Transport Systems – A comparative study

I hope you didn’t get put off by the academic-sounding title of this post. It just so happens that I couldn’t think of any better title for it. Anyways, this post has been in the offing for a long time. I had first thought about writing on this subject on a bus ride from Madras to Bangalore 2-3 years ago, even before I started this journal.

During my numerous shuttles between Bangalore and Madras between 2000 and 2004, the order of preference for means of transport was: Train (needs reservation) > KSRTC Bus > Bus run by private operators > Tamil Nadu Bus. This was mostly based on the comfort level offered by these different services. And from the hierarchy, you can see that Karnataka buses must be much more comfortable than TN buses.

KSRTC is the only profit-making PSU bus company in India. Having been brought under the reigns of an able IAS officer around the turn of the millenium, it has gone from strength to strength with numerous firsts to its name, such as being the first transport corporation in India to introduce Volvo buses. It must also be noted here that KSRTC was split into four a few years back in order to introduce efficiency. Transport services serving Bangalore, Hyderabad Karnataka and Bombay Karnataka have been hived off into different PSUs.

Coming back to the comparison, it is interesting to study the way the two corporations have grown. The TN corporation has grown breadth-wise. It has tried to connect up as many villages as possible. In fact, there are a number of studies which credit the overall development of rural TN to the transport corporation! As a side effect of this, the quality of buses has suffered. TN hardly offers any kind of luxury bus services and even its so called “super deluxe” is fairly spartan. The resin seats in one such bus gave me rashes on my back following a night journey from Madras to Bangalore.

KSRTC, on the other hand, has gone on the service route. Every few months it keeps introducing new “branded luxury services”. It all began with its luxury “Rajahamsa” five years ago, and now includes services like “Mayura” (AC bus), “Airavata” (AC Volvo bus), etc. The corporation has also practices differential pricing, where off-peak routes (like day trips from Bangalore to Madras) are priced much lower than night services.

In short, KSRTC seems to be trying to take on the competition of private buses, and doing a jolly good job of it.

Another revolution that has been brought about by KSRTC (and also APSRTC) is the extensive ticket booking network, based on a franchisee model. On any fairly large street in Bangalore, you will find a small shop which says “KSRTC Online reservations”. Most of these shops also double up as telephone booths and xerox counters.

Go to the Kempegowda Bus Stand in Bangalore on any given night and you’ll see the difference. What you will mostly see is multi-colored attractive looking luxury buses. Leaving from Bangalore to different parts of the state and to neighboring states. What the KSRTC seems to have realized is that people won’t mind paying that little bit extra for comfort, and seems to be cashing in on it.

It is interesting to see what has caused these two neighboring states to take such different routes in developing their transport corporations. It probably has to do with the demographics of people who travel by bus. A small example might illustrate this. My tamilian friend’s upper middle class mother had come to Madras from Bangalore to visit her. Another Tamilian friend asked her “did you come by car or did you come by flight?”. A few days later my father came to Madras. And a Kannadiga friend asks him “did you come by bus or did you come by train?”.

This theory gets further strengthened by looking at the kind of people that travel by local buses in Bangalore and Madras (let us not compare the inter-city buses since services offered are different). In Bangalore, most of the bus is filled with middle class people, along with a few laborer-types. In Madras, the buses are filled with the laborer-types. The middle class doesn’t seem to travel by bus there.

It might have to do with some political history of the two regions, but there is a reluctance among middle-class Tamilians to travel by bus!

There seems to be a mindset among middle and upper middle class Tamilians that buses are a poor-man’s vehicle. And that it’s a kind of “social level down” to be seen travelling by bus. It is interesting to note that this kind of thing is not prevalent in any of the other South Indian states, which happen to consequently have much better (in terms of comfort) transport services!
And it is this reluctance of the Middle Classes that the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation has used to grow the way it has.

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