The evolution of bus travels in India - Part-2

Buses and bus travels have come a very long way in India. From what was one predominantly a feeder mode of transportation, or a primary mode of transportation even for long distance journeys, there has been a metamorphosis in the road transport industry. Powerful luxury buses, combined with rapidly progressing highway works has just been the booster this industry needed. In the earlier part of this multi-part series on evolution of bus travels in India, I had discussed about the way the buses changed in the country. The last two decades has been very happening in the country.

Before I begin this part, I must retrace the memories of long distance buses to the period before the last two decades. My daily spotting every single day in the 1999-2000 period were those long distance buses that operated daily trips from Mumbai to Mangalore - buses of CPC, Ballal, etc. These buses took 24 hours to cover the distance from Mumbai to Mangalore - they carried huge amounts of cargo on their roof as well. Those days, the Mumbai-Pune expressway wasn't still open, and these buses ran through the town I was staying in, in the periphery of Mumbai.  These buses were seater buses, and I always had the question of how people travelled sitting for such a long distance.

I believe it was sometime during the early 2000s, we friends from school had an outing to the Fort area in Mumbai - the primary reason for the outing was shopping, plus a small picnic. While roaming around the area, I spotted a very unique bus - the bus, owned by Paulo Holiday Makers of Goa, had its entry door at the middle. One half of the bus had seats, while the other half of the bus had berths! Although I couldn't look inside the bus, the berths seemed arranged along the direction of movement - like the side berths of the Indian Railways. That was the first time in life that I saw a bus with sleeping berths. The bus was built by a body builder called "Damodar" of Goa!

Fast forward a few years. Maybe sometime around 2005. I start spotting more of sleeper buses - full sleepers unlike the contraption that Paulo had. May be in 2007, or 2008, I spot an AC sleeper bus of NWKRTC - it was a rear engine bus and looked like a Volvo bus from the front. It had the name "Corona" in bold on its face. I hadn't heard of such a name anytime before time - searches on the internet drew a blank those days. After a lot of searching, and digging through pages, I reach a revelation - that a new commercial vehicle manufacturer, specialising in monocoque coaches had started in the country. In the years later, I found this manufacturer had imported technology from MAN Neoplan coaches and had attempted a tie-up with a leading bus manufacture in India, which fell through later.
Initial generations of Corona Sleeper coaches

We moved to Bengaluru in 2008. Sleeper coaches were common place - there were plenty of them, operated by the state operator as well as private operators. There were routes that had more sleepers than seaters as well. There were quite some seater+sleeper coaches as well - some operating to Kerala as well. I got to know more about Corona after moving in to Bengaluru. KSRTC had quite some of them - and they started one to Kerala (Ernakulam) sometime in the beginning of 2010. A pearl-white coloured Volvoish looking coach attracted my attention during one of my bus spotting visits to Ernakulam bus station, in Kerala. Like everytime, I had the opportunity to try out this bus soon later [Read here], as well. Interestingly, this service didn't last long, and shut down soon later. They did come back after a while, and survives as on date, with an upgradation to a Volvo Sleeper!
A Damodar built non-AC Sleeper coach

Sleeper buses were slowly capturing the market.  An operator could buy two sleeper coaches for the money they would have to spend on a single multi-axle seater coach. Lesser taxes, lesser operation expenses added to their benefits. Sleeper coaches also charged higher fares than a seater coach - coupled to lower operating costs, they made a lot of sense! Passenger preferences were also slowly moving towards Sleeper coaches. Mercedes-Benz had provided fully built sleeper buses through their body-building contract with Sutlej as well. A handful of these were built before the contract between Mercedes and Sutlej fell through. Isuzu had also sold some company built sleeper coaches in the "cabin" style berth arrangement. I think it was in the 2012-13 period, Volvo started giving out unfinished shells for conversion to sleeper coaches. They had to lower the floor to accommodate berths and structure works had to be done in them.
A Mercedes Benz Sleeper coach (Built by Sutlej)

I think it was KPN who got the first such converted product (atleast in the south - I am not sure of this though). They did the conversion at SM Kannappa Automobiles (Prakash). Kallada followed and got two such converted coaches. Later, KPN went on a large scale conversion spree by converting a lot of their older seater coaches to sleepers. Other operators like Sharma, VRL, and a lot of others went on a conversion spree as well. These converted sleepers charged a premium over regular AC sleepers.

There were two types of Sleeper coaches those days (referring to the period around 2015) - large part of the sleeper coaches had berths arranged along the longitudinal axis, and were generally arranged in a 2x1 configuration (one berth on the left side, and two on the right side). There were buses that had 2x2 arrangement - largely in the western part of the country. There were buses with berths arranged like railway coaches - in cabins of 4 berths each. These buses normally had about 24 berths  - and were exclusively seen in Andhra Pradesh. Every state had its own set of rules governing sleeper buses - states like Tamil Nadu or Kerala did not allow registration sleeper buses at all.
Inside a sleeper coach.. This is a single berth

Some states had restrictions on issue of permits for Sleeper coaches - like, for example, Karnataka issued only Contract Carriage permits for sleeper coaches. For some time, a lot of operators registered their buses in Odisha - but with that state tightening requirements for renewal of fitness certificates, the operators went in search of newer possibilities. These restrictions, and state wise requirements made operators enter the havens in the north-east part of India, where RTOs were lax in issuing permits. Buses with Nagaland (NL) and Arunachal Pradesh (AR) registrations became common scene on roads. These distant registrations had their own risks - the buses were registered without physical inspections, even fitness was renewed without any inspection. Soon later, chassis extensions happened, and buses got longer, and more berths were pushed in.

Inside a Prakash built 'Celeste' Sleeper

In the year 2015, the Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI) notified a standardized bus body code (AIS:052) for all seater coaches. Later, in 2016, the ARAI notified an amended version of the bus body code, specifically for sleeper coaches (AIS:119) - this revised code had provisions of a seater-cum-sleeper coach as well. Bus Body codes were implemented in India from 2018 onwards, and since there a lot of states began allowing registration of sleeper buses - however, the confusions about permits continued. Considering the large safety apprehensions with respect to vehicles registered in the North East, crackdowns by various states happened, and there was a period when the AR registered buses went into a hiding. With the implementation of AIS:119, the cabin styled sleeper layout also disappeared, since the bus body code allows only for berths being arranged along the longitudinal axis of the vehicle.

Down South, the most popular haven for registration of sleeper buses continues to be Pondicherry (Puducherry). In fact, one would see more PY registered buses in the 5 other South Indian states, than perhaps in Pondicherry itself! The biggest advantage of registering in Puducherry was that they issued All India Permits (All India Tourist Omni Bus Permit). Puducherry requires buses to be brought to the state for renewal of fitness - but then, Puducherry is not too far! Puducherry, however, hiked taxes the last fiscal, and registering in Puducherry entails quite a higher expenditure than earlier - in addition to this, the government requires the operator to have an office in the state (not just an office, a complete registered office that has a GST registration!).
A Tamil Nadu Government AC Seater-cum-sleeper coach

Very interestingly, while Kerala allowed registration of Sleeper buses, its neighbour, Tamil Nadu, still doesn't allow. Passengers in Tamil Nadu have a great liking for Sleepers, and a quick look at booking portals would show there is a large number of sleeper buses on any route. Seater buses have largely disappeared, and even when seating options are available, they are often in Seater-cum-sleeper buses. The only other seater options available are the premium luxury coaches. Interestingly, Tamil nadu allows the state transport undertaking (State Express Transport Corporation (Tamil Nadu) Limited) to register sleeper as well as seater-cum-sleeper buses in the state, while it disallows private operators to do the same. This has resulted in almost every operator in Tamil Nadu registering their buses in Pondicherry, and now some operators do get their buses registered in Kerala as well.

Registration and permit matters aside, let us briefly also look into the evolution that happened within Sleepers! In the olden days, the buses were purely means of travel - basic bare bones amenities were provided to passengers. While non-ac coaches only had a bedspread, the AC ones got a blanket additionally. The buses were designed in such a way that the passenger couldn't sit for long since the berths didn't have a "back-rest" - a small cushion is usually placed around the region where one's head could hit the partition - this cushion was the only back support if one was to sit on the berth.

Sleeper buses evolved, and now come with proper back rests that also allow passengers to remain seated, with their legs stretched - so people who may have issues like motion sickness, or trouble adjusting to the unusually lateral oscillations could sit and travel instead of sleeping. Charging points are de facto these days. Blankets are surely present, quite a lot of operators provide additional pillows as well. Snack boxes and water bottles are also thrown in these days. One of the biggest drawbacks in a sleeper coach used to be lack of entertainment - operators take this a step forward and now have individual LED screens for each passenger, and some operators take it further by providing entertainment on demand!
Sleeper berth with a back-rest

How does it feel to ride in a Sleeper?
Sleeper buses cannot be, and should not be, compared to trains. Buses run on roads, and there are far more unpredictable factors than the trains have. There are potholes, curves and even reasons for a hard brake! I personally find it more comfortable sleeping in the longitudinal axis (along the direction of movement) than in the transverse axis. In trains, however, the side berths (which are arranged in the longitudinal axis) are shorter and narrower compared to other berth, making them overall very uncomfortable. However, in buses, all the berths are arranged in the longitudinal axis (some states do permit having a single transverse berth at the rear end).

The overall ride feels like how it is in a train - there are unpredictability, however. In the initial days of sleeper services, the drivers used to drive the sleepers just like how they drove seaters. In the seater buses, the roll dynamics are different - people in seated position would undergo lesser roll than a person in a sleeping position. As the sleeper market matured, the driving style also underwent a lot of changes. Driver on Sleeper buses today take it slower and drive much stable than it used to be earlier. With more sleepers coming to the market, and passengers willing to accept slightly longer running time for a sleeper as compared to a seater, operators began slowing down buses and helping passengers have a more comfortable ride.
BharatBenz Sleeper coach - 'GliderZ' by MG Bus & Coach

Sleeper buses were usually built on Front engine chassis from our homegrown automobile majors - Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors in the initial days. Eicher joined the fray later with a their twelve metre chassis. Daimler through their India specific brand 'BharatBenz' also entered the sleeper market with front engine chassis. BharatBenz offered air suspension on both the axles as a standard in the initial days. Body building majors in India built sleeper coaches meeting customer's requirements. BharatBenz tied up with MG Bus & Coach, Belgaum (Karnataka) to offer fully built sleeper coaches (actually an offering from Daimler dealer in Kerala) as well.

The craze and linking for 'multi-axle' coaches did not spare the sleeper market either. While operators converted their multi-axle seater coaches to sleeper coaches, Volvo took the game a little forward by offering custom built sleeper coaches through an association with Prakash Bus Corporation. Initially, fully built sleeper coach was offered on the Volvo B9R platform. Later, they moved to the Volvo B11R platform, and sleepers were launched under the brand name "Celeste". In the initial days, the Celeste coaches had their own share of problems including heavy body, poor finish, among a host of other issues. Over the months, Celeste - as a product - refined itself, and is today a luxurious offering. While the coaches command a premium over any other product on Indian roads, passengers do not hesitate paying a premium for the level of comfort offered by Celeste. Belgaum based MG Bus & Coach also offered custom built sleeper coaches in Volvo ('Starz') and Mercedes Benz ('Dreamz') platforms. These multi-axle sleeper coaches offer 42 premium berths. There are plenty of converted sleeper coaches in the market - which I personally dislike.
A Volvo ' Celeste' Coach

Mercedes Benz Sleeper 'DreamZ' coach

Front engine sleeper coaches generally have lesser berths, and the most comfortable berths are generally around the middle of the coach. The most common sleeper coach builder in South India are Prakash and Veera, with Damodar ruling the coastal market (western coast) almost exclusively. Damodar, undoubtedly, manufactures the best sleeper coaches in the industry - fairly wide berths with matured ride quality is a characteristic of these coaches. Veera takes the second place when it comes to comfortable berths, followed by Prakash. MG Bus & Coach has also been offering sleeper coaches on multiple platforms. If I could choose, my first choice would be a bus built by Damodar, followed by Veera, Prakash and MG (in the order of preference). Among the multi-axle sleeper, it would be only Volvo coaches going forward unless Scania enters the market again, or Mercedes brings their updated version.
Veera Built sleepers

Sleeper buses are the preferred mode of transportation in multiple routes - especially down south. It does take some getting used to, but these coaches offer very comfortable travel options for a premium over seater coaches. There are plenty of options among them as well - and even the government run corporations have joined the fray!

To be continued..

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