Navigating the airport commute challenge in Bengaluru

In an experiment to evaluate the Bengaluru city-to-airport commute, The Hindu reporters set out on their journeys from the city centre to the airport using three modes of transport: train, bus, and car

Updated - September 08, 2023 08:12 pm IST

Published - September 08, 2023 08:00 am IST

The South Western Railway operates eight pairs of trains, including six pairs of MEMU trains, aimed at serving both air travellers and those working at the airport. 

The South Western Railway operates eight pairs of trains, including six pairs of MEMU trains, aimed at serving both air travellers and those working at the airport.  | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

The third busiest in the country, Kempegowda International Airport (KIA) — Bengaluru’s international airport — handled 31.91 million passengers in FY 2022-2023. However, getting to the airport, about 30-40 km away from the city, is fraught with the city’s infamous traffic jams, making the journey a frustrating experience.

At present, public transport to the airport is available in two options: the Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporations’ (BMTC) airport AC bus service (Vayu Vajra), and the railways’ MEMU (Mainline Electric Multiple Unit) trains. Alternatively, commuters can choose to drive their own vehicles or opt for taxis, as Bengaluru awaits metro connectivity, slated for opening in 2026.

The Hindu conducted an experiment to assess the commuting experience from the city centre to the airport, a journey that typically takes over an hour. Three reporters made the journey on August 6 from Majestic, a central transportation hub in Bengaluru that includes a main bus station and railway station.

They engaged with commuters to gather insights into their airport journeys. The distance from Majestic to Bengaluru airport is approximately 35 km by road, while the train route covers a distance of 45 km.

The reporters used three different modes of transportation: train, BMTC airport bus service, and car.

The trains to the airport have very poor occupancy.

The trains to the airport have very poor occupancy. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Poor occupancy

The train journey from Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna station in Majestic started at 8.35 a.m. The train goes to Kolar and has a stop at the KIA. The journey began on time, but as has been the case since the service’s launch, the train had poor occupancy; only around 50 passengers were on board, and the coach in which the reporter and photojournalist were seated was entirely vacant. The train journey is the cheapest among the available options: ₹15 per passenger. Within just eight minutes, the train arrived at the Cantonment station, where a few more passengers boarded.

Ramakrishna Naidu, a frequent passenger on the train route to Kolar, said there are very few travellers opting for the train to the airport. He believes it might be because of the railway authorities’ limited efforts in promoting the service. “It could also be due to the inconvenience of switching modes from train to shuttle bus at the halt station. People might find it cumbersome, especially if they have a lot of luggage.” Naidu also said the frequency of trains to the airport is quite low.

Eight pairs of trains

The South Western Railway operates eight pairs of trains on this route, including six pairs of MEMU trains, aimed at serving both air travellers and those working at the airport. However, in August, two trains that run from Bengaluru Cantonment station to KIA halt station were cancelled, until September 9, due to ongoing track maintenance.

After traversing six stations, the train arrived at Kempegowda International Airport halt station, marking an hour and a half of the train journey. Along with the reporter and photojournalist, only ten passengers disembarked in the station, then boarded the free airport shuttle bus provided by the airport authorities for the onward journey to the airport. All passengers, except one, were airport employees.

Manoj Kumar, an airport employee, said, “Despite its affordability, the service is not popular since it takes a long time and is not punctual. I have no alternative but to choose the train due to its cost-effectiveness for reaching the airport.”

Vivek M.U., from Mandya, decided to take the train journey based on a recommendation, but he is not happy with the train’s schedule as he is often late to arrive at the airport. He said, “I wasn’t aware that the train would be delayed, and I assumed it would be the most convenient choice since I initially travelled by train from Mandya to Bengaluru, so thought of continuing by train.”

The shuttle bus takes 20 minutes to reach the airport, which is a 3.5 km ride.

From the KIA halt station, there is a free shuttle bus to the airport that takes 20 minutes for the 3.5 km ride.

From the KIA halt station, there is a free shuttle bus to the airport that takes 20 minutes for the 3.5 km ride. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Improve frequency

According to SWR sources, the trains to Bengaluru airport are operating at an occupancy rate of less than 1%. So, the SWR has put forth a proposal to extend these train services to Chickballapur in an effort to boost ridership.

In June this year, SWR had discontinued all MEMU train operations between Bengaluru and KIA railway station due to low occupancy and a shortage of crew members. But, merely 15 days later, the train services were resumed.

Rajkumar Dugar, the Convener of Citizens for Citizens, a volunteer group, said, “The airport train will be successful if only the railways improve the frequency and promote it. It’s good that railways have proposed to extend the train till Chickballapur.”

Mr. Dugar also pointed out the maintenance of MEMU trains is subpar. “The restrooms, seating, and overall interior cleanliness need improvement.”

K.N. Krishna Prasad, a railway activist and member of Karnataka Railway Vedike, said the MEMU services have limited utility, primarily due to the availability of just one train departing from Majestic. “The SWR should consider operating trains at different times and initiating services from other parts of the city,” he suggested.

Bues from Kempe Gowda bus station leave for the airport at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes from 12.05 am to 11.40 pm.

Bues from Kempe Gowda bus station leave for the airport at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes from 12.05 am to 11.40 pm. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Hassle-free bus ride

A bus journey around the same time turned out to be a smooth ride. Contrary to popular perception that bus services lack punctuality, the bus with route number KIA 9 left exactly at 8.30 a.m. as indicated in the schedule.

According to the schedule put up at the bus station, the buses depart at regular intervals of 15 to 20 minutes from 12.05 a.m. to 11.40 p.m., making it practically a 24/7 service to the airport. When this reporter entered the bus, there were just eight other passengers.

The conductor issued the ticket, asking if the payment was being made online. He provided a QR code to pay ₹246 for the ticket. By 8.50 a.m. the bus had reached Hebbal. A couple of passengers got down there. While there was a smooth flow of traffic up until this point, from here onwards, the pace of movement reduced a little.

Munna, a passenger, had boarded the bus at Majestic with his friend. “We go to the airport once every month to work. We stay in Hassan and come to Bengaluru by bus. From there, we take this bus to get to the airport,” he explained. His friend said, “We do not like taking cabs since it’s very costly.”

A bus makes 10 trips a day and an average of 300 passengers use it.

A bus makes 10 trips a day and an average of 300 passengers use it. | Photo Credit: Jahnavi T.R.

10 bus trips a day

The bus conductor said the bus makes 10 trips a day and an average of 300 passengers use it. “The morning hours are unpredictable. But after 4 p.m., both from Majestic and from the airport, a lot of people board the bus. Sometimes all the seats get filled up and they travel standing,” he said.

It was around 9.15 a.m. when the bus reached Yelahanka. The bus, which was empty till then, started filling up as airport employees started boarding. As the conductor had mentioned, some people were now standing in the bus as the seats were filled. These commuters are the regulars of this bus.

“I work at the airport, and I used to drive my car from Yelahanka before. The fuel costs would come up to ₹12,000 per month. Then I switched to this bus. The price of a monthly pass is just ₹3,000. The only advantage with the car was that I would reach faster (in 30 minutes) and now it takes 45 minutes. It is manageable as it is only a 15-minute difference,” said Aadhya, an airport employee.

By 9.30 a.m. the bus was already inside the airport premises and stopping near various cargo stations and other offices for the employees to alight. In another five minutes, the bus stopped at the bus bay near the departure gates of Terminal 1. The commute from the heart of the city to the airport took an hour, making this reporter arrive 25 minutes before the one who took the train, and 20 minutes after the reporter who drove a car reached.

A cab ride the airport is faster but it is expensive.

A cab ride the airport is faster but it is expensive. | Photo Credit: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Highway is the fastest

The car ride from Kempe Gowda bus station in Majestic to Kempegowda International Airport, a distance of 33 km via Ballari Road, took 42 minutes. After starting from Majestic at 8.30 a.m., this reporter reached KIA at 9.12 am.

Contrary to expectations, the ride to the airport was hassle-free, with no slow-moving traffic anywhere. En route, after a traffic signal at the Windsor Manor Junction near Golf Course, the next traffic signal was 500 metres before the Sadahalli Toll Gate, and brief stops at the Toll Gate and later a Central Reserve Police Force manned checkpoint before entering the airport. Despite the peak-hour airport-bound morning traffic, there was no hold-up, but for a minute or so, at the toll plaza and at the checkpoint a few kilometres ahead.

Neither was the notorious Hebbal flyover a bottleneck. That could be because this reporter left for the airport from Majestic at 8.30 a.m., well before the rush hour. However, the road towards the CBD (central business district) was packed with heavy office-bound traffic.

This indicates that the travel time to the airport in a car could vary depending on what time you travel.

M.N. Anucheth, Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic), Bengaluru, while acknowledging that the travel time to the airport by road during evening peak hours might be a bit longer, said it could be an extra 10-15 minutes. Since the stretch is signal-free, traffic would be slow-moving, but doesn’t come to a halt.

The claim of the advertisement on Ballari Road to the airport, which also happens to be National Highway 44, saying, “This highway is the fastest access to the airport”, turned out to be true, at least at this time of the day.

However, the cab ride to the airport does pinch one’s pocket. At 8.30 a.m. on Wednesday (August 6), the cost of a ride from Majestic to KIA was ₹722 - ₹880 for a non-premiere taxi, ₹540 - ₹590 for an autorickshaw and ₹380 for a bike ride.

Parking at airport

In view of the exorbitant cost of cab services, many commuters have opted to drive their own vehicles to the airport and park them there during their travel. Ashish Nair, a resident of Whitefield in east Bengaluru, said, “Whenever I need to fly out of the city for a two-day business trip, I drive my car and park it at the airport, incurring a cost of ₹600 as the initial parking fee and an additional ₹200 per day. This is significantly lower than the alternative of booking a cab, which can costs ₹2,000 for a one-way trip.”

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