Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The all new Mercedes Benz 15M Super High Deck: KPN Travels, Coimbatore to Chennai

Hopes were running very high in the busfan community from the time rumors about a new Intercity coach from BharatBenz appeared. Daimler's earlier foray into the intercity scene wasn't a roaring success. The last time, they came out with a Brazilian Chassis with the coach built at Sutlej, one of India's oldest and renowned coach builders. Poor after sales support forced many operators away from the three-pointed star. By the time the after sales support was handed over to BharatBenz, the made-for-India brand of commercial vehicles from Daimler - which was a roaring success, buyers lost interest, and the product died a slow death. A few buses were sold as fully built Sleeper coaches - those were probably a last hitch attempt to survive.

The first set of images of the new Daimler intercity coach - it was unclear if the coach would be sold under the Mercedes Benz brand or the newer, cheaper, BharatBenz brand - set off a lot of expectations again. The rumor-mills were busy predicting the configuration and features the bus would offer. Yours truly, through friends in the industry, could find that the coach would be 14.95 (or 15) metres long , with a high deck. Details about the engine or transmission was kept a secret by sources, who would only confirm that the bus would have an in-house body, which would be handled by the Irish coach builder, Wrightbus. The bus looked very attractive with a very C/E-class grill, unusually vertically arranged headlamps and a departure from their squarish body design.

Days, weeks, months went by - there was no sign of the product getting launched. The first pictures of the bus being handed over to KPN came sometime in December. There was a period of silence when no information about the routes appeared. Sometime in end of January, rumours mills got active again, and information that the bus would operate on the Coimbatore-Chennai route appeared. Reservations were not opened until mid of February for this route though. I had been planning to travel in the section with the sole motive of trying out the service. The initial plan was to travel from Chennai to Coimbatore. The plan got reversed later to fit into my travel options.

The ticket for this journey was booked through the KPN travels website. The website is mediocre, but functional. The ticket was delivered by SMS. I selected a seat on the right side of the bus (a mistake, IMO). The bus was more than 50% filled by the time I booked the ticket, and hence ended up booking a seat in the 8th row. The bus had a very interesting seat numbering system - The rows were numbered 1 to 12, and the seats with alphabets A through D, similar to the number system in airlines. I was on 8D.

March 06, 2016:
After reaching Coimbatore by the Orange Travels Mercedes Benz Multi-axle coach (read here, in case you missed it), I first headed to Hotel Annapurna to have a heavy breakfast. Having food from Annapurna is a must-do on my bucket list every time - this time was no different. After the heavy breakfast, I headed out to spot some buses at the different bus stations around. I was joined by another bus fan in Coimbatore sometime around 11am. We both headed to the KPN parking yard on Avinashi road - this yard is a new place, and was opened only recently. We spent time there looking at the bus and speaking to the crew about their feedback (that is reserved for the moment). I did not take too many photos there - light was terrible at this point.
The two generations of Mercedes Benz in India!
My first impression about the bus was - A W E! The bus was huge. The length was apparent since an older generation Mercedes Benz (13.7metre coach, with a sleeper body) was parked right next to it. The body quality seemed impressive at the first look. This was the first aluminum structure coach in India, and the level of finish looked fairly good. I did not get into the bus at that time since it was still being cleaned. The deck was really high - a spare tyre easily fit into the deck (kept vertical), with sufficient space above the tyre - really demonstrating the height of the deck. While cleaning was still in progress, we took some time out to go around Coimbatore, and I had to stock some snacks for the journey ahead. A 1pm departure meant I cannot afford a proper lunch. After roaming around, and getting sufficient stock of snacks and a couple of bottles of water, we headed back to the KPN yard. While on the way, the office staff called up and enquired about my whereabouts and I was told the bus was ready to depart early.
The bus I will travel in - TN-30-BD-9199
As I reached back at the yard, the office staff asked me to get into the bus straightaway. The attendant took signalled the same. I walked into the bus - into a whiff of cold air. The interiors looked very airy - but was far from being called premium. The finish wasn't upto expectations. The interior fabric bore a dull grey colour, with unpolished aluminum garnishes. I felt a bit too odd when I settled down on the seat - I did not get what was wrong initially though. The window was tall - really tall. The aircon vents were old school, and were terribly misplaced. The AC vents blow cold air straight to your head from behind - the one ahead was too way, and doesn't even blow face till your hip, forget the face. The seats were fairly comfortable - they were the Harita Crystal semi-sleeper seats. The bus had humongous leg room, since they went for a very generous 48 seat configuration (with a proper berth for the driver at the back) - while Daimler claims a normal configuration of 57 seats!
Inside the bus.. the overhead bins were humongous and deep (although it looks shallow)
The same old console. The console was ill-fitting, and leaked a lot of air
The engine was very audible inside - much like the earlier generation Mercedes Benz buses. One major, and welcome, change was the omission of those awkward window facing ac vents. They were replaced with the aisle facing vents that is common in other buses. The bus started moving from the yard at 1230hrs - crawling for most part of the initial journey towards the Omni Bus Station. The driver made very jerky gear shifts - the vehicle jerked forward everytime the gear was changed. The ride quality was nothing special to talk about - the routine intercity coach quality - slightly hard, but mature. Body roll seemed really well controlled. We reached Omni Bus stand by around 1245 - the bus had to take a U turn to get to the KPN travels office - the road was just wide enough to accomodate the length of the coach. The driver didn't have to reverse to get it through - the steerable rear axle helped and we did it in a single shot.
Waiting for passengers outside Omni bus stand..
The grille and the lights up close..
Soon after the bus stopped at the office, I received an SMS from the operator with details of my bus. I was on board TN-30-BD-9199. The beast had run about 30K kms till date. I utilised the time at Omni Bus Stand to click some pictures - boarding took a lot of time, and very few people got in here. We got moving from there at 1258hrs - some 3 minutes behind time. The bus traced back the same route towards the parking yard, turning off towards Chennai a few metres before the yard. The driver seemed new to the beast, and his inexperience showed at slow speeds. I was really surprised to see Mercedes Benz coming back with a manual transmission now, given the fact that the competition have junked manual and moved over to automated manual transmission (iShift on the Volvo, or the OptiCruise on Scania) now. The next pickup was at Hope College (1312hrs). The bus was still more than half empty - but a lot of passengers would join en route according to the chart. The bus stopped at a bakery just before entering the bypass to let passengers buy something for lunch. The odd timing was surely an issue for passengers.
Another look at the majestic looking coach..
The 'cockpit'. Notice the horn switch placed on the left side - a very inconvenient place!
The sun was on my side - the tall window (translating to more exposure to sunlight, and more glass house area), skinny curtains, misplaced AC vents all made my journey miserable. The crew tried playing a movie on the entertainment system - the movie got stuck multiple times due to some issue with the player. I was very tired and sleepy - so tried dozing off for some time. We had a pick-up at Avinashi (1356hrs). I was half asleep all the time. We had another pick-up at Chitode (1438hrs). The bus was about 75% filled at this point. I slept for some more time, and woke up just as the bus stopped for yet another break - this time just past Vaigundam toll gate (near Sankari bypass) - at 1516hrs. I utilized this time to take a lot of pictures of the bus (backlit again) and stock some more stuff for the journey ahead. The break was exactly 10 minutes, and we started off again at 1526hrs. The sun was still on my side, and the heat was getting unbearable - with hardly any effect of airconditioning, it was getting miserable. The faulty air vent placement is definitely an issue - it could be related to the lavish seating layout opted by KPN, though.
A full side view of the coach - its really loooong..
The rear profile of Volvo v/s the Mercedes Benz..
I had another nice sleep after the break, and woke up just as the bus was turning off the bypass to enter Salem town. I understood there was fairly heavy traffic in Salem at that time, and we were crawling most of the time. We finally made it to the office of KPN travels, located right opposite the bus station, at 1553. The bus filled up here - all seats were occupied now. We started off from here at 1559hrs - although the bus got moving, the office staff was still counting heads and tallying their pick-up chart with the waybill - the bus took a U-turn and came to the other side of the office, where the office guys got off. Once past Salem, the driver appeared to have gained some hidden energy - he started driving faster. The sun was on-and-off on my side now, and the glass started cooling down. I could feel the effect of the AC now.
Another rear shot - a 3/4th, with the engine door open, again..
I slept for some more time - some movie was being played on the TV, but at a very low sound. It appeared that some road work was on - the bus frequently kept changing lanes. The ride quality was very mature, and I couldn't really feel the lane changes inside. I kept dozing off time and again. The bus pulled into a hotel (Hotel Velappar) on Kallakurichi bypass (1740hrs) for a break. There was an SRM Volvo B9R for company (this bus has been playing hide and seek with us all the way from Coimbatore). The hotel was crowded heavily - two buses full of passengers crammed into the average sized restaurant. I was lucky to get a seat as soon as I got inside - I had a a light and quick snack and jumped out of the restaurant to click some pics of the bus. For some reason, KPN leaves their engine door open during breaks - its been a common practice with them always.
The rear axle placement. The tag axle is steerable. The emergency door is full sized.
The driver also gets proper stairs to get it.
Another look at my bus!
We started off from the hotel at 1808hrs. It started getting dark as we got moving. I concentrated on the movie that was being played in the bus. The driver maintained fairly good speeds all the time - the driver showed a sense of urgency now, and that SRM bus we had for company at the hotel continued giving us company all the time. Things were normal till we passed the toll gate past Tindivanam bypass. Right after passing the toll, the driver pulled to the left and parked on the road side. I thought it was another tea break - but I saw the attendant running around the bus. We opened the boot and started doing something there. I sensed we had a puncture. The time was around 2005hrs. I got off the bus to confirm my worst fear - and it was indeed true. The attendant had placed chocks on the front tyres, and had raised the jack as well. The tyre was loosened, and he was now trying to remove the spare wheel that was kept in the boot.

The tool kit that came with the bus was inappropriate, and the spare wheel mounting nuts was too tight. The crew tried every trick they could to remove the tyre, but no success. The went around the toll gate and got different sizes of wheel spanners and tried - but none worked. Some passengers got angry and got off the bus, and found their own way of travelling to Chennai - while some kept mumbling all the time about mis-management and poorly trained crew. While I do agree the crew weren't properly trained - but I doubt if you can really blame them for an over-tightened nut. They had left the AC on, so passengers could sit inside oblivious of the fact that we were stuck. After many futile attempts, the crew decide to carry on with the punctured tyre (which was on the rear powered axle, on the left side, the inner tyre) till they find a tyre shop or other assistance.
When 'tragedy' struck - everyone trying their luck at removing the spare wheel.
We started from the toll gate at 2105hrs - we lost a full hour there itself. The bus was driven slowly after the toll - not very slow, but not very fast, either. I dozed off sometime during the run - the early start to the day, the heat in Coimbatore all had drained my energy. I vaguely remember the bus stopping again - and this time I heard sounds of pneumatic spanner doing its job. I slept off before realising where we were, or what time it was. I woke up again just when the attendant came around calling for passengers alighting at Perungulathur - so we were almost in Chennai already. We stopped at Perungulathur at 2256hrs. The bus was well behind schedule already - and it was too late for ladies travelling alone. The crew stopped for them on request and the attendant even assisted them in getting autos or buses to their destination. The driver ripped as soon as he entered the bypass road and rushed towards Koyambedu. The bus was already late for its return service. Traffic thickened as we neared Koyambedu - we finally reached the private bus station at 2323hrs - about an hour and a half behind schedule.

Remarks: I'd reserve comments about the service or maintenance of the bus. The bus looked attractive from outside - not very premium interiors. The ride quality was mature, but the suspension was on the harder side. The misplaced AC vents made things bad from the passengers' perspective. The seats were comfortable, but a flat floored cabin, with a low sitting seat is quite uncomfortable. The seat backrest also appeared a bit short to me - maybe that needs another confirmation. The noise insulation leaves a lot to be desired - the engine is very audible inside the coach. The drivers were not very happy with the performance - the bus is quite underpowered for its size. The bus is powered by a 11-litre engine putting out 360hp of power - when its main competition sells buses with 13 litre engines pumping out 410hp of power. Overall an average product in my opinion - did not stand up to the excitement the product created in the market. I am quite depressed with a marquee brand like Mercedes Benz not taking the Indian intercity coach market very seriously, and coming back with the same level of overconfidence they had the last time. I generally do not sound so pessimistic in my reviews, but Benz seems to falter again in the market. Unless they pull up their socks and come up with a better engine and probably with automated manual transmission, they might not stand a chance. Oh yeah - better interiors as well.

Amenities:
Blanket: No
Water: No
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Available, remained On throughout.
Entertainment: Available, couple of movies played.

Ratings:
Maintenance: Irrelevant
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4.95/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 3/5 (Heavy delay at arrival)

Overall: 3.5/5 [Improperly tooled bus, delay at destination]

Will I take this service again? I see no reason not to recommend this service.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Bangalore to Coimbatore by Orange Travels Mercedes Benz

A journey with no specific purpose - one just to enjoy the pleasure of traveling! I had been planning one such journey since a long time. Although there was no specific purpose, I had a target. The initial plan was to travel Bangalore-Chennai-Coimbatore-Bangalore. The logistics didn't really work well and I decided to reverse it. The trip was conceived sometime in the middle of February, but it kept getting pushed back, and finally happened in the first week of March. The booking was very impulsive. I had been researching the various connections I could get, and finally decided on this combination: Bangalore to Coimbatore by Orange Travels Mercedes Benz, Coimbatore to Chennai by KPN Travels and finally Chennai to Bangalore by Parveen Travels. There was one or the other first associated with each journey in this trip.

Selecting Orange Travels for the Bangalore-Coimbatore leg wasn't easy. I did not want to stay overnight in Coimbatore, and at the same time I didn't want to reach too early in Coimbatore. This ruled out all overnight travel options. I had my eye on the umpteen buses that come from Hyderabad. I wanted to be in Coimbatore before 11am as well. Orange Travels fit into my require to the T. Orange had a pick-up time of 0315hrs and promised a drop in Coimbatore at 0845hrs. I booked a ticket through the Orange Travels website - booking is easy, and the ticket reached my mobile and my mailbox in no time. I received tracking information about the bus about 30 minutes before the bus started from Hyderabad - that is, the evening prior to my journey. The tracker was interesting - and I could pinpoint the location of the bus exactly.

March 06, 2016
It was just 0100hrs - my alarm rang continuously forcing me out of my bed. I had slept early the previous night. After getting ready, I had some light food at home, while I waited for the cab to arrive. A slightly run down Indica operated for a cab-aggregator arrived well before the appointed time. The cab driver took the shortest way and dropped me at the boarding point by around 0255hrs - way before the scheduled pick-up time. Orange Travels doesn't have an office in that area - the pick-point is mentioned as "Main Road, Madiwala. Near Police Station, Opp: Total Mall". It was a more-or-less isolated place. The only solace is the 24 hour Fuel station, and the police station. There were some people waiting outside the police station - most of them took TNSTC buses that go to places right across the border. It was a bit scary being in that place - I stood near the entrance of the police station for most of the time.

The tracking website seemed to show that the bus was stationary between Kurnool and Anantapur. I got updated information only when I cleared the cache and reloaded the website. The bus was running about 30 minutes late and had just passed the airport when it was time for it arrive at Madiwala. The bus finally arrived at 0344hrs. A few passengers got off, and a couple of us got in. The crew were in proper uniform, complete with Identity card. The driver quickly checked my ticket and let me in. They waited for sometime for a passenger who hadn't turned up. Since they couldn't contact him on phone either, they called up their office and informed about the passenger. We started off from Madiwala at 0351hrs - a 36 minute delay.
The bus: KA-01-AB-4978. Taken during the break.
As soon as the bus started, the attendant came around with a fresh blanket (quite surprising), their snack box and a 500-ml bottle of water. The front curtains were drawn, and the night lamps were left on. I tried sleeping for some time. We stopped at Hosur to drop a passenger (0415hrs) and then continued the journey. I slept soon after Hosur only to wake up hearing the attendant shouting out for passengers getting off at Salem. The time was around 0610hrs. The bus started after a couple of minutes. The driver seemed to be new on the route, since the attendant was advising him on the route. The driver was quite fast, and he entered the Salem flyover at high speed. The bus took the abuse really well and remained stable on the 270* turn.

I slept again for some time and woke up when the attendant called out a tea break. The time was around 0628hrs - we were probably around Sankari now. I got off the bus, took a stroll, and some photographs. The bus was maintained fairly well - a couple of pairs of extra lights were put up at the front. There weren't any major accident damages on the bus. The break was quick. The drivers changed, and we started off again at 0640hrs. I was quite surprised by the absence of individual charging points. They had installed a charging station in the cabin though - about 6 plug points were lined up there. I plugged my phone there, and moved to the first row (which was now empty).

The bus had a Pressplay entertainment system installed. I installed the app on my phone and watched a movie for sometime. There were two movies each of Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. I opted for a Tamil movie. The app actually streams the movie over a WiFi system installed in the bus. The stream was continuous. The attendant switched on some music in the bus sometime around 0730hrs - and opened up the front curtain at this time. It was fun to watch the bus cruising down the 4-lane highway at a very brisk pace. The driver was quite honk-happy, and cut lanes very frequently. We turned off the highway and entered the road towards Coimbatore sometime around 0815hrs. The first drop point was Hope College, at 0822hrs. Traffic in the city was building up slowly - despite being a Sunday. The bus turned off the main road after Nava India and headed towards Gandhipuram. The bus stopped outside Gandhipuram bus station at 0838hrs. Majority of the passengers got off here. I continued on to Omni Bus Stand - I was dropped there at 0844hrs - one minute before time!

The bus, KA-01-AB-4978, had clocked about 8.56 Lakh kms. The bus was registered in 2012, and was close to 4 years old. Except a nagging sound from the front axle, there were no rattles or other unwanted sounds from the bus. The suspension seemed to be in good shape - although a little hard. The end-to-end running time was 4h55m, including a 12 minute tea break. I also suspect the bus stopped for refueling on the way, since the fuel gauge showed full when we stopped for tea. Driving wasn't great - both the drivers were fast. The second driver was very honk-happy and cut lanes quite fast. But he did use indicators while changing lanes. The snack box is a great thing - I was damn hungry when I received it. The snack box contained a pack of cookies (2 cookies), a packet of namkeen and a piece of tea cake. They gave out fresh blankets to passengers - the blanket was packed in a plastic cover. Overall a good experience again with Orange Travels. The lack of a proper boarding point is a big negative though - its absolutely unsafe for ladies travelling alone.

Amenities:
Blanket: Yes
Water: Yes
Snacks: Yes
Charging Point: Common plug points in the Cabin available.
Entertainment: Available, Songs played. Individual WiFi entertainment also available.

Ratings:
Maintenance: 4.5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4.5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 (Left late, arrived before time)

Overall: 4.5/5 [Cutting points for not having proper boarding points]

Will I take this service again? Absolutely!