Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thrissur to Bangalore: On a Kerala State RTC "Multiaxle"

I was fully undecided about my return journey after my vacation. Air Tickets for Sunday went at high rates, while I couldn't opt for a bus since I needed to be in Bangalore maximum by 4AM on monday. Tickets for buses leaving on Sunday were being sold for astronomical sums as well. I finally decided to take a bus on Saturday instead - and have a nice rest at home on Sunday, so that I can start off fresh on Monday. I decided to look for state buses - I hadn't travelled in a Kerala RTC multi-axle buses in a very long time - almost a year! This was the best opportunity for me to try them again - there were four options, and I briefly considered taking the last bus - but ruled out since that bus would reach Bangalore quite late in the morning. I finally decided to take the last Kerala RTC bus via Salem, which is the 1515hrs Trivandrum-Bangalore service. Booking was done online.

In the run up to my journey, I got a mild hint that I might get the Scania Metrolink 13.7M trial bus for my trip. Kerala RTC has been operating a Scania Metrolink HD 13.7M bus on trial bus since the past three months. They've been operating the bus on different routes since then, and had been shifted to the Trivandrum-Salem-Bangalore route a few weeks earlier. Going my spotting calculations, it would be the Scania trial bus that takes me back to Bangalore.

November 14, 2015:
Sometime past 1430hrs - I was busy roaming around in Ernakulam. An SMS popped up in my phone - that was the message containing details of the bus and the crew that would take me back to Bangalore. Next to the word Bus Number was the word "Scania" instead of any bus number! I jumped up in joy - it was indeed the trial bus that would take me back to Bangalore! I was really excited to have made it to the trial run by chance!

I left home sometime after 1915, after my dinner. My dad dropped me at the nearest bus stop. For some reason, no buses turned up for quite some time.As the time ticked past, I got tensed, and started thinking of alternatives. I finally got a bus that goes upto Irinjalakkuda, some 20 kms before Thrissur. From there, I got into an autorickshaw for the last leg. I made it to Thrissur by around 2100hrs. The bus station appeared unusually crowded - buses that left the bus station was also crowded - especially those heading to northern Kerala. I was to meet fellow busfan, Sankar, at the bus station - he was coming in from Ernakulam by a Bangalore bound bus - on calling him, I realised that there was heavy traffic, and his bus was still about 10kms away from Thrissur.

In the meantime, I ran into a conductor of Thrissur depot, whom I know fairly well - we stood there talking for quite some time, and by then Sankar's bus came in to the bus station. I came to know from him that there was heavy traffic block in Ernakulam, and all buses coming from that side was heavily delayed. I called up the conductor of my bus (using the phone number mentioned in the message I recevied), and he informed that the bus was atleast an hour away (about 70 kms away in Aluva). Sankar and I stood discussing a lot of KSRTC related stuff. Sometime towards 2300hrs, he headed out of Thrissur in a Guruvayur bound bus. I decided to have a tea and a fried Banana Fritter (പഴംപൊരി, അതിനാണ്) in the meantime.
The bus: KL-07-CD-6026 (photo from archives)
The Scania trial bus, KL-07-CD-6026, pulled into the bus station at 2304hrs. I had actually been standing at an empty platform - I was fairly confident that my bus would pull in there itself, since the other platforms were full. I was right - the bus came and stopped exactly where I was. In fact, the driver stopped a little before the platform, opened the door and let the second driver out - who guided the driver to the platform without ground the bus on the concrete vehicle stoppers. The second driver saw me carrying a bag, and asked if I had a reservation in the bus - when I said yes, he quickly opened the dickey  and let me leave my baggage in there. The conductor wasn't permitting passengers in, since a lot of passengers were alighting at Thrissur. I finally got in to the bus after he began boarding - there was no fuss about checking tickets - he just asked for my seat number and let me in. As soon as he let me in, he handed over a bottle of water to me. I was reserved in one of the last rows (purposefully, to enjoy the engine notes). I was quite surprised by the fact that the bus was full! Except the seats for those boarding at Thrissur, all seats were full! The conductor came around to do a headcount just before starting from Thrissur - since no blankets were on my seat, I asked him for one. His answer was atrocious - Its kept on the luggage rack, you can take it if you want. Probably my facial expression got him a message - he took one and handed over to me.

We finally pulled out of Thrissur bus station at 2314hrs. Instead of turning towards Sakthan nagar, and then towards Mannuthy, the driver headed straight towards Thrissur round, and then towards Wadakkanchery. I am not a fan of this route, primarily because the road is too windy, and it isn't a very comfortable ride if you are in a bus. The driver was quite fast, and honked quite often on this route. The bus had a musical horn - and it was a bit irritating. The seat felt a bit congested - might be only a feeling though. The engine sounded louder than in the Airavat Diamond Class bus that I came in, but the ride quality was far better. The suspension felt softer than the inbound bus.

The driver was very fast, and the body roll was very pronounced due to the winding roads - I couldn't sleep throughout the time the bus was on this route. We finally pulled into Palakkad bus station at 0034hrs, and parked near the fuel station. I am not sure if we took fuel from here, but a couple of passengers joined. We started off from Palakkad at 0049hrs. By now, sleep overpowered me, and I fell asleep in no time. The ride got comfortable after we left Palakkad - it got more stable, and there were lesser body rolls. The blanket was very heavy - it was made of the thick wool and not of synthetic fleece. I felt a bit uncomfortable in the blanket - but it was long and wide. The AC temperature felt perfect as well.

The sleep was very comfortable, and continuous. I vaguely remember seeing the bus pull in for a tea break - the time was around 0530, and it was near Krishnagiri toll (if I recognised correctly). I had another nice sleep, and woke up just as the bus pulled in to the Attibele toll gate (0628). I decided not to continue my sleep and instead pulled up the backrest. The driver was quite fast, and he kept overtaking vehicles through every possible lane - but I do not recall any rash maneuvers.We stopped at Hebbagodi (0642) to drop a passenger - the conductor got off the bus everytime to open the boot. Soon after we left Hebbagodi, I fired up a few taxi operator apps on my phone, and checked the availability of cabs at Silkboard. Kerala RTC crew have this habit of going through the BETL Elevated road instead of going below.

I wanted to confirm if the bus would go on the flyover or below - but I did not have to ask - the bus headed towards the flyover toll gate, and stopped to drop passengers getting off at Electronic City (0647hrs). I confirmed a cab as soon as we started from the toll gate. A couple of minutes after we entered the flyover, I decided to head to the cabin. I took a seat in the second row, instead of standing in the cabin. I was finally dropped at the beginning of silk board flyover at 0656hrs. The conductor opened the boot for me - my bag was easily reachable and I did not have a problem getting it out. However, that was not the case for a co-passenger - his bag had reached the other end of the luggage space - the conductor refused to help the passenger in retrieving the bag.

The 480-odd kms journey took 7h42m - including 15 minutes lost at Palakkad and some more time for the tea break near Krishnagiri. The running time was great for the distance. The bus had clocked over 70000kms - and seemed well maintained. There were no rattles - other than those caused by baggage hitting on the baggage racks. The engine seemed louder - I am not sure if that was a feeling or if there was difference between the buses that I am comparing. The ride was definitely softer. The leg space felt tight compared to Volvos. The overall ride quality was better than a Volvo. The crew behaviour is a major let down - the conductor did not seem very helpful. Helping passengers with their baggage is a small thing - but goes a long way in enhancing their travel experience. This was my first experience in a trial bus, and perhaps this was also the first time that Kerala RTC operated a non-KL15 registered bus on an interstate route. And, this was, perhaps, also the last trip of the trial bus on the trip - the bus has been returned to Scania, since.

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, did not use.
Entertainment: Available, not used

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4.5/5
Crew behaviour: 4/5
Punctuality: 4.5/5 (Left almost two hours late, and arrival was behind schedule)

Overall: 4.5/5

Will I take this service again? Kerala RTC Multi-axle buses are the cheapest on the road on weekdays, but the crew behaviour is a major let down. I'd surely try them for their timings and fare.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

First ride on Airavat Diamond Class: Bangalore to Thrissur

Scania was launched in India about two years back. The initial product as only the 14.5M variant, followed by the 12M and the 13.7M variants. The first institutional buyer to purchase the 13.7m variant was the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation. KSRTC went in for a new brand name for the Scanias, and called them the Airavat Diamond Class. The basic question, like everyone asked, was - what is the difference between the Diamond Class and the Club Class. One primary difference was that Club Class used Volvo B9Rs and Mercedes Benz Multi-Axle buses, while Diamond Class used newer Scania Metrolink HD 13.7m multi-axle buses. Club Class buses have a seating capacity of 49 (44 semi-sleeper seats and 5 regular 'executive' seats), while Diamond Class buses have only 46 seats - all semi-sleeper. The fares are the same in both the classes.

Airavat Diamond Class was first inducted into the KSRTC fleet sometime during the end of June 2015. They initially replaced the first set of Mercedes Benz Multi-axle buses, while the second set of Diamond Class buses replaced a few Volvo B9R buses. With a decreasing frequency of travels, more specifically bus travels, I did not get an opportunity to try the ADCs (Airavat Diamond Class) for a very long time. The first opportunity came when I got a short vacation last week. My leave request was approved quite late in the evening, meaning I couldn't travel that day. I decided to have a very nice sleep that night and travel the next night. I booked the ticket at the Shantinagar bus station ticket counter - only the last three rows were available, and I had to settle with seat #37.

November 08, 2015:
Since this was a trip planned at a very short notice, I had very little time to pack. After a quick dinner, I left home at around 2015hrs, with my brother. He dropped me at Shantinagar bus station sometime around 2045hrs. My bus, KA-57-F-1620, was already parked at the platform (#1). Boarding hadn't started since they hadn't received the reservation chart yet. I went around the bus station for sometime - all the platforms were already choked with buses. With Deepavali round the corner, there was heavy rush on most of the routes out of Bangalore - especially ones to Tamil Nadu. I returned to the platform by around 2105hrs - by now, boarding had already commenced. Since mine was a regular counter issued ticket, the conductor did not ask for identity proof, and he stuck off my number on the reservation chart and let me into the bus.
KA-57-F-1620, taken after I got off at Thrissur
My seat (#37) was located in the third last row of the bus - and, as I had feared, the baby was sleeping on my window! This meant, I'd not be able to see anything outside, and it would be a blind journey for me! Well, thats good in a way - I'd sleep instead of looking outside. Since buses queue one behind the other, buses do not depart on time from Shantinagar, but depart on the first in first out style. My bus kept moving ahead every time a bus ahead in the queue departed. We finally started off from Shantinagar bus station, at 2128hrs (11 minutes behind schedule). My first impressions were - the engine was silent (compared to the competition), but the ride was very very stiff - the bus threw up its passengers at speed breakers and potholes. The horizontal sways were also on the higher side. The steerable rear axle made things very comfortable for the driver - tight turns were handled with ease.
The emergency exit row - XL sized leg room is available here.
Interiors - seen from my seat. Notice the narrower gangway.
The bus was mostly empty when we started from Shantinagar - more passengers joined us at Dairy Circle (2136hrs) and Madiwala (2144hrs). Traffic came to a standstill as we reached Madiwala Market. We crawled till Silkboard flyover - where we had to stay still for some time. Traffic eased after Bommanahalli. The driver was very calm. One thing I really liked was that the bus wouldn't give an opportunity to the driver to lug the bus - its an automated manual transmission (Scania calls it the OptiCruise) and the gear would shift down the moment the rpm drops. We reached Electronic City at 2214hrs and left at 2216hrs - that is almost an hour from Shantinagar to Electronic City (its actually less, thanks to it being a Sunday).
The last row has only 4 seats, and is also a semi-sleeper.
I was expecting heavy traffic snarls at Attibele border region - Bangaloreans have a fetish of buying crackers from Hosur, and it was Diwali season. For some reason, traffic seemed very light this time - we passed Attibele at 2231hrs, and reached the Hosur pick-up point by 2239hrs! As we finished the last pick-up, the bus had all of 7 vacant seats! That is 39 seats occupied out of 46 seats on a Sunday night! Absolutely great loads for a Sunday. I decided to sleep. Interestingly, no movie/music was played - setting the atmosphere for a nice sleep. The only irritant was the bright night lamp - the night lamps were so bright that you really don't need other lighting in the bus.
This is how it looks with the night lamps on - its too bright!
The bus pulled into Hotel Saravana Bhavan Classic just before Krishnagiri for a dinner break (2314hrs). The Bangalore-Thrissur Airavat Club Class, which left about 5 minutes before us, was just preparing to depart after dinner. The ac was switched off as we stopped for dinner - it was getting sultry inside, and I got off the bus. I walked around outside taking some pics - very few passengers got off the bus, and hardly anyone went into the hotel. I always felt they need to skip this dinner break, and instead offer a washroom break later in the trip. We started off after the break at 2335hrs (a 21 minute break). I had a nice long sleep after the break - I had two seats at my disposal, and used most of it.
The bus when we stopped for dinner. Notice the lighting on the steps.
The AC vents of Scania buses have a unique problem - they have a very shallow range of directions - they move hardly 10 degrees. The problem is complex if you push back the seat backrest to the maximum - the air flows only until your waist. The most user friendly ac vents are in Volvo B9Rs - no doubt. It took me sometime to find a comfortable sleeping position. I slept in no time after I found the comfortable position. I had a very nice, undisturbed sleep - bad patches of road did wake me briefly. The suspension was too hard, and it transferred the roughness of the road to the passengers. Body roll was on the higher side, especially when the driver took turns at higher speeds. The sleep was so comfortable that I woke up when the bus was actually starting off from Sakthan Nagar bus station in Thrissur! I jumped off the seat, collected my belongings as headed towards the cabin. By now, the bus entered the KSRTC bus station. The actual driver was fast asleep and the driver-cum-conductor was at the wheels - he stopped the bus, switched on the lights and then started calling for passengers alighting at Thrissur. The time now was 0604hrs - a good 6 minutes before time!

The 480-odd kms journey took 8h36m, including a 21 minute break - so that brings the actual running time down to 8h15 minutes. Thats a great running time - considering the fact that the Bangalore-Thrissur Airavat Club Class, which left atleast 20 minutes before us from the dinner break point, arrived a good 10 minutes after I reached Thrissur! Airavat crew are known for their attempts to extract the maximum mileage out of buses - and the most commonly used trick is to shift to the highest gear and maintain rpms closer to the idle rpm. While this is not a great thing to do, the drivers extract the maximum mileage. This happens at the cost of timing - the bus never sticks to the schedule. The new automated transmission system (OptiCruise) makes this impossible - the bus would downshift if the driver attempted this. The only solution here was to ensure the bus picked pace, and maintained decent speeds and thus keep rpm under control and extract mileage. This is what happened with my bus - this meant the bus actually travelled faster than a Volvo and hence reached before time. I'd suggest people to book in an Airavat Diamond Class, solely for the fact that the driver has to drive faster and hence you, theoretically, have the possibility of reaching on time!

Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, and kept ON throughout
Entertainment: Available, not used

Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 (Left 11 minutes late, reached 6 minutes early)

Overall: 5/5

Will I take this service again? Sure! And Why wouldn't I ? Definitely recommended.