Insane Bus Pricing: Or maybe not being transparent enough?

Diwali weekend 2nd – 4th November 2013, one expects most transport and travel services to be sold at marked up rates, maybe double. But this was quite a shocker.

Mumbai – Aurangabad: Rs 3,500 on rebus, Rs 2,500 on cleartrip.

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Mumbai – Goa: More reasonable. Rs 2,500 on both (but then Cleartrip trawled the redbus system for this particular search)

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Mumbai – Hubli: It’s back to the Rs 3500 level here. But here’s the catch which I found by hovering the mouse over the destination point. It said “Hubli Byepass”. Now I have traveled on this route before and I know that Hubli Byepass means this bus is moving on somewhere, Bangalore maybe.  So, this Rs 3500 is probably the fare to Bangalore and irrespective of whether I go the full distance or get off the Hubli, I pay the full amount. Which is fine. Unlike state transport company services which charge you by the kilometre, most point to point private bus services operate like that. But, Redbus does not tell you this. There are enough buses going and terminating at Hubli (I have sorted this in descending order of the prices. At the lower end there are bus tickets – non AC seater – going for 800 – 1000 bucks). Redbus needs to flag these buses separately so that people know.

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So I checked the Mumbai – Bangalore fare. Voila!

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In my opinion, from a customer orientation point of view, this is sloppy and pretty much a case of misrepresentation. I am okay if you tell me that this is a Bangalore bus and the fare cannot be reduced. Then it is my choice whether I buy it or not.

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Sri Lanka Diaries: The Tuk Tuk Driver

The “tuk-tuk” is an onomatopoeic term used by tourists to describe the humble three wheeler public transport all over Asia and Africa. But for us in India, it is the auto. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, when I would ask for an “auto” the blank looks would then prompt me to correct myself and say “tuk-tuk”.  I could not bring myself to call them that however prevalent a term it might have been.

Being the most ubiquitous mode of travel, the tuk-tuk is a vehicle where one spends considerable amount of time – whether it is from the bus stand to the hotel or contracting one for a full tour of a place. Now, the key variable here, therefore, is the tuk-tuk driver. This is where the similarity with Bombay auto rickshaw drivers and Sri Lankan tuk tuk drivers end.

I was guided to a good hotel by one; I got off at Anuradhapura with the bravado of an unplanned backpacker. As I was walking around trying to remember names of budget hotels from Lonely Planet (to save money I had noted them down in a Google Docs but it never struck me to get my mobile connection activated), this chap tuk tuks along offering to take me to a nice place. Years of Indianness generated the usual distrust and suspicion. But it was scorching hot and I was happy to get in and sit in the vehicle. The chap took me to a place on the lake. After taking a look, I decided to take the room. And I didn’t regret it. I ended up spending 5 days there, 3 days more than earlier planned.

Tuk tuk to Mihintale and back                                              From Sri Lanka Holiday

I was taken on a tour of Mihintale by another. 17 kilometres away from Anuradhapura, Mihintale is the spot where Prince Mahinda, the son of Ashoka, introduced Buddhism to the then Sinhala king. The drive took was for 30 minutes. I fixed with a tuk tuk driver to take me and bring me back. During this trip, the driver kept a nice conversation running with me covering topics on my trip, India, Buddhism, the Sinhala New Year (which was 2 days later) and every few metres would point out something interesting to me.

Like this, there were tuk tuk drivers every where. These were people who took a lot of effort and pride in their work. Unlike in India where the “aukat” of an autorickshaw driver can be a point of humiliation, not so here. People had visiting cards made with email addresses and phone numbers so that one could call them any time any where. Once a fare had been fixed, there was no alteration. No rude retorts Dillistyle “sir ji, dikkat hai, 40 nahi, 60 dena hoga” (honourable sir, we have issues, the fare will be Rs 60 not Rs 40 as mentioned earlier – all this in a rude tone).

From Sri Lanka Holiday

The autos, multi-coloured and decorated, had their own dignity, one automatically treated them as equals.

From Sri Lanka Holiday

Now, if only some of our autorickshaw drivers developed a similar temperament and sensitivity to their citizens. And vice versa.

South East Asia Diary 2011 – Public Transport in Bangkok

Four days in Bangkok one experienced several different modes of public transport. Each of them has its own pluses and minuses and comparisons with Mumbai are inevitable.

The concept of a “crowded” train is far different. An average local train in Mumbai will probably have three times more the number of people than the most crowded peak hour train (both BTS and MRT).

The BTS or Skytrain is of particular interest since Mumbai will soon be served by an elevated mass transit system. However one has to discount the basic nature of the Thai people – following order. They stand where it is marked; in the main connector stations where the crowd is bigger, they form queues; they don’t push around; they offer seats to the old guys and by and large the inside of the trains there is general silence (but for the loud announcements and TV screens). One has to consider the converse of all this when wondering how robust the Mumbai Monorail will turn out.

The BTS (SkyTrain) in Bangkok

The other thing that one immediately notices (and this can be generalised to any place outside India) is that there is negligible honking on the roads. The traffic jams of Bangkok are legendary but no one even whimpers with the horn. All of us in India know how much we love our car horn. One can actually hold a normal soft-toned conversation sitting at a cafe on a sidewalk.

The one form of transport that Mumbai can definitely pick up from Bangkok is the boat / ferry system. While Bangkok has a network of canals as well as the Chao Phraya river, Mumbai has the sea as well as a number of creeks linking up the suburbs. There were couple of projects that were short lived but then my guess is that they were possibly ill-planned. However, one needs to consider using low cost boats which can transport lots of people speedily. Most of Mumbai’s work areas are along waterfronts – Nariman Point, Worli, Bandra Kurla Complex, Vashi, Belapur, etc.

Bangkok has as many people as Mumbai and its geographical coverage is probably much bigger. So there is much to learn from here.

The jugaad vehicles of India

Jagjivanbhai Karsanbhai Chandra took the front of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and attached a two-wheel mounted cart and created the “Chhakada”.

Morbi: The Chhakada, invented by JK Chandra and runs all over Saurashtra

This vehicle, with over 150,000 of them, was manufactured by the company formed by his son, Jayantilalbhai Chandra and is currently known as Atul Auto, based in Rajkot.

Like this vehicle, there is the other one from North India called the Jugaad vehicle.

The Live Mint article writes:

Jugaad (noun)—a quadricycle, a means of transportation in north India, made of wooden planks and old jeep parts, variously known as kuddukka and pietereda.

The big issue in most of these vehicles (and similar innovations) is the scaling. It is no debate that such vehicles can of use beyond Saurashtra and North India. But who will manufacture them and who will distribute them. In a way, it is a paradox – the vehicle has been made using waste parts to serve the specific needs to the population. By making it a general product, it becomes like any other car.

Bus traveling in India

For the backpacker in India, public buses come at a convenient hierarchy of choices – cheap, convenient but slow, crowded. Below public buses is hiring a car / taxi – extremely expensive but you are in control. Above that comes the train – comfortable, reliable but you can’t just get on board, you need to reserve – 90 days in advance in most cases.

But bus travel solves many problems – just get on board; get off anywhere you feel like; choose comfort levels between basic buses (wooden crates left over from the mango season) to super luxury buses (Volvo machines with soft cushions, super cool air conditioners et al).

Of course, doing bus travel for journeys beyond 7-8 hours is painful. For this trains are better. Of course, if one has a lot of time, one take always get off a bus, take a break and then take the next bus forward.

My experiences of traveling by public buses have spanned the entire spectrum. Back in college days, one went to Pilani from Delhi for a college tour. The mode of transport was a Haryana Roadways tin crate originating from Delhi’s ISBT. A 7 hour drive in those days, c 1993. The classic stereotype of traveling with chickens, various bunches of greens, etc accompanied by raucous conversations of honest citizens belonging to the local dominant ethnic profiles were manifest.

My general perception is that public buses i.e. ones run by state corporations are better managed in Maharashtra and South India than north – Madhya Pradesh northwards. Even without actually boarding a bus, one can get a sense by looking at the state of repair that the vehicles demonstrate.

From recent memory, my experiences have been in Madhya Pradesh (an overnight bus ride from Gwalior to Delhi), Goa (North to South, South to North), Maharashtra (Konkan, Mumbai-Pune, etc), Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

In Vijayawada, I found one of the best maintained bus stations

Vijayawada Bus Stand

The criticality of Vijayawada from a logistics point of view is immense. It is crossroad between three routes – Chennai – Kolkata, Bangalore – Kolkata and Hyderabad – Chennai / Kolkata. The buses here virtually go all over India. It is also the point of orientation to go to the historic port town of Machilipatnam. To have a well managed, clean and user friendly bus station is definitely a big achievement.

But bus stations in south India pose one big problem – signboards in local languages. Whether it be the big new bus stand in Hubli or the one in Vijayawada, there is absolutely no chance decoding any information from the signboards in the station or on the bus. Fortunately, Hindi is understood by all. And even if the local staff members can’t speak it, they communicate effectively using sign language.

Hubli Bus Stand

In Hubli specifically, the staff members could speak a little bit of English as well. So I was able to locate the exact spot from where buses to Badami were available. Hubli incidentally serves as an excellent base point to tour north Karnataka. It is an overnight bus ride from Mumbai and from Hubli one can get NWKRTC buses to anywhere from Karwar to Hyderabad to Hospet to Hampi to Bangalore.

You cannot avoid crowds in buses. In Goa, there are state run buses that typically operate shuttles between the big towns like Margao, Panjim, Mapusa, etc. Like a hub and spoke model, from these main towns, mini buses operated by private parties take people to small villages in the interiors or on the coast. These mini buses are just too small. During the day time when everyone is outside going to work (including tourists who need to reach the beach well in time to get the best positioned deck chairs) the buses can become a corridor of elbows, like the photograph below.
Inside a Goa local bus, December 2009
If you are in south India or in Maharashtra, I do recommend buses. For more information, you can check out http://www.redbus.in or the websites of the state transport corporations of Maharashtra, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Railways in Kashmir

In April 2005, trains started running for the first time between Jammu and Udhampur. The people of the valley saw a railway engine for very first time chugging away along the mountains. Hitherto, to take a train, they had to come down to Jammu by road and from there go all over the country.

The British did not have the capacity to build a rail network in this terrain. Post independence, there were railway ministers and even prime ministers who made promises but nothing else. However, it finally came to a head with AB Vajpayee declaring it a National Project and virtually called out to every one “All Hands on Deck”.

The entire line runs from Jammu right upto Baramulla. However, only two portions are currently operational – the Jammu Udhampur link in the south and the Qazigund-Baramulla link in the north 9which opened in October 2009.

The bits in between have had major design realigment due to geological conditions. The Pir Panjal Mountains were in the middle and there was a small matter of crossing the Chenab.

That a railway can drive an economy has already been validated in many parts of the world. The same is true here. This article reports on a few stories coming from the region.

The change is also visible in the lifestyles of the people. They travel in Sumos, not buses and many of them have replaced their old houses of mud and thatched roofs with cement and brick houses, dotted with dish antennas. ” We too have constructed a new house. There is no fear. It is a sense of permanency and good life that has made us to look at the life this way,” Jameel said.

” There is a transformation of both landscape and mindset,” Mubbasir Latifi, SSP Ramban, sums up the make over of the hills because of the rail coming to hills. And the way JCB machines, bulldozers and excavators are working; the hills are proving their nature of life providers.

Security is of course a big concern and there are plans to put lots of closed circuit cameras on bridges, tunnels, etc.

The trains themselves are fairly sophisticated and at least from this photograph looks inviting.

Kashmir Railway

These balance links are expected to take another 4-5 years. This will be one train journey that must be taken just for the ride.