18 Oct 2016 19:54 IST

Going the extra mile, successfully

A sector which provides unbelievable value is India’s long distance bus industry

A few weeks ago, sitting in a friend’s living room, I was idly turning the pages of a colourful coffee-table book that was about India’s trucking industry. Produced by a logistics company, it had over 500 photos of our nation’s trucks, truck drivers and roads. It told a story that we sometimes forget about when we stop to buy something from our neighbourhood mom and pop store: that India would come to a rolling halt, were it not for this industry that keeps our lives humming.

A parallel sector which provides unbelievable value is India’s long distance bus industry. Largely private, lightly regulated, and ably supported by State government transport companies nationwide, the bus industry is an extremely reliable, efficient, safe and inexpensive means of travel that connects India’s far flung network of villages and towns.

It is a big adopter of technology as well. Every major bus line allows e-booking and non-paper e-tickets. Many make their seat inventory available on travel aggregator sites like redBus, MakeMytrip, Cleartrip and Goibibo.

The bus industry intelligently operates a massive network of private agents, who push travel on individual bus lines based on commissions. State government operators, who are not so generous with commissions, often end up losing traffic to the competition, despite the ticket prices often being lower.

Last minute bookings

There are so many private bus companies that one doesn’t need to worry about not securing a seat on a bus. And they provide service to cities that are very far. Vijayanand Road Lines, a company that claims to be the country’s largest private fleet operator, introduced a service from Bangalore to Jodhpur — a distance of nearly 2,000 kilometres — a few years ago.

Not only are bus services easily accessible to the last-minute traveller, they are also largely affordable. Even for the ultimate in long-distance bus travel — on a sophisticated Air Conditioned Multi Axle coach that are built by the likes of Volvo, Scania, Mercedes and Isuzu — the pricing is relatively inexpensive; about ₹2 per km. Prices drop steeply for regular, non-A/C coach buses to about less than ₹1 per km, although travel on such coaches is generally uncomfortable for long distances.

The journey along major trunk routes on the big multi-axle buses, such as Chennai-Bengaluru and Bengaluru-Mumbai, is pleasurable because of the world-class road infrastructure maintained by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).

Numerous rest areas offering passengers varieties of food options make it easy to travel. Here again, the ingenuity of Indian businesses is on display. Rest area restaurants get into contracts with the bus lines, forcing drivers to stop at their locations in return for free food for the bus crew. If a driver doesn’t take back validation to his supervisor that he did stop at the designated eatery, his pay gets docked!

The team

On long-distance multi-axle buses, the crew is made up of a driver and a conductor (who also is licensed to drive). At KSRTC, Karnataka’s state government bus company, the conductor gets paid a bonus of ₹75 each way — that is, ₹150 round trip — for additionally assuming responsibilities around selling tickets and validating passengers.

With travellers drifting off into a nice sleep, drivers labour ahead all by themselves. Most Indian highways are toll roads. And much like the annoying Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, all traffic grinds to a halt to pay tolls for using that particular section of roadway.

But tolls on Indian roads are expensive. One driver told me that a full round trip from Bengaluru to Kolhapur costs ₹6,000 in tolls alone. And this is assuming that the fee is bought on a “return basis”. If drivers were to buy tolls on a one-way basis, the charges would be higher. Clearly, NHAI has a lot of cash coming in, even after paying off companies that built and operated the highways.

State road transport corporation buses are not exempt from paying the full retail price of tolls. This is a welcome change in a country which practices crony capitalism of amazing proportions. While there are 53 types of discounts offered to passengers on Indian Railways based on status — and these are entitlements, which mean if you qualify for a discount, you get it — India’s road economy fares much better. There are no discounts on the KSRTC Airavat at all since everyone pays full price.

Night shift

In the middle of the night, generally at around 3 am, long distance bus drivers find a lonely place to stop, rest for a few minutes and switch drivers. This is usually also a spot where other truck drivers are parked, off by the highway median. These truck drivers are too tired to slog on for the night, and sleep on their cramped bunk beds (benches, really) in the warm cabins.

The working conditions of modern bus drivers have improved substantially in recent years. KSRTC drivers can earn more than ₹35,000 a month depending on seniority. Private bus drivers can make even more.

At KSRTC, the same driver-conductor pair shuttles on the same route, month after month. How does scheduling work? Consider the crew that plies the Bengaluru-Kolhapur route. Suppose Mondays are days off for this pair. A Tuesday night departure from Bengaluru brings them to Kolhapur at 7 am on Wednesday morning. They are entitled to stay in a lodge in Kolhapur, although, the driver told me that they manage to sleep in the bus and pay a hotel a small fee to wash and change.

Their return trip starts at 7 pm on Wednesday and they bring back the bus to the Bengaluru depot by 7 am on Thursday. At this point, they go home and don’t report for work until Friday evening. They get a 36-hour break before the next cycle starts. On an average, each pair completes two round trips to Kolhapur every week; sometimes, this can extend up to three round trips a week.

Truckers and long-distance bus drivers the world over, along with pilots, have always had my admiration. Because these saintly human beings do their jobs with ultimate professionalism and dedication, just so that the rest of us can… well… rest.

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