asked the driver why he was going towards Ernakulam. The driver replied back, the route is via Ernakulam, Ettumanoor, Kottayam, and not via Muvattupuzha. I saw my co-passenger’s face going gloomy – the time was already 0830, and there were very weak chances of the bus making it to Thiruvalla before noon. I felt pity for him.

We stopped at Paravoor Kavala (around 3 kms before Aluva bypass junction) to drop off a passenger (0844hrs). By now, traffic had built up heavily and the bus was finding it really hard to pick speed. We stopped again at Kalamassery (Premier junction) to drop off a passenger (0856hrs). After this point, I got off the seat and went to the driver to have a short chat. I asked if the bus regularly reaches only after 9 – he replied that it was his first trip. I asked him about the need for a dinner break – he replied that they start from the garage at 1930hrs, and blah blah. He had no answers when I asked if they could’ve stopped at a better place instead. I made my displeasure known to him. The bus finally reached Edappally bypass junction at 0906 hrs. I wished bye to the crew and got off the bus. A lot of passengers got off here. The bus would not have reached Thiruvalla before 12~12.30hrs – I felt really sorry for the passenger booked to places beyond Ernakulam. Afterall, they had paid Rs. 1199 (more than the market rate) for a seat!

Concluding remarks: The bus, KA-01-AA-2087, had run some 6.6lakh kms. Maintenance was really good – no squeaks or rattles from the bus. The seats looks a bit worn out, but did not emit any smell. The interiors were really fresh – the curtains were clean and appeared fresh. Proper full sized fleece blankets were provided to passengers. Water was not provided. Luggage tags were used for all passenger baggage kept in the luggage bay. The crew were well behaved to passengers – the second driver patiently answered me even when I was questioning him in the morning. There was once instance where a truck suddenly cut across our bus – the crew remained calm even at that point. The bus maintained steady speed throughout the run – I slept for a good part of the journey, very comfortably. SRS needs to get their basics right here – the bus lost lots of time waiting for luggage loading/unloading. The draconian system of having to get receipts signed delayed us badly. That unwarranted dinner break and the tea break soon after that all contributed to the delay – the dinner break could’ve been avoided. I was terribly disappointed by my first experience with SRS.

Cleanliness: 5/5
Punctuality: 3.5/5
Staff Behaviour: 4.5/5
Overall: 3.5/5

Will I take this service again: Ah! Never again. I hope I never have to take SRS to Kerala ever again.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kallada G4: Trivandrum to Bangalore by iShift B9R

The journey to Trivandrum was on the drawing board for a long time. A family function at Ernakulam, and a short Vacation for college set the scene for my trip to Trivandrum. Choosing the operator was simple – but there still was some dilemma. I badly wanted to try the route via Nagercoil – at the same time, I wanted to travel through the Alappuzha route as well. My previous Trivandrum-Bangalore journey was by Kerala SRTC’s Garuda Volvo – which was just months old then. That was a mind blowing journey – there were no multi-axle buses at that time. So this time, I wanted to try the same route in a Multi-axle. The chosen operator was Kallada G4 – tickets were booked through my contact. The journey was initially planned for November 12, but I had to post pone it to November 14. The postponing process was simple – just called up Kallada G4’s office in Irinjalakuda – the person at the other end was very helpful. The ticket was confirmed – however, I did not receive any message. I called up again, and found that they had entered the wrong phone number – but he guaranteed that it was okay.

November 14, 2012. 1615hrs:
I took an auto from my good friend Jayasankar’s home in Trivandrum to head to Thampanoor. I was dropped near the parking place of Kallada G4 around 1635hrs. The bus was all set to leave. The attendant was known to me – he was elated on seeing me. Boarding was yet to begin since the travel agency’s guy hadn’t come with the charts yet. The driver had gone to the temple (an auspicious start to the journey), while the attendants (yes! There were two of them) were getting ready. The engine was started, and the AC was blowing at full force. An air freshener was sprayed. Boarding started at 1700hrs. The attendant helped passenger with the baggage, while the agent’s guy was helping passengers find their seat. He asked me for my ticket as I got in – I did not have a “ticket”. I told him the seat number (#40) – he checked the chart and verified with my name. He came around later and collected the ticket fare.
The bus: KA-01-AB-6543 of Kallada G4. (This is an old photo)
Sixteen passengers were boarding from Thampanoor. The bus backed out of the parking lot at 1716hrs – the agent’s guy was still in the bus, giving details of pickups to the crew. The bus went towards the railway station, took a “U” turn at the roundabout and headed towards Aristo Junction. The agent’s guy got off as the bus stopped outside the agency. As we started off, I saw SRM’s Bangalore bus preparing to start. (Megha Travels’ parking was closed due to road works, and the SRM bus was parked in a different ground). The guy in the driver seat was the same guy who drove the bus during the inaugural run. He was well controlled, and was driving really well. The bus was a bit noisy and the transmission had a rubber band effect. The bus directly headed out through Pettah towards the bypass. We stopped at Chakka Junction for a pick-up (1736hrs) – 1 pax joined.

There was one foreigner in the bus, who was behaving very weird. He was occupying seat #38. The attendant came around and asked him for his ticket – he replied that he already gave the ticket. The attendant appeared a bit confused – he turned to me and said seat #38 was boarding only at Thrissur. The foreigner was non-cooperative. A couple of us asked him for his ticket or his seat number. The attendant called up the agency to find out if this person was really booked in the bus – they confirmed his booking. Sometime later, the attendant came again, and this time the foreigner threw a piece of paper at him – that was his ticket. The seat number mentioned was #32. Now a few of us had to join the attendant to coerce the fellow to move to his seat. He was behaving even weirdly after moving to his seat – he was banging the window and pulling the curtains at times.

In the meantime, the bus stopped at Kazhakoottam for pick-up. One passenger joined in, and we departed at 1755hrs. The traffic was heavy and the driver was struggling to overtake vehicles. There was continuous stream of vehicles in the opposite direction. The bus could not exceed 70kmph at any point of time till we crossed Kollam. There was a small traffic block before Attingal – the crew used this opportunity to intimate the travel agent that the bus was nearby. Attingal was reached at 1818hrs – 4 pax joined in – since the agent was informed in advance, the passengers were ready when the bus reached.  Traffic situation continued to worsen as we headed towards Kollam. Overtakes were well planned and well executed – a couple of times we had to stop midway though. A stage show was played on TV after Attingal – while stage shows are a great choice for buses leaving from Bangalore (due to late departure – stage shows would be perfectly timed). This particular program did not have even a single good performer, and almost all the items presented had double meanings/vulgar expressions. The choice of program was bad, IMHO.

We reached Kollam at 1915hrs – 2 passengers joined. The second driver also got in here. So now we had two drivers, two attendants and 24 passengers. The bus picked up pace after Kollam – the traffic reduced a bit. The foreigner in the bus was now getting violent – he was banging the overhead rack and even trying to push in his bag on to the speakers! The crew tried controlling him, but he kept shouting out something incoherently in his native language. He calmed down after they reduced the volume of the program shown on TV. We reached Karunagappally at 1953 and picked up one passenger. The next pick-up was Kayamkulam (2013hrs) – three passengers got in. One of the passengers had a seat next to the foreigner – the cleaner quickly adjusted another seat for this passenger.

We picked up two more passengers at Haripad (2031hrs). Sometime later, the foreigner behaved even more violently – he jumped off his seat on to the walkway, and shouted some swearwords loudly, banging the roof and the racks. The bus was stopped and other passengers got off – one passenger literally charged on this guy and threatened him to keep quiet or get off the bus. The crew had decided to stop at the next police station to offload this passenger – they did not lose their cool at any point of time (Really appreciate the way the crew behaved). The bus resumed its journey. The foreigner was a bit calm after this – he was not offloaded from the bus. We got stuck in a traffic block somewhere near Ambalappuzha (2049hrs) – there was an accident ahead. The crew rushed to see the status – but saw that things were undercontrol. Some 10 minutes later, police had cleared one side of the road and permitted vehicles slowly. The bus pulled over for dinner break at a small hotel near Punnapra EB station – at 2109hrs. It was one really small hotel. A Viji-Yathra B9R was already parked there. The hotel had very few seats remaining – I managed to find one. The food was above-average, but the overall cleanliness at the hotel left a lot to be desired. The service was lousy as well.

The toilets weren’t clean, nor were they properly lit. I finished off my food and rushed out of the hotel at the earliest – the crew were already back and ready to start off! The Viji bus was still there – SRM B9R was also parked (they had reached about 5 minutes behind us). We started off at 2131hrs – that was a 22 minute break. Really appreciate the punctuality of the crew – no time was wasted hanging around. We stopped outside the Alappuzha Agent’s office at 2148hrs – but no passengers joined. We overtook the Viji B9R soon after Alappuzha (they overtook us when we stopped at Alappuzha). The driver picked up speed after Alappuzha – he meant business after we entered the 4-lane road at Cherthala. The driving was controlled – he did not hit three-digits at any point of time. We stopped at Vyttila (Skyline Travels) at 2238hrs. Two passengers joined, and the bus left at 2240hrs. We travelled through the bypass and turned left at Palarivattam junction. The bus headed towards Kaloor stadium – picked up a passenger from there at 2248hrs.

I slept off after Kaloor – slept really well. I woke up when the bus stopped at Thrissur (2345hrs) – some 5 passengers got in. Lights were not switched on, but the attendant came around with a small torch and showed the seats. We had a total of 37 passengers now. The second attendant got off after Thrissur – he, in fact, came up to me and said bye before getting off (I was awake at this point). I slept soon afterwards. Woke up briefly when the bus stopped for diesel – it was at the usual fuel station near Madukkarai. The bus was just starting off then – the time was 0215hrs. I was a bit concerned now – the bus could be late at Bangalore. The worries did not affect my sleep though – I was fast asleep even before the bus reached the first toll on Coimbatore bypass. I woke up again as the bus left a toll station (Kumarapalayam, near Bhavani). The bus was picking up speed at a rapid pace – I switched on the GPS. The reading hovered around 120kmph, peaking at 127kmph. I slept off again.

I woke up as the bus was exiting from the Rayakkottai road, and re-joining the highway outside Hosur. The Kottarakkara-BLR bus of G4 was also along now. The windows of our bus was all fogged up – it was hotter inside the bus compared to outside (The temperature inside the bus was very comfortable – and it was biting cold outside). The time was around 0600hrs now. OH! The driver had covered a really long distance over the night – but the driving was really good, since I did not wake up at any point of time, even when the bus was running through the two-laned winding roads through Rayakkottai. Attibelle toll was less messy than I expected. We stopped at Hebbagodi to drop a passenger (0622) and again after Electronic City toll (0626). The bus took the elevated highway from there. I got off my seat and headed to the cabin a while after we got on to the highway. As I got up, I saw the foreigner curled up on the last row sharing space with the first driver. I congratulated the driver for his excellent drive - he was a bit upset of the bus being somewhat late. I was dropped at Silk Board at 0633hrs. It was chilling cold outside (newspapers reported that morning to be coldest of the season – at 13*c).

Concluding remarks: The bus, KA-01-AB-6543, had about 35K kms on the odo. This was the first iShift bus of Kallada G4 – I was fortunate to be present for the post-delivery pooja ceremony of this bus. The Bangalore-Trivandrum services of Kallada G4 are considered very prestigious, and the service certainly stands up to its name. The crew were really well behaved – they handled that foreigner really well. They did not turn aggressive at any point of time, nor did they misbehave with him or make fun of him. The driving was really good – they were not rash anytime. They maintained timings really well without being rash. There were a couple of instances of hard braking in the Trivandrum-Kollam stretch. I am really not a fan of iShift – atleast I did not feel it is something better than manual transmission. There was a very pronounced rubber-band feeling. The shifting was a bit noisy though. The journey took 13 hours and 17 minutes – covering a distance of over 750kms. That is an average of a shade over 56kmph – a significant proportion of the distance was in 2-lane roads. I’ll try the Nagercoil route the next time.

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

Will I take this service again: This question is now redundant for Kallada G4 – ‘M lovin’ it! I am longing for my next journey with them.

Friday, November 23, 2012

KTC Tours: Thrissur to Trivandrum. First in a Volvo 9100!

I was busy looking tickets for a journey from Thrissur to Trivandrum. I had a waitlisted ticket in Jan Shatabdi Express that day, but the way the ticket was progressing did not seem encouraging. Not wanting to get stranded, I was looking for tickets in buses. I did not want to break my back sitting that long in a KSRTC bus – thankfully, the government is hell-bent on not allowing KSRTC improve. Very few premium services are offered by KSRTC, and those services hardly meet the requirements of passengers. I checked various options on RedBus, and found Kallada and Viji listed. I checked the website of KTC Tours, and found availability in their buses.

KTC Tours is a part of the celebrated Kerala Transport Corporation (KTC) Group. KTC Tours had launched their inter-city luxury bus service sometime in June 2012. KTC Group is one of the oldest transport companies in India, and is also among the top 5 transport companies in India. KTC Group was founded in 1958, and since then has been a reputed name in every industry they ventured into. They created a lot of buzz among bus fans with the news of being the first operator to introduce Volvo 9100s (the fact is disputed). KTC currently operates on two routes, both out of Malabar.

This was an opportunity for me to try KTC. The KTC Tours website is simple and easy to use. The pick-up time for Thrissur was 0030hrs – I thought of travelling to Kozhikode only to try this bus, but due to certain other commitments, I decided to book my ticket ex-Thrissur itself. KTC was the most expensive option for a Thrissur-Trivandrum ticket. The other operators provided the option of taking a multi-axle at much lower rates. KTC charges Kozhikode-Trivandrum rates for the ticket ex-Thrissur also. Anyways, I booked my seat in the bus.

November 12, 2012. 2000hrs:
My bus was more than 4 hours away. I decided to call up the KTC office to find out the exact pick-up location, since my ticket mentioned the location vaguely. I tried calling both the numbers mentioned on the ticket – calls to both the numbers went unanswered. I retried again after some time – but no response. Sometime around 2100hrs, I and my dad set off to Thrissur in an autorickshaw – it was a 38 kms long journey in an auto. The ride was a bit tiresome, especially since leg space was tight, and it was somewhat cold outside. We were dropped at Thrissur around 2200hrs. My dad was taking a Kallada G4 bus that night to Bangalore – his bus came late, and left only around 2305hrs.

I called KTC again at 2310hrs – this time, a person picked up the call. He gave me the mobile number of the driver, and requested me to call up the driver to find out the exact pick-up point. After sending off dad, I headed straight to the KSRTC bus station, and found out a good seat to relax. I called up the driver – the person who picked up the call said that the bus had just left Kozhikode – we discussed the pick-up point and I told that I’d call him at 0030hrs to confirm the location. I relaxed at the KSRTC bus station – which was bustling with activity all the time. Buses kept coming in at a frequency of about 30 minutes – in all directions. I called the driver again at 0030hrs – they were still an hour away. He promised to call me once they cross Kunnamkulam – I was elated by his offer. I thanked him and continued my wait.

I got a call from the driver at 0104hrs – he informed me that they just crossed Kunnamkulam. I took an auto from KSRTC bus station to the pickup point – Poonkunnam junction! The auto driver was a bit puzzled when I asked him to drop me at the junction – there was nothing around, except some closed shops and a huge ground! I waited there under a tree. Two KSRTC Airavats to Trivandrum went by (both were from Mysore) – one them were in fairly good shape, while the other one was run down. My bus came in at 0125hrs.

The bus stopped by the road side as soon as he spotted me. I got in as soon as the bus stopped. The second driver (the person with whom I had talked on phone) asked me to take a seat on the first row itself – to avoid disturbing passengers in the other seats (+1 to the crew for this). They switched on the cabin light to give me enough light to settled down. The second driver came and confirmed that I had a ticket. He asked if I wanted a blanket – and one was provided. A 500ml water bottle too was provided. The blanket was fairly big, with the KTC logo imprinted on it. The bus had two drivers – no attendants. None of the drivers had a uniform.

This was my first journey in a 9100 – the coach was cool inside. The seats had lesser recline than those in 9400s. The seats were thinner, but gave good support. The seat covers were of rexin/fake leather. The guy at the wheels meant business as he picked speed through the narrow road from Thrissur town to the highway. After Paliekara toll, the driver picked up adequate speed. Sometime after the toll gate, a passenger asked the driver to stop for a bio-break – the driver quickly asked back if a lady wanted to go to a toilet – in that case, they would stop at a fuel station. The request was indeed for a lady passenger. I really liked the way the crew handled the situation – they were very polite in their dealings with the passenger.
The bus: KL-11-AN-225. This was my first trip in KTC, and also by a Volvo 9100
The bus stopped at a fuel station near Aluva – that gave me some time to take some photographs. Interestingly, the second driver saw me taking a photograph and asked the first driver to park the bus closer a light, so that I could get a good photo! The break was around 10 minutes. They took off soon after the passengers returned to the bus. The bus stopped again at Vyttila – 0241hrs – for a tea break. There was one Galaxy Express AC bus, the newly started Priyadarsini AC bus and also a Kallada B9R. We started off after break at around 0251hrs. The drivers now changed – the second guy was now in charge. This driver was fast from the word go.

The bus did not exceed 100kmph any time (I had a clear view of the speedo from my seat). The bus did not have curtains separating the driver cabin and the passenger section. The bus only had the standard drop down screens for the first row. The second driver was a bit rash as he entered two-lane roads after Cherthala. He was on the wrong side for most of the time – some overtakes were downright rash, pushing off quite some vehicles in the opposite direction. We crossed Alappuzha Medical College junction at 0334hrs – that was just 43 minutes! I dozed off after seeing some heroics for some time. The road was in bad shape and hence the ride was a bit bouncy.

I woke up just as the bus was passing Kollam railway station! The time was 0438hrs – that was 64 minutes from Alappuzha to Kollam (around 82kms according to Google maps!). Now this driver surely meant business. Sometime after Kollam, the drivers changed again. The bus slowed down now – the traffic in the opposite direction was heavy at this time. I dozed off for some more time. We stopped at Attingal to drop off a passenger (0514hrs). I slept off again, and woke up just as the bus stopped at Kazhakoottam (0531hrs) to drop some passengers. The driver at the wheels was driving to Trivandrum for the first time (in fact, it was his first trip with KTC). He took a left at Kazhakoottam and drove towards Ulloor. The second driver rushed to the front seeing this, since the bus usually goes via Chakka bypass and this driver too had no idea of the route through Ulloor!

Now the drivers changed again, and they kept following sign boards. The bus finally stopped outside Megha Travels at Thampanoor, Trivandrum, at 0551hrs. Now that was 4hours and 26 minutes for 284kms from Thrissur to Trivandrum! The last 60-odd kms took over an hour and a half – that was because the crew wanted to reach Trivandrum only around day break.

Concluding remarks: The Volvo 9100 is a typical STU product – it’s a low cost “Volvo”. Cost cutting is evident in this product – el cheapo rear view mirrors, normal halogen headlamps, smaller glass area, etc – it has all that a government operator would want. The ride quality is decent. The bus is reportedly less than 12M long (according to the people I spoke to) – but still has 45 seats. They achieved the number of seats by making the seats thinner, and reducing the leg space for seats (especially the first row seats). The bus has a 240hp engine, with a 6-speed gearbox (6F+1R). Sound dampening is fairly good – being a busfan, I tend to hear the engine wherever I sit in the bus – so cannot really say about sound dampening. The seat recline is less – but is comfortable enough.

About the service – KTC did an excellent job. The crew behaviour was top-class. They behaved really decently to the passengers. The driving was mixed – one driver was really good, while the second driver was rash. They played music throughout the night – the volume was really low. One had a concentrate for some time to hear the songs. I enjoyed hearing the songs – might not be the case with other passengers. I was really shocked to see the bus rolling into Trivandrum before 6 AM, especially after a 0125hrs departure from Thrissur. The blanket was really clean. The crew did not switch on the lights when the bus stopped for tea break – so passengers were not disturbed during the break.The bus had run around 80K kms. There were a few rattles here and there - the bus runs through the awful roads of Kerala, and its a low cost product. But the overall maintenance was good.

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

Will I take this service again: Why not? I am in love with KTC. They are a big company – big enough to challenge many established players in the industry (the references are obvious). I am waiting for them to begin services to Bangalore – so that I can use them more frequently.