How to Modernize and Save (Kerala) KSRTC 2

Kerala’s once-prosperous and mighty “Red Elephant” (aanavandi) is all but skin and bones today, but nursing it back to health is not Mangalyaan-science as explained in the previous chapter. However, there is a much deeper reason behind KSRTC’s present crisis than simple financial travails. Without fixing that, any kind of solution implemented will only be temporary. In the last two decades, the newly affluent middle-class Malayali/Indian now successful achieving that dream of owning a quadruple-wheeled motorized personal transportation device, have been dumping public transportation in droves. They view and treat it with contempt and many plainly hate public transport especially government owned entities with a vengeance. Most people who cannot afford private transportation travel in buses and trains not because they love to do so, but only because they don’t have any other choice. And those who can, would not want to be caught dead in one of those buses. This mentality of public transport is only for “poor” people who cannot afford cars and those possessing cars see it too “demeaning” to travel by buses even if subconsciously, is seriously damaging for the well-being of the nation and people.

While personal transportation has made explosive strides in the past few decades, public transit undertakings such as Indian Railways, KSRTC, and other SRTCs are mostly still stuck in the 1950s when it comes to aesthetics and comfort. This is exemplified by the fact that the same people will pay insane amounts through their orifices to travel in (public) transport operated by private operators and find it “admissible” to travel by modern Metro trains. Why? Because the latter offer shiny, glamorous travel options and are viewed as efficient, “modern” and glamorous while public operators are seen as inefficient, rude and dirty, remnants of a bygone era which reminds the middle class their times of hard sustenance, when they had to struggle in overcrowded buses/trains. If public transport has to come into vogue and back to being acceptable in the eyes of the neo-riche and other people, travel in them has to cease to become an ordeal, they have to transform with the times. KSRTC needs an image makeover to appear “modern” and efficient to win back its clientele. Yes, looks do matter a lot! As does comfort. KSRTC and Indian buses, in general, need to be upgraded to what is customarily called “World Standards”, which can be taken as “how it is developed countries”, starting with upgradation of its ancient model buses.

KSRTC buses are unique in design and much better than other SRTC buses and are well-known for their speed. But just that not good enough for today’s times. KSRTC should lead the charge in pioneering the transformation of the public transport sector in India. The idea should be to make Public Transport attractive enough to make people want to travel in them.

The Buses. They are Pathetic. Because they are Actually Trucks.

Traveling in a bus in India is akin to traveling in a truck or a running machine room with all its noise, vibration and smoke. This is because buses in India are actually trucks. The average Indian bus (including those of KSRTC) are built on that groundbreaking technology of the 1950s: a bus body bolted onto a truck chassis on a Body-on-Frame construction with an engine in front. A frame of metal struts is bolted onto the chassis and then covered by aluminium plates which make up the body. Seats are just mounted on the floor, which is bolted to the chassis frame. In short, the entire thing is just hammered together. While this is cheaper and easier to build and maintain, it makes the buses stiff and uncomfortable. Constant vibration from the engine coupled with bad roads will cause parts of the bus body held together by nuts, bolts, welding, and rivets to come loose within months, treating passengers to a bizarre orchestra of a rattling, clanking, wheezing, groaning, creaking and tinkling cacophony. In addition to this, the chassis for most buses in India come fitted with shackled or leaf-spring suspension and nylon-ply tires just like trucks which combined with the high center of gravity and absence of any weight in the back provides for contributing to bone-jarring rides. Volvo and other luxury buses on the other hand use “Integral” bus body design, which makes the body and chassis inseparable parts of the bus with the body made of integral panels mounted on a tubular space frame integrated with what Volvo calls a “true bus chassis”. Rear engined buses provide improved passenger comfort because the lower-sitting engine in the back lowers the overall center of gravity of the bus giving it more stability while the of the engine counterbalances the “swaying” and “jumps” in the back and lowers the overall stance of the vehicle. Read more on the advantages of “true” rear engined buses.

Pictured: Two Indian Ashok Leyland Trucks

Real buses have their engines in the back, which in one shot will take away all the unpleasantness of bus travel. They are far more comfortable, faster, efficient and safer than our usual truck-buses, and the way to modernization should be by converting all our buses to rear-engined ones. But there is a small problem here, as you must be thinking. Yes, we have all the  Volvos, Mercedes, Scania and other luxury buses that transformed the interstate travel sector with their ultra-comfortable, super-powerful, gleaming machines with rear-mounted engines, multiple axles, air-conditioning, 2 x 2 seating configuration, superior suspension systems, 160 degree reclining seats and cavernous storage space, the travel mode of choice for intercity and overnight travel for the “new” India. As much practical and suited for long haul high-priced luxury interstate operations as they are, the new-age buses are hardly suited to cater to the biggest bus transport pie in the country: the relatively short intra-state intercity commuter services averaging around 400 km a trip like KSRTC’s flagship Superfast and Super Express services, the mass commuter market which is still ruled by Ashok Leyland’s and Tata’s chassis-buses. Volvos obviously cannot replace them, they are too expensive and too “low capacity”.

For low-population Western countries, the same Volvo-type buses running our Mumbai-Goa luxury bus service can do very well for all intercity operations, but not in India. The nuts and bolts of our public transportation systems are all capacity, capacity, capacity. We need carrying capacity first, then speed and safety and then comfort, the priorities of the average bus passenger and operator in India. Volvos and other luxury buses cannot satisfy that first and most important factor while our present buses cannot give us the final option at all. What we need to figure out is how to match the comfort of the Volvos with carrying capacity of “Indian” buses without a substantial increase in costs, a third product that provides us all the three factors. And that product is a gap which is currently not available in India. There simply is no option in-between Leyland chassis buses and luxury-class Volvos available. How to get around this? Fitting AC units in front engined-truck chassis is certainly not a solution. Air-suspension as extra fitting will do no good, as tires are hard nylon ply and it will do nothing to reduce vibration and “jumps” in the back as BMTC buses in Bangalore will clearly demonstrate. KSRTC had tried it before and the result was the horrible TATA Globus buses! No, fitting more seats in Volvos is not the solution either.  We need a completely new, quality product and not typical jugaad.

The “New Bus”! The Product that will Transform Indian Public Transport Sector!

The coming part is pure fiction of my imagination running wild. It is fantastic that many would find the entire laughable. Well, even I would agree all this has no prospect of ever coming true in this universe. So, it goes like this.

What we need a product to fill that gap mentioned above. A bus design which incorporates the best of the features of the Volvo BXRs and the Ashok Leylands. I have even found a very imaginative name for this. We will call it the “New Bus“! The quintessential “Indian” bus incorporating the best of Western bus technology but tailor-made for “Indian Conditions”! Here is how it should be like:

  • Chassis and Frame: “Integral” chassis-body design with an insulated rear-mounted engine, single rear axle with integrated differential, aluminum body panels mounted on a space frame integrated with the chassis, radial tires on air suspension.
  • Look and Feel: Good looks! Lower windows, lower body, aerodynamic build with rounded edges, as long and tall as the present Superfasts, but a bit wider. Sealed glass windows for AC, slideable glass windows or shutters for non-AC.
  • Interiors: Light colored plastic locking panels. Seat frames of fiber, seats with cloth padding covered with rexine for non-AC and cloth for AC. Seating configuration can change with the type of service. Automatic pneumatic doors both front and rear.

The New Bus should be only one body frame with the interiors customizable as per service, coming in two variants, air-conditioned and non-airconditioned. The only difference between them should be the AC units and windows. An important factor is color. Please stop painting the interiors green and blue. The interiors should be more welcoming and hence white panels, please! This one single model can be customized and used for all services. The non-AC version can be used for Fast Passenger, Superfast, and Super Deluxe services while the AC version can be used for Super Express services.

There are two more things to be considered, the most important: The first one is cost. A Volvo bus costs 1 crore a pop. It would make no sense for public transport companies to buy all their buses at this cost. The “New Bus” should not cost more than 20 lakhs a piece all inclusive. It goes without saying that the government should subsidize these buses at least for the initial period. Other solutions would be tax exemptions for those bus-building JV operations and almost complete localization of materials and manufacture. Even the engines and chassis should be locally manufactured and assembled. In fact, I am for complete tax exemption including import duties for all state-owned public transport undertakings because indirect benefits will offset that loss. The second consideration is maintenance. Regular maintenance of these buses is the most important factor that will ensure their success in the long run. If these buses also start falling apart, nothing can save them. But to their credit, KeSRTC’s City Volvos are pretty well maintained unlike their Bangalorean counterparts (BMTC).

In short, the New Bus would be a bit wider Superfast with better looks, rear mounted engine and better aesthetics. The real challenge, however, is on who design and build the New Bus. It is an unrealistic idea, if there are enough volumes be promised, I am sure any international bus manufacturer would be interested in this. Companies like Volvo, Scania, Mercedes and even Ashok Leyland and Tata can be roped in to set up JVs with KSRTC manufacturing units to design and build these buses. However, Indian companies’ track record in rear engined buses is sketchy at best (Tata Marcopolo, anyone?) In fact, there are many bus body builders in Kerala who are designing and producing awesome looking buses right now, as we speak, like Shilibear in Malappuram and Kondody in Kottayam. Kondody’s famous “Kondody Body” is probably the best-looking and comfortable mass produced bus body in Kerala right now. KSRTC could do good by taking a good, hard look at them.


All pictures courtesy Jimmy Jose

The first picture is of an AC Airbus. Note the high stance and inordinate length of the body. Travel comfort in it will not be great thanks to these even though the interiors are tastefully designed. The second, third and last buses sport the Kondody body. The New Bus would be a combination of the “Peters” in stance, design elements of the “Kyros” and “Krishna” and interiors of “Ave Mariya” and length of “Parasuram”. With an engine at the back and stance (clearance) as low as that of the present Volvos of course. How about that? Now, back to how this “New Bus” can transform the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation.

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The table above shows how configurations of the new service types should be like. City/Mofussil and Ordinary services should be spun off into another corporation with services reconfigured as mentioned in the previous part, with equipment being used for these services being only low floor buses with automatic gearboxes as big-ass high platform buses make no sense in city traffic where people have to get on and off frequently and the driver has nothing to do but change gears. The “New Bus” described above can be used to run all types of service other than Garuda services with different seating configuration and climate. IN short, there should be only three bus types for the Kerala RTC: The Low Floor city and Moffusil services, the New Bus and the Premium Garudas. Here are those details including stoppage patterns.

Fast Passenger and Superfast (Non AC)

KSRTC’s money grossers should get this much-desired makeover making them more comfortable and pleasant to travel in. The major change should be in the seating, with Superfasts having individual upright seats of rexine while FPs can continue to have the present bench-type seats with headrests. Both services should continue to operate on all routes they do now, except heavily loss-making ones, which should be culled mercilessly.

Super Express (AC)

Currently, these green colored monsters do not boast of any extra comforts to passengers other than separated seats instead of the single bench type units Superfasts have. Newer Super Expresses have sliding window glasses with a green tint. This class has enormous potential to be a game-changer for KSRTC by becoming long-distance money spinners for the corporation. Kerala currently has no long-distance AC services except the 10 Bangalore-bound Volvos and some Trivandrum – Ernakulam services run using (Low floor) city buses (B7RLE)! If the Super Express class can be transformed into an AC service class using new rear-engined buses as with 3+2 seating, limited push-back, air conditioning, improved suspension and quality materials at current Super Express rates, they will be huge hits. This service can be showcased as the flagship for our new bus design mentioned above. They can be used to run on high-volume and long-distance intercity Superfast routes between Trivandrum, Ernakulam, Palakkad, Kozhikode, Kannur etc and on interstate routes especially to two-tier cities in neighboring states (Mysore, Coimbatore, Madurai, Salem etc.) which do not warrant a Premium Volvo or Super Deluxe service.

Super Deluxe Express (Non AC)

One cannot miss the proliferation of the “Tourist Air Bus” painted in all kind of bright colors on Kerala roads recently. KSRTC should follow suit and rejuvenate one of its most prolific services, the Deluxe service. There are many Deluxe services running between cities and town in Kerala to Bangalore as of now on bodies built on Tata/Leyland Chassis. KSRTC can utilize the same body structure of the rear engined non-AC bus used to make the Superfasts but with only one door, wider 2 x 2 seating with lumbar support (semi-sleeper) and 160 degrees reclination (full push back). These services can be run on most Volvo routes, Interstate mainly and also on important intra-state routes. This would provide a good alternative for people who cannot afford premium travel or for those who simply do not like air-conditioning.

Garuda Premium Services (AC)

Volvos. Mercedes. Scania. The options are endless today. Malayalis on an average can afford more than the other average non-urban Indian. This can be attested by the fact that private Volvo services make the most money in India on Kerala-Bangalore routes. Thanks to the Gulf boom, the average Malayali has experienced the pleasures of quality travel, part of which is the reason why he shuns public transport when he comes home. As I mentioned in the previous part, premium services are where the money is. Not only are these gleaming, imposing machines high on speed and comfort, they are much safer than any other vehicle on the road. Garuda services should connect every corner of the state to the big cities of neighboring states as well as within the state. And don’t worry about the revenue. There are enough people willing to shell out good money for faster, safer, comfortable travel, believe me when I say that these services will be huge hits and will rake in the money if run properly, like by enforcing limited stoppages. Currently, Garuda services are being made to enter every small depot which is irritating and a disservice to long-distance passengers. I envision at least 50 Multi-Axle Volvos for KSRTC.

എന്ത് മനോഹരമായ നടക്കാത്ത സ്വപ്നം!

Quality transport options are the hallmark of any developed society. And if Kerala and India are to join that league, complete restructuring of our transportation sector is indispensable, like all of today’s rickety buses being made to disappear. But who is interested in all that when there are scams to be run, people to be ripped off and money to be made? If a two-bit hack like me can suggest all these things to inject new life into Kerala’s beloved red buses, who are people kidding when they say that “they” don’t know how to run things? Of course, they do. “They” are smarter than all of us, otherwise “they” wouldn’t have been where they are. In the end, the powers that do not really want KSRTC to survive because there is a lot at stake for many people if KSRTC continues to run. Hoping for a brighter future for KSRTC, Kerala, and India.

Appendix: Routes Suggested for the Three Highest Class Services:

Garuda Premium AC, Super Deluxe 2 x 2 Pushback, Super Express 3 x 2

Intra-State (Within Kerala)

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To Bangalore

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This is in addition to all KSRTC services to Kerala from Mysore.

To Chennai

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Other Interstate Services to Tamil Nadu

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Other Interstate Routes to Karnataka (Except Mangalore)

  • Kottarakkara – Kottayam – Muvattupuzha – Thrissur – Edappal – Kozhikode – Kannur –  Kasargod – Mangalore – Udupi – Kundapura – Kollur Mookambika (SExp, SDlx)
  • Pala – Thodupuzha – Muvattupuzha – Angamali – Thrissur – Edappal – Kozhikode – Kannur – Kanhangad – Rajapuram – Sullya – Subrahmanya – Sakleshpura (SDlx, SExp)

To Goa, Mumbai, Hyderabad

  • Thiruvananthapuram – Ernakulam – Thrissur – Edappal – Kozhikode – Kannur – Mangalore – Udupi – Karwar – Panjim (Goa) – Kankavali – Chiplun – Khed – Panvel – Mumbai (Garuda)
  • Ernakulam – Thrissur – Palakkad – Coimbatore – Salem – Hosur – Bangalore – Anantpur – Kurnool – Hyderabad (Garuda)

Note: In the first section, services can also be between intermediate points of the route mentioned. For example, Trivandrum – Alappuzha – Ernakulam – Thrissur – Palakkad – Coimbatore can also have Trivandrum – Ernakulam, Ernakulam – Coimbatore services and so on. Suggestions are open for more routes. :)

 

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