Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pune to BLR: on a Niner Whisky B738

I hadn't flown a Jet Airways B738 anytime before this trip. I had to opt for a Monday morning flight since Sunday evening flights were selling at astronomical rates. It turned cheaper to stay overnight at Pune and take a Monday morning flight instead. The cheapest flight of the day was an IndiGo, and the next was a Jet Airways - the fare difference being under Rs. 300! It made sense to pick Jet over IndiGo - since I'd anyway spend that difference in another way. Ticketing was done on the Jet Airways website itself, and the eticket popped up in my mailbox within minutes.

October 05, 2015:
I was wary of Pune's traffic and hence opted to leave my hotel early. I was also wary about the last minute availability of cabs in Pune (my previous experience was scary). I prebooked a cab the previous night itself, and opted for a 0900hrs pickup. The cab arrived perfectly on time, but checkout from hotel took longer than expected. We started off from there around 0905hrs. As expected, the traffic on the way was heavy - it was complete standstill at some places. Despite all, we reached the airport by 0945hrs. I got into the airport quickly, and completed check-in by 0948hrs. I cleared security by 0951hrs. The airport looked quite deserted, and I had almost two hours to go for my flight. Pune is a very dry airport - there was no activity in the airport at all. But my opinion changed rapidly in the time that came after.
My Boarding pass..
I was continuously tracking the incoming aircraft. The aircraft would fly in from Kolkata to Pune, via Mumbai, before flying as 9W2842 to Bangalore. I was in for another Boeing Sky Interior aircraft again this time! It would be Juliet Foxtrot Alpha flying me to Bangalore today! The aircraft was sitting in Mumbai at that time. I was getting bored to the core, as the clock crawled slowly. I was hooked to FR24 all the time, and spotted no less than three aircrafts holding around Pune! The runway was closed due to air force operations through the period. As I was looking at the various aircrafts roaming around Pune, I find one of them entering finals. In the meantime, the IndiGo gate comes alive and a gate agent begins calling boarding for Nagpur/Delhi. In no time, a long line was formed, but they hadn't begun letting passengers.
Snapshots from FR24 tracking the incoming aircraft..
The first aircraft to come was IndiGo A320, VT-INS (1027hrs). As the aircraft taxi'd into the apron, the IndiGo agent's radio crackled INS operating One Three Four. I was expecting this rotation to go to COK, since that is the rotation normally. Soon after, VT-IED came in (1036hrs) - this was to head to BLR/COK instead. By now, boarding for both flights were in progress. Boarding for NAG/DEL was almost one. By the time passengers from the incoming sector deplaned, the passengers for the next sector were ready to board. The apron got busy by now - two IndiGos were already here, soon a SpiceJet B738 (VT-SGH) came in. Soon VT-INS was pushed back, and around the same time, VT-IEM came in. The apron was kept busy all the while with continuous streams of arrivals and departures.
The security hold area..
The aircraft that would work my flight was already holding over Pune. The steady stream of arrivals continued. In the meantime, the gate agent announced a delay in departure due to technical reasons, and our ETD was now revised to 1145hrs. A long line of impatient passengers had already formed, and quite a lot of them were mobbing the counter already. The aircraft finally landed at 1116hrs. As soon as the aircraft came to the apron, they began boarding for my flight. I decided to remain till the queue reached where I was. In the meantime, another Jet Airways aircraft (VT-JGR) came in. My turn to board came at 1133hrs - it was a very long walk from the waiting area to the aircraft. One has to walk a long way from the gate to an escalator to head to the lower level, and then walk out to the apron to reach the aircraft. There was a mix up of passengers in the apron - passengers were deplaning still from VT-JGR, while passengers boarding for my flight were crossing each other on the apron.
Boarding VT-JFA
Date of Journey: October 04, 2015
Flight No: 9W2842 || Seat: 35F
Aircraft type: Boeing 737-800 (WL) || Regn: VT-JFA
Sector: PNQ-BLR
STD: 1125hrs, ATD: 1144hrs
STA: 1255hrs, ATA: 1312hrs

The ground staff at the aircraft had to check every boarding pass thoroughly before letting passengers in. I boarded from the rear stairs, and got into the aircraft by 1141hrs. By now, boarding was mostly complete, and the attendants were already closing the overhead racks. Boarding was completed by 1143hrs (even before I reached my seat), and doors were armed by the time I sat down (1144hrs). The attendants prepared the cabin for departure. Safety demo commenced soon after. In the deck were Capt Riyaz and First Officer Sitanshu. Amol, Dheeraj, Sandesh, Karan and Soha were in the cabin. It was predominantly male crew - Soha was the sole female attendant on board. We were pushed back at 1147hrs. Taxi commenced at 1150hrs. Since Runway 28 was in use, it was a very very long taxi. We reached the holding point for Rwy28 at 1156hrs - at the very same time SpiceJet's Q400 VT-SUL came in (from Hyderabad?). We took off from Rwy28 at 1158hrs.
Inside VT-JFA..
We climbed quite fast in the West direction before turning around to head South-East. The seatbelt sign was turned off at 1203hrs. Soon after the seatbelt signs were turned off, the attendants got to their job. Passengers with special requests were served first - I was in one of the last rows (#35F), and my food took a long time to come. The service on this leg seemed better than what it was on the outbound. Food was served in a tray this time as well. The tray was well laid out - it had a veg roll packed in a paper cover, a bottle of water, KitKat chocolate, imli candy and the dairy whitener kit, along with the SkyMart brochure.
The meal tray..
The roll - had to tear open the cover to see how it looks like!
Beverage service..
The vegetarian roll was overheated this time as well - it stuck to the cover badly, that I had to tear open the entire cover to have the roll. The filling was less tasty compared to the outbound. I absolutely hate substituting a dessert for a chocolate - instead of a chocolate, they could've given a muffin! The meal service was followed by beverages - I opted for tea this time as well. The flight was largely uneventful - it was cloudy for quite some time. Landed was announced at 1251hrs. By now, the airport was already in sight far away. We were flying Eastwards now, before turning around to align to Rwy27 of Bangalore. We finally touched down at 1306hrs.
Somewhere enroute..
Spotting Bangalore airport far away...
Banking to align to the runway
Full reversers deployed after touchdown...
The AI A319 being pushed back to let us enter our parking stand..
We vacated the runway quickly and entered the apron - but had to wait for quite sometime, since an AirIndia A319 was being pushed back. We finally parked at a jetway stand at 1312hrs. I was out of the aircraft only by 1323hrs - I waited till the crowd to de-board settled down. But waiting in the aircraft turned beneficial to me - baggage took a very very long time to come. I got my bag only by 1332hrs. I had to rush to office after that - a very heavy rain followed afterwards.
VT-JFA after reaching BLR..
Check-in: 5/5 (Had web checked in - used the counter to get my boarding pass and drop my baggage)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 3/5 (Left late, reached late)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 4/5 (Overheated, no proper dessert)
Overall: 4.5/5
Tracking from FR24..
Summary: Overall a good flight. Delay was improperly handled this time too. Food was overheated, and substituting a dessert with a chocolate in unacceptable. This was another normal flight - nothing special to cherish, and nothing worth cribbing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Shirdi to Pune, via Nagar: An MSRTC Experience

I wanted to reach back in Pune before it was too dark - and I wanted to have a very peaceful sleep before I head back to Bangalore on Monday morning. I had the option of taking a private Volvo, or trying my luck in the long distance Volvos that operate out of Shirdi towards places in the South. I ruled out both, and briefly thought of taking a non-ac bus through to Pune from Shirdi. The lure of travelling in an MSRTC Shivneri after long 8 years kept me in suspended animation. Since there were no direct Shivneri services to Pune from Shirdi, I had two options - one, to go to Nashik and take a bus from there to Pune (adds to my travelling distance and time), second - to catch a Shivneri from Ahmednagar (Nagar) - this was the most feasible of options. 

The MSRTC online reservation website is a bit confusing - it doesn't show the pick-up timing at your pick-up point when you search for buses. On searching for Shivneri buses from Nagar to Pune, a list of 15 services popped up - I initially thought the timings shown were for pick-up from Nagar. The timings that popped up were a bit unfeasible to me - but out of curiosity, I opened the detailed stops list and realised that the timings shown were the time at the service origin. I finally picked a bus that would pick me from Nagar at around 3pm - this bus would leave Aurangabad at 1300hrs, and the ticket mentioned a pick-up time at Nagar, of 1515hrs. This meant I could leave Shirdi around 1100hrs, have lunch at Nagar and still have some buffer time for my onward bus. 

Shivneri is a brand used by MSRTC for their premium luxury lineup of buses. The brand name was first used sometime in 2002, with the initial services operating on the Dadar - Pune route. Volvo B7R coaches with a blue colour scheme was used for these services. Although a lot of routes were tried, the services succeeded only in a few, and they grew strong on those routes. The Pune-Aurangabad was one such route. The Shivneri services were unique in the fact that they generally operated without conductors (except the long routes), and one had to purchase a ticket before hand and then enter the coach. 

October 04, 2015:
After a very contenting darshan at Sai Baba's samadhi, I came back to my room to take some rest. On my way back from the temple, I quickly checked the availability of buses to Nagar from Shirdi - I was told, they are available in plenty. The crowd was average as well - so I had no reason for worry. I checked out of the hotel room by around 1100hrs, and crossed the road to reach the bus station. Since I had baggage with me, I had to ensure I get a seat in the bus. The busfan in me also wanted me to travel in an "Ordinary Express" bus of MSRTC - which is the lowest class of service (by fare) operated by MSRTC. I also wanted to travel by a newer bus. Sometime around 1130hrs, a green coloured bus pulled in, with a board reading Pune. I checked with the conductor if it would go to Nagar, he replied in affirmative, and I got into the bus. Only the last row was available - although that means a rough ride, I decided to go ahead. 
The Ticket - its entirely in Devnagri, including the total fare. The fare was Rs. 95.
Interiors of the bus. The bus had 2x2 seating with fixed back.
The bus, MH20BL3385 of Shirpur depot, was working a Shirpur-Pune schedule. We started off from Shirdi at 1136hrs. The, approximately, 90kms ride cost me Rs. 95. The driver was fast from the word go. The bus kept making stops every 20 minutes or so - all the stops were at bus stations en route. My phone kept recording speeds in the range of 80kmph most of the time, and the roads were mostly 4 laned. The stops en route were all very brief, except the stop at Rahuri - where we stopped for 11 minutes. Amazingly tasty Vada Pavs were sold at Rahuri. I was finally dropped outside the Ahmednagar Maliwada CBS at 1332hrs - 4 minutes short of two hours from Shirdi. I was bemused since the bus did not enter the bus station, but stopped outside on the road itself. 
The bus that I traveled in - MH-20-BL-3385 of Shirpur depot.
I had close to two hours to go for my next bus - I headed for a relaxed lunch - I gobbled up about an hour at the restaurant itself. I headed to the bus station next - I was still intrigued about why majority of the buses weren't entering the bus station. Only local route buses entered the bus station. The person at the enquiry counter replied incoherently when I asked him about the pick-up point for my bus. Finally, a person at the reservation counter explained in detail that my bus would come at a bus station about 200 metres way from this bus station, and I had to go there. I walked up to that bus station, and realised that all long distance buses call on at that bus station, not the one I went earlier. 
My Shivneri, MH-04-G-9093 arriving at Nagar.
The scheduled time for my bus was 1515hrs. I had no idea where the bus would park, and hence waited near the entrance for buses. My bus appeared at 1524hrs - it headed directly to a platform. Soon after it stopped a uniformed MSRTC employee, with a ticketing machine got into the bus and checked for availability of seats. Two reserved passengers (including me) were joining at Nagar - he quickly checked our tickets and let us in. There were no empty seats and many seat seekers had to be sent back. The overhead racks were full, and I had to do a bit of juggling around to leave my bag there. We started from Nagar at 1532hrs. The driver was calm and was slow initially. 
Taken during the break..
We pulled into a roadside motel, Smile Stone, for a break at 1556hrs. There were huge boards outside the hotel announcing that the place was an authorised break for Shivneri buses. I did not want to eat anything, since I had taken a fairly heavy lunch. Hence, it was just walking around for sometime, and clicking some pics. In the meantime, another Shivneri (heading to Aurangabad from Pune) joined us at the motel. Since the AC was left on during the break, I got back into the bus soon after. We started from there at 1621hrs. The driver meant business now - he maintained great pace from there on. It started raining as we neared Pune - the rain got heavier as we went closer to Pune. The maintenance of the bus wasn't great - water slowly started leaking through the glass pane. 

Traffic got thicker as we neared the city. It was absolute chocked as we neared Viman nagar - rain only added to our misery. The bus kept stopping on the way to drop passengers - I couldn't note down the landmarks. The only place I instantly recognised was Pune Station - we dropped some passengers there at 1824hrs, and continued towards Shivajinagar. We crawled through traffic, and finally reached Shivajinagar bus station at 1834hrs - a whole 94 minutes late. Interestingly, the bus headed straight to the platform, since it was already late for its return departure! 

Summary: The ordinary bus journey was really enjoyable - what really left me surprised was that the interiors haven't changed even a bit from my last experience in 2008. Shivneris continue to be the good ol' no-nonsense service. No entertainment is played. The bus has only 1 crew member - the driver. No attendant or conductor is on board. The bus I traveled in, MH-04-G-9093, had clocked about 9.13 lakh kms, and did show its age. The maintenance was very average - no rattles, but leaking window pane is not acceptable. The bus wasn't very clean either. Driving was great - no hard brakes, or rash maneuvers. Overall, it was a good experience. I must add this - there is no time savings, and its better to travel by the direct bus all the way from Shirdi to Pune. It isn't worth wasting time changing buses at Nagar.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

MSRTC Asiad: Pune to Shirdi

I was very confused when I sat down to book tickets from Pune to Shirdi. I first checked on RedBus and found that only one operator had buses on the Pune-Shirdi route - that was an operator I did not want to travel with. I turned to the MSRTC website, and found no premium buses on the route, but plenty of non-ac buses. I decided to select a bus leaving over an hour after my flight lands - I wanted to be in Shirdi before midnight, since I had opted for an early darshan at the samadhi. I selected a hotel that was right opposite the bus station - so that I'd not have to hunt around for the hotel at night. I finally selected an MSRTC Asiad (now called Hirkani) bus that leaves Pune (Shivajinagar) at 1830hrs, and was scheduled to reach Shirdi sometime before midnight.

Asiad buses are 2x2 non-airconditioned buses operated by MSRTC across the state. These buses were technically called "Semi-Deluxe", they were popularly called Asiad buses since they were introduced around the time Asian Games were held in India in the mid 1980s. The buses were initially operated on the Mumbai-Pune route and then expanded across the state. Sometime in the last couple of years, the buses officially got a name - Hirkani. Along with the new brand, they also introduced air suspension (rear axle), and very recently introduced push-back seats as well. These buses are mostly built at MSRTC's own workshops. 

October 03, 2015:
After landing at Pune almost an hour behind my original schedule, I had to rush in order to catch my 1830hrs Pune-Shirdi bus. The first thing I did on getting into the cab was to inform the driver of my situation, and requested him to go as soon as possible. He understood my predicament, and stepped on the pedal. He took a lot of short cuts around the airport to get on to the main road. I was locked on to GMaps throughout the period, while he kept asking me which route is relatively free according to the map. Finally after wading through traffic, and some smart driving by the driver, he dropped me near the exit of Shivajinagar bus station at 1826hrs. As we neared the bus station, I got the confidence that I would be successful in visiting Sai Baba's samadhi after 10 long years. I rushed out of the cab, thanking him profusely for driving smart - he returned a nice wide smile, and told me to rush. 

As I walked into the bus station, a bus with a board reading "Pune - Shirdi" was pulling out - I waved at the driver - he stopped. I enquired if it was the 1830hrs bus - the conductor said its the 1730hrs bus! What? I look in disbelief. MSRTC was known for its punctuality - what happened now? I couldn't still believe what I heard, as I walked to the bus station building. I had a tough time finding where the enquiry office is - although it is located centrally, it did not have proper signages. The lady at the counter was disinterested in answering queries. She did not bother answering me at the first attempt - the second time, I shoved in my eticket print out through the counter, and she had to take a look at it. She checked the schedule, and enquired with another person sitting there whether the bus had left. He said, its yet to arrive, and is expected soon. I was relieved on hearing this. The lady quickly told me that the bus would arrive right opposite the counter, and will have a board "Pune - Shirdi", and asked me to wait. 
Inside Shivajinagar BS - its too small for the crowd it handles.
I went to a shop nearby and stocked up a bottle of water and some snacks. The bus finally appeared at 1850hrs. It was a TATA bus, with an ACGL built body. The bus looked very tired, and had a lot of scars on its body. As soon as the bus came, people just mobbed around it - they shoved in their baggage through the windows in an attempt to reserve their seats. I confirmed with the driver that this was the 1830hrs bus, and then calmly got in - someone had already occupied my seat, and look at me in disbelief when I told I had a reservation for the seat. Thankfully, the person seated behind that seat quickly supported me and asked the person occupying my seat to vacate the seat for me. It seems the conductor had announced the seat number soon after the door was opened. 
The bus: MH-07-C-7558 of Shivajinagar depot
Just before 1900hrs, the conductor came in, and called out my seat number and enquired if I had come. Finally, at 1900hrs, the bus backed out of the platform and started off. The bus was packed when we started. Soon after we started, the conductor came around to issue tickets - he just glaced at my ticket. Traffic in the city was probably at its worst, and to add to the misery, it started raining as well. The driver picked pace where ever he could. We stopped at Kasarvadi at 1931hrs - every possible inch of space was occupied when we left Kasarvadi. My bus was running via Sangamner to Pune - I took this route because it seemed shorter, and I expected this to be faster. We stopped at Bhosari next, then at Chakan. The bus was crowded for most of the time - and between stops the interior lights were also switched off. I felt that was an unsafe method - people crowded all around, and there were not even night lamps inside. The bus emptied only at Manchar - at 2058hrs, almost 2 hours after started. Until then, the bus remained crowded. 
The bus has a full size partition - helps keeping the cabin dark at night
The seating - its 2x2, well cushioned seats. There was no pushback, however.
It was raining all through the time, and we ran through fairly heavy ghat sections, with awful roads. To add to my misery, the bus rattled all the time as well. The next stop was at Narayangaon - at 2117hrs. The crew got off the bus here, took a walk around and then started off at 2120hrs. At this point, the bus fully emptied out, and we had only seating passengers around. I had two seats all to myself as well. I dozed off for some time - but the awful roads did not let me sleep properly. We pulled into a hotel somewhere near Alephata for dinner, sometime around 2150hrs. The crew announced a 15 minutes break and walked out. There were two other buses for company here. I was not very hungry, but wanted to have something - I had some light dinner, and got back to the bus. We started off from there at 2121hrs - exactly 30 minutes of break. 
During the break..
I slept soon after we started from here - the bus shook violently as it went over rough patches at fairly good speed - but I was too tired to remain awake. I woke up only when the bus stopped at some bus station, and the lights were turned on - the time was 2323hrs, and it was Sangamner. We had to be in Shirdi by this time, according to the schedule. The bus emptied out here, and only three passengers (including me) remained when the bus left Sangamner at 2325hrs. I slept soon after the bus left the bus station - I vaguely remember the bus stopping two times on the way - everytime, I person got off. Finally, I was the sole passenger for the last 18kms or so. I was finally dropped at Shirdi Bus station, at 0025hrs - about 55 minutes late. I just got off the bus, and lugged myself to the hotel, which was located on the other side of the road. The guy at the reception was quite shocked seeing someone with a reservation walking in past midnight. I got a nice room, and all I remember was crashing on to the bed. 

I still thank my stars - a delayed flight, a smart cabbie, a delayed bus - I could make it to Shirdi, to have a darshan at Sai Baba's samadhi after 10 long years!

I am not rating the bus - its too irrelevant to rate it. The bus was from Shivajinagar depot of Pune division - it was not in a great condition. It wasn't clean inside, and it leaked - rather poured inside during the rain. The windows rattled throughout, ensuring that I didn't sleep continuously. Poor roads only worsened my situation. The driver was sane - no harsh overtakes, and no sudden brakes. The route had heavy truck traffic and hence our progress was slow. The hotel where the bus stopped was surprisingly very clean, and the rates weren't too high (compared to the rates at the hotels in Shirdi or Pune). I liked the trip - I'd have enjoyed it had it been during the day. The end-to-end running time was 5:25hrs, and a fare of Rs. 299 (including reservation fee). Its a nice option for the thrifty traveller.

Friday, October 23, 2015

First Flight on a Jet Airways B738 - BLR to Pune

Shirdi Calling! It was almost 10 years since my last visit to Shirdi Sai Baba Samadhi. I've never been a hardcore devotee, but always cherished this dream of being in Sai Baba's abode once again. My plans of going there never happened for a long time. I had almost booked my ticket once - but had to drop it since it was rush time at Shirdi then. After rejecting a lot of dates, I finally decided to do a quickie to Shirdi - a weekend was opted, and I had the task of getting tickets. Taking a bus was out of question - for two reasons: They were expensive, and I didn't have as much time to spare. After the routine hunting around for good fares, I got them on the Jet Airways website. The outbound and return tickets were ticketed seperately.

So finally my trip looked like this:
9W2847 BLR PNQ 1545 1705 October 03, 2015
9W2842 PNQ BLR 1125 1255 October 05, 2015
- And a few bus journeys thrown in between to connect to Shirdi from Pune and back.

I was excited from the moment the e-ticket popped in my mailbox - the excitement was for multiple reasons. This was my first journey in a Jet Airways Boeing 737-800 aircraft. If lucky, I might be in for an all new Boeing Sky Interiors aircraft as well.

October 03, 2015:
I got up from the bed excited. Before even getting off the bed, I logged into FR24 to check which bird would be flying me today to Pune. I was excited at what I saw (I'd leave that for you to guess for now - read on..)

After a hurried day in Office, I had to hurry out without waiting for my lunch. Driving to the airport is a different experience - you are constantly at the fear of receiving a ticket for speeding. The Airport road is mostly signal free, and has some good roads. Overspeeding on this road had been fatal for many, and hence the vigil on overspeeding. I drove peacefully, and made it to the airport by around 1400hrs, and left my vehicle at the long term parking. The airport was quite deserted for the time, on a weekend. That was probably because most of Bangaloreans had already travelled out, since it was a long weekend.
Jet Airways check-in counters at KIA
The boarding pass..
I decided to go through the regular check-in queue and get my boarding pass - I had web checked in, but had baggage to be checked in. I had my boarding pass by 1414hrs, and headed to security check. Security check was even more deserted - there were passengers in single digits waiting to be cleared. I went through security and reached the security hold by 1419hrs. I was quite hungry by now - my lunch was still pending. I did not want to eat anything heavy, and hence decided to try out something from Grab N' Fly. But, I noticed a newly opened restaurant - The Flavours of India - on the way. I tried this place out - the food was strictly average, and the prices were exhorbitant.
Deserted security check area..
Date of Journey: October 03, 2015
Flight No: 9W2847 || Seat: 14F
Aircraft type: Boeing 737-800 (WL) || Regn: VT-JFK
Sector: BLR-PNQ
STD: 1545hrs, ATD: 1625hrs
STA: 1705hrs, ATA: 1740hrs

After lunch, I decided to head to my gate. My flight was boarding from Gate #6 - a bus gate. This particular aircraft spends about 2:30hrs on the ground in Bangalore, and hence uses an bus gate for boarding. I reached the gate perfectly at 1500hrs - the scheduled boarding time for my flight. The gate area was a bit crowded. There were two flights boarding around the same time - both operated by Jet Airways. One was heading to Kochi and the other was my flight - both were boarding from adjoining gates. Once the boarding for the Kochi flight was over, the boarding area became more free. I took a seat a little away from the gate, and kept an eye on the gate. There was no sign of boarding even as the clock ticked past 1515hrs. People slowly started enquiring with the agents at the desk as to why boarding hadn't commenced yet - they gave vague answers all the time.
Thats my bird.. VT-JFK sleeping off at the other side of the apron
I could see the aircraft for my flight parked at the opposite side of the apron - there was no activity around the aircraft - so, I guess it wasn't a technical issue. The FIDS was silently updated to show a departure time of 1555hrs now - a ten minute delay now. The ETA was updated further to 1600hrs later. People kept mobbing the agents on and off asking for reasons for delay - they kept telling operational issues all the while. I was a bit tensed as the delays increased - I had to catch a bus from Pune to Shirdi at 1830hrs. I had booked a cab to travel from the airport to Shivajinagar bus station (from where my bus would depart) for 1715hrs - I was now sure we'd not make it there on time, and cancelled the booking.
Before boarding began...
Boarding in progress..
Finally, they called for boarding at 1555hrs - ten minutes past the scheduled departure time. The queue for boarding was so long that I decided to wait till the tail end reaches the place I was seated at. There were a couple of passengers who were connecting to Indore from Pune - they were at the risk of losing their connection, and hence were retained at the airport by the gate agents, while they tried working out an alternative connection.  I finally get into the bus at 1611hrs. I was quite sad at row wise boarding being not implemented - that might have controlled the crowd to a large extent.
The "tarmac" coach.. 
The tarmac coach was a major disaster - a very old rickety bus, which was not even airconditioned. This surely doesn't fall in line with their image of being a full service carrier. We finally reached the aircraft at 1614hrs. I was flying VT-JFK - a Boeing 737-800 (WL) with Construction number 39060, delivered to Jet Airways in July 2013, a 2 year old bird. I was still excited about my first Jet Airways B738 flight - The Boeing Sky Interiors was a welcome change, and the interiors looked very airy and spacious. I got to my seat by around 1620hrs. Boarding was completed by 1621hrs, and the flurry of welcome announcements began. The doors were armed at 1625hrs, and the safety demo began. In command of the aircraft was Capt. Sanjay Kumar along with First officer Capt. Balveer Singh. In the cabin were Faisal, Megha, Priyanka, Aisha and Ruben.
Before getting in...
Welcome to Jet Airways!
We were pushed back at 1628hrs - and soon later the CFM56s came alive. The engines powered up and we commenced taxi at 1631hrs. We did not have to wait at the holding point, and infact had a rolling take off. We were airborne from Rwy27 at 1635hrs. We climbed very fast, and then banked right to head in the North West direction towards Pune. The seatbelt signs were turned off at 1640hrs, and the attendants prepared for service. Very soon, carts started rolling through the aisle. Passengers with special requests were served first, followed by the others. The cart came closer and the attendant asked if I wanted a Veg Roll or a Chicken Roll - felt good hearing the content, instead of just "veg or non-veg". Of course, it had to be the Veg Roll for me.
Soon after take off...
The meal tray...
The meal tray had a roll packed  inside a paper cover, a 5-Star chocolate, imli (tamarind) candy, a bottle of water, and the sky-mart catalogue. The cover was too hot to hold, and I let it be for a couple of minutes. I tried opening the cover and taking the roll out - but it was sticking on to the cover - so had to cut open the cover. The roll was overheated, and the covering had become too soft. The filling was good - appropriately spiced, properly cooked vegetable. After about 10 minutes, the crew came around with the cart again - to clear the tray as well as serve tea/coffee. I opted for tea, which was served in a paper cup. The beverage kit was handed over along with the serving of tea - the kit contained a packet each of dairy whitener and sugar, and a stirrer.
The roll peeps out of the badly torn cover..
Beverage service..
The seatbelt sign was turned on again at 1724hrs. The deck crew came on line and announced details of our flight. The first officer announced that we'd be landing amid light showers in Pune. As this announcement as completed, we were amidst thick layers of clouds. We finally touched down on Runway #28 of Pune airport at 1737hrs. The runway was wet, and it was drizzling slightly. The aircraft parked at a non-jetway stand at 1740hrs. I was already tensed, and wanted to get off the aircraft as soon as possible - I was out of the aircraft at 1744hrs. It was still drizzling, and I had to walk swift to get to the terminal without getting wet. There was no announcement about which belt would the luggage be available - and none of the baggage carousels were on. After about 10 agonizing minutes of waiting, the carousel came to life. I opened the taxi operator apps I had in my phone, and tried getting a cab. My bag came at 1758, and at the very moment, Uber confirmed availability of a cab right outside the airport. I came out of the airport in another minute, and in another two minutes, I got my cab as well. What followed then was a nailbiting finish - did I get my bus? You'll have to wait for the next part :)
Cloud cover as we neared Pune...
The cabin as it was prepared for landing...
On the finals in to Pune..
Check-in: 5/5 (Had web checked in - used the counter to get my boarding pass and drop my baggage)
Cleanliness: 5/5 (the aircraft was in great shape - clean and well kept interiors)
Punctuality: 3/5 (Left late, reached late)
Crew: 5/5 (Great service)
Catering: 4/5 (Overheated, no proper dessert)
Overall: 4.5/5
Tracking of my flight from FR24
This was my first flight in a Jet Airways B738 - all my previous flights with Jet Airways were on ATR72s, and one on a JetKonnect B737. I was, obviously, excited about this flight - I was disappointed the way the delay was handled. Gate agents were not replying to why the flight was delayed, nor did they have a proper answer to how long would we be delayed. There were connecting passengers - who were tensed about their connections, and they did not have a proper answer for them as well. Although the delay did affect my experience, the onboard service was great, and kind-of made up for bad taste due to the delay. The catering was another let down - c'mon, handing out a chocolate is too cheap! Overall experience was above average.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Silver Line Jet - on my long journey to Kannur..

It was a very confusing decision. I had to travel from my hometown, Kodungallur to Kannur. Its a short journey, and has very few comfortable options. I had the options of taking a train from Thrissur (ruled out since no tickets were available), taking an overnight bus (ruled out since I wanted to be in Kannur well in time - and taking an overnight bus could be a major risk), or going bus hopping - this is the option I chose. I wanted to try my luck with KURTC - Kerala's official Low Floor bus operator. There were no buses at the time, I wanted. While casually browsing the Kerala SRTC reservation website for tickets from Kodungallur to Kozhikode, a Silver Line Jet popped up - the bus operates a Changanassery-Kozhikode schedule. Without wasting much time, I went ahead and booking a ticket (I got the ticket on my fourth attempt only - the banking transaction timed out everytime due to poor network connectivity).

What is this Silver Line Jet?

Long ago, when I was a Kid, Kerala SRTC used to operate a class of service called "Lightning Express". Those buses used to make very very limited stops, and ran at high speeds, and had a very low running time. Over the period of time, these services were withdrawn - multiple reasons were quoted, including frequent accidents, for the withdrawal. Almost two decades went by before KSRTC thought of bringing back the same class of service. But the roads got more crowded over the period, and there has been hardly any improvement in the road infrastructure in Kerala. This time, they decided to give a new name to the concept - Silver Line Jet was born! The name looks very awkward for a bus, IMO. I am not sure of what was the seating layout of Lightning Express - I was too small to remember anything of my only encounter with the Lightning Express. The new avatar, Silver Line Jet, has a 2x2 seating layout, with only 40 seats inside. They went for non-air-suspension chassis, with a body design that resembles Super Deluxe buses. The body was built in-house, at Central Workshop, Pappanamcode, Trivandrum. This time as well, these services have very limited stops, and have the least running time among all services in the route.

September 19, 2015:
The first thing I did on waking up was to check if I had received any SMS from KSRTC about the bus or the crew. Employees of Changanassery depot (which operates this service) were on strike until a few days back. This had left me a bit worried - will the bus get cancelled? I called up the depot and enquired if the bus had operated that day - they replied affirmative. I further asked the crew's phone number - the person at the other end put me on hold and hunted out the number for me. I thanked that person and hung up. I called up the conductor then - he said they were yet to reach Vyttila. He confirmed my boarding point, and promised to call me when he nears Kodungallur. Since the bus was still far away, I took my own sweet time to leave home - after a leisurely breakfast from home, I started off to Kodungallur, some 3kms away from home.
The bus - RPC106 of Changanassery depot
I reached Kodungallur bus station at around 0940hrs. Just as I got off the bus, and walked towards the highway, the conductor of Silver Line Jet calls up - they are entering Kodungallur bypass, and should reach my pick-up point in another 5 minutes - I confirm that I've reached the pick-up point. The bus turned up at my pick-up point at 0946 - and leaves immediately after I, and another passenger got in. The scheduled time for this bus at Kodungallur is 0900hrs - so thats a 46 minute delay. The driver meant business - and remained aggressive right from the start. The bus passed Triprayar at 1019hrs. The road gets narrow after Chettuva - I wanted to see how the bus keeps pace there - we lost time after Chettuva, finally reaching Guruvayur at 1053 - 53 minutes late now. We left Guruvayur at 1056hrs.
Inside the bus - the cabin is separated by a curtain..
The bus takes the Ponnani-Tirur-Parappanangadi-Chelari route from here. This is one of the narrowest routes I've seen - the worst choice of route for a service whose USP is speed and less travelling time. The rot began here - we kept losing time as we progressed. Ponnani was reached at 1132hrs - the scheduled arrival time at Kozhikode is 1200hrs! It was impossible we reach Kozhikode on time. The road gets even narrower after Chamravattom bridge - its difficult even to over a bike on this road. We passed Tirur at 1209hrs - the driver saved time by not going to the bus station, but dropped passengers at the town centre itself.
The rear half.. 
It was too hot outside, and I dozed off for sometime later. The bus made very painful progress - and to add salt to the injury, a ticket checker wanted to get in in the middle of nowhere - the driver is bound to oblige, and he stopped. I still wonder why do you need someone to check tickets in a bus that had hardly 20 passengers - and runs with very limited stops! Meanwhile, there was some altercation between the crew and a passenger who wanted to get down at a place the bus doesn't stop. The driver was worried that the bus was already running late, and stopping everywhere would simply add to the delay - he is right, thinking from his side. I reserve my comments on whether what the crew did was right or wrong - the bus eventually stopped to drop that passenger. The checker also got off after sometime.

The driver breathed free as the bus got on to the highway at Chelari - he picked speed, but couldn't maintain speed due to traffic. We went through the bypass, and finally reached Kozhikode bus station at 1337hrs - a good 1h37m late from the arrival time mentioned on the website (the arrival time according to the time sheet is 1230hrs - so thats a 1h07m delay). The journey took a shade under 4 hours - not bad for the route, IMO.
The bus that took me to Kannur, from Kozhikode.
After getting off the bus at Kozhikode, I had my lunch, and then took another bus to Kannur. It was RNC19 of Thalassery depot that took me to Kannur. The bus left Kozhikode at 1416hrs, and dropped me in Kannur new bus station at 1726hrs - after wading though traffic for most part of the journey.

Summary: Silver Line Jet is a misplaced concept, speaking very honestly. With the ever increasing traffic, having a class of service that has the sole usp of speed isn't a good idea. The bus is built on a regular leaf-spring suspension chassis - making it for a very uncomfortable journey. The sole comfort factor in the bus is the 2x2 Push back seating. The choice of routes isn't great as well. And to add salt to the injury, the bus charges the highest fares for a non-ac bus in the KSRTC network. The fares are higher than even the Super Deluxe buses, which offer the same seating and has air-suspension. I hope KSRTC doesn't make such mis-adventures anymore. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kannur to Bangalore: KSRTC Airavat

I did not quite realise that it was a very long weekend. I was quite late to start searching for tickets - almost all the good buses were sold out - the private ones were full, barring a few exhorbitantly priced special buses. Even the later buses of KSRTC were sold out. There weren't too many options left, and I chose to book a KSRTC Airavat that leaves very early from Kannur. This particular bus is operated by Mysore division, and operates only upto Mysore Road Satellite Bus Station. With a very early departure (1845hrs) and a very early arrival (0330hrs), this bus finds very few takers and is usually the last to fill. Half the bus was filled when I booked my ticket, and I had to be content with a window seat towards the rear half of the bus.

September 20, 2015
I decided to leave my room a bit early, so that I could have some refreshments before getting into the bus. However, so issues with my booking at the hotel delayed by check-out, and I could leave the hotel only by 1750hrs. I did not have much time left for a hotel visit, and directly took an auto to the KSRTC bus station, from where my bus would depart. I bought some snacks from a bakery outside the bus station - this happened to be a good decision, as I realised later.

Kannur KSRTC bus station is a very sleepy place - only a very few buses come here, and even fewer passengers come here. Being a Sunday after a long weekend, the bus station was a bit crowded today. There were a couple of buses to depart in the next hour or so - both to Bangalore. One operated by Kerala SRTC and the other being my bus. The customary message dropped in soon after I reached there, and it informed my bus would be KA-01-F-8476 of Mysore Rural-2 Depot. "8476" - this kept repeating again and again! A very old bus!!

The clock ticked past 1830, and there was no sign of my bus being brought in. Meanwhile, Kerala SRTC's Super Deluxe to Kannur was brought in, and was ready for departure perfectly at its departure time of 1900hrs. My bus was finally brought to the platform at 1844hrs - just one minute to go for departure. First impressions - a Mark-III Volvo B7R, with Azad body! It looked old - had better days for sure. As soon as the bus came, people mobbed around it - majority of those who mobbed were seat seekers. The conductor had a tough time letting the reserved passengers get in.
The bus: KA-01-F-8476 of Mysore Rural-2 Depot
On getting into the bus, I was in for a big surprise - the entire interiors were redone. Fully new upholstery for seats, flooring changed, roofing garnish changed and what not! A nice air freshener was used as well. My co-passenger was already seated. The bus was filling up quick - real quick. The Kerala RTC bus was already full and ready to go - we had some more passengers to join. I still don't understand why is it so difficult for Karnataka SRTC to stick to their departure time. We finally started off at 1905hrs - 20 minutes late. A waterbottle and blanket was given soon after we left the bus station.

The traffic was fairly high for a Sunday, and we crawled till we got to the bypass. This bus had a pick-up at Thalassery, and we headed towards there. The bus seemed to be in great condition mechanically - the engine did not make any new sounds, and the ride quality was great. The bus picked pace really quick - I guess the engine had undergone a full overhaul. We reached Thalassery by 1946hrs - that was quick thanks to low traffic on the highway. The pick-up took some time - we left at 1951hrs, and most seats were full now. No movie or music was played, and the cabin lights were also off - perfect atmosphere to sleep! I slowly drifted asleep. We passed Koothuparamba at 2016hrs, and Mattannur at 2040hrs.

We stopped briefly at Iritty, at 2106hrs - One passenger joined here, and we started again at 2108hrs. I kept shifting from sleep to wake every now and then. There was a bit of traffic at Koottupuzha, and the driver had to make 4 attempts (forward-reverse cycles) to finally make it through the Koottupuzha bridge, which we passed at 2133hrs. The ghat started then - the driver showed his skills here. Perfectly balanced driving - no throwing around, and I don't remember any passenger puking in the bus. The driver really showed what it is to drive in a ghat - turns were taken slowly, and that really helped. The refurbished suspension setup of the bus also helped.

I slept off soon before we finished ascending the ghat. The bus stopped at Virajpet to pick a passenger (2235hrs) - I had a very nice sleep after that. I wondered why didn't they stop for dinner yet! The bus finally pulled in to a hotel named "New Sagar" a little after Gonikoppa (2325hrs). As usual, the AC was switched off when they stopped, and it got very stuffy inside. I got off the bus, had a stroll, took a tea and some snacks, and then got back into the bus. I waited for the driver to switch on the engine so that I could check the odo reading - but the entire display was jumbled up, and it just displayed some random characters. We finally started off from there at 2344hrs.

I had another long sleep, only to be woken up by the sound of the conductor calling for Mysore passengers - we were standing inside the Mysore bus station - the clock read 0059hrs. I was asleep even before the bus started again from the bus station. A long continuous sleep after that - I woke woken up again with the shrill calls from the cabin.. "Bengalooor... last stop". It was 0318hrs, and we were already at Mysore road Satellite Bus Station! A good 12 minutes before scheduled time, even after departing 20 minutes late from Kannur! The arrival was too early, and we were dropped only at the Satellite bus station. It was a very loonngg journey home after that - there were no cabs available, and had to wait for a long time to get one.

An 8 hour thirteen minute journey for 350kms, with a long ghat section, and mostly two lane roads. That was a great journey. The bus was old (2008 vintage), with an undecipherable odometer reading. The maintenance was a class apart - great interiors, with an average looking exterior. To cut short, I loved it!

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Not Available
Entertainment: Available, not used

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4.75/5 (Points cut for the delayed departure, but 5/5 for a before time arrival)

Overall: 4.95/5

Will I take this service again? I am not very sure - the timings are odd, so is the dropping point in Bangalore. It is a good alternative option, though.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Low Floor revolution in Kerala: A short trip from Alappuzha to Kochi Airport

Low Floor buses were first introduced in 2009 - as part of JnNURM funding. The basic intention of these buses were to modernise city transportation in the cities of Kochi and Trivandrum, where they were launched. Operations of these buses were handled by KSRTC, who felt they made losses in city routes and put them on longer intercity routes. While the passenger response in these routes were good, the basic purpose wasn't served. This led to some legal issues finally leading to the High court of Kerala issuing orders restraining KSRTC from operating such buses beyond the project area. Considering the fact that urbanisation in Kerala is widespread and not confined to certain areas, the Kerala government divided Kerala into clusters of 2-3 districts and received funding for clusters than cities. A new subsidiary was formed under KSRTC, called Kerala Urban Road Transport Corporation (KURTC) to handle JnNURM buses.

With JnNURM-2 funding, there are Volvo services across the state now. Low floor Volvo buses operate on intercity routes now, connecting one cluster to another. Traveling has become all the more comfortable with the advent of these buses. It is a different fact that the buses are a complete misfit to most of the routes that they operate on - the buses aren't comfortable for the routes they operate, and the higher operating costs translate to higher ticket fares as well.
One of the newer Volvos in Kerala..
In one of my recent trips to Kerala, I had the chance to travel a lot in the newer Volvos that were purchased under JnNURM-2. The newer buses have a more lavish seating compared to the older ones - the number of seats are down to 31 from 38, as well. The newer buses have a high back seat as well - offering a more comfortable ride to passengers. I had the opportunity to travel in one such bus (JN361 of Alappuzha depot) from Vyttila to Alappuzha - the improved leg room and the comfortable back rest makes for a very comfortable journey. The bus took close to about 90 minutes to complete the journey, since it was a normal shuttle service and had too many stops on the way. Given the comfort the bus offered, I was particular about traveling in a Low Floor bus for my return journey as well.

August 09, 2015:
I was to head to the airport to catch a 1605hrs flight back to Bangalore (read the flight review here). My parents would be traveling along me till Ernakulam. We left my maternal home at sometime around 1000hrs. We were at Alappuzha bus station by around 1050hrs. On enquiry, I was told that the next Volvo to Ernakulam was at 1110hrs - that was acceptable. My parents approved the plan to wait till that bus comes. Since that bus is inbound from Trivandrum, I had a small fear that it could be crowded and getting a seat might be tricky. I remained around the entrance of the bus station, so that I'd have prior information about the arrival of the bus and we have a better chance of getting a seat.
JN64 of ECKL working Trivandrum-Ernakulam @ Alappuzha BS
Sometime past 1110hrs, JN64 of Enchakkal Depot (Trivandrum) pulled into the bus station. The bus was registered in April 2012 - a 3 year old bus. I had to attack the door as soon as it opens, in order to grab seats. The doors opened, people walked out, and I succeeded in grabbing three seats - 2 for my parents, and 1 a little bit behind for me. The bus left Alappuzha at 1115hrs. The bus showed its age - rattling sounds were apparent from the rear axle. The engine sounded calm, though. All seats were taken when we left Alappuzha bus station. We crawled for sometime on the highway. Some melodious songs were being played on the entertainment system. The driver let the beast loose after some time. The bus went into Cherthala bus station (1145hrs). The bus remained full throughout. We left Cherthala at 1148 - it was bliss after we entered the 4-lane roads after Cherthala.
Ticket for three.. Alappuzha to Ernakulam
I was dropped at Vyttila junction at 1231hrs - my parents continued in the same bus to MG Road. While the AC made the ride comfortable, the stiff seating position made the ride painful. I had a stiff back by the time I got off at Vyttila. The ticket fare was Rs. 113 per head. The legroom was poor, and the seating position was poor as well. The end-to-end ride took an hour and 16 minutes - and we made just 2-3 stops on the way. These low floor buses are certainly a great way to commute short distance - I am not sure if one might be able to travel long distance in these comfortably.
JN78 of Ernakulam - which took me from Vyttila to Airport
I took another low floor Volvo from Vyttila (JN78) to reach the airport - this bus was packed to the core. Had to travel standing till Edappally, where I got a seat. I was at the airport by 1345hrs - long time before my flight back to Bangalore! Kerala presently has about 190 Volvo Low Floor buses (not all of them are commissioned yet). Short intercity shuttles are a great choice of routes for these buses - but KSRTC/KURTC is taking it a bit too far with longer routes. They are too uncomfortable for long travel. I hope they realise the mistake and concentrate on higher frequencies on shorter routes.