x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The lap of luxury?

Feature A new luxury bus service aims to boost the tally of journeys made on public transport and reduce the number of cars speeding between the cities.

The Roads and Transport Authority says Wi-Fi is still being tested on the luxury buses between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The Roads and Transport Authority says Wi-Fi is still being tested on the luxury buses between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The roads between Abu Dhabi and Dubai never sleep, with a constant, purring stream of cars, buses and lorries speeding from one city to the other. Whether we are commuters, weekend visitors, or curious tourists, many of us have spent time on the 125km stretch. For some weary travellers, it might be a route that they know all too well, from driving up and down several times a week or perhaps every day. So a new luxury bus service between the two cities could offer great things.

Launched by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) last month, the new service aims to reduce the number of cars speeding between the cities as well as boost the tally of journeys made on public transport by 30 per cent. There are currently eight new buses in operation, with plans for a total of 55 by next year. The RTA announcement talked proudly of Wi-Fi internet access, on-board toilets, some kind of food compartment and reclining, aeroplane-style seats.

This called for a rigorous test. I planned accordingly: each morning for a full working week, I would present myself at Al Ghubaiba Station in Dubai and pay Dh20 for a single ticket to hop aboard the bus to Abu Dhabi. I'd then make the return trip in the evening. Would the service work for commuters? Who else would share the journey with me? Could I really fritter the whole trip away on Facebook with my laptop? How arduous could it actually be, I wondered, while making arrangements for my week's commute. I would sit on my comfortable leather seat with a coffee, merrily sending e-mails from the road.

Then came the first day's travelling and an immediate problem presented itself: time. The RTA says the journey, depending on traffic, takes approximately two hours, which is accurate. But, as with any journey, the door-to-door time takes longer. You have to get to the bus station, queue for a ticket, faff about with bags, find a seat and wait patiently for the bus to fill before it pulls out from the station. As with the older Emirates Express service, buses depart once every seat has been taken, says the RTA's director of buses, Abdulla Yousef Alali. This makes for rather sporadic leaving times - great if you leave within five minutes of boarding the bus, not so if you just miss one and have to wait another half hour.

Ah well, I said to myself once settled on the bus at 8.00 on the morning of my first commute. The seats were reassuringly large and spongy, and the air conditioning was blasting, so perhaps I'd do some work while I waited. I pulled out my laptop and reclined my chair, which did indeed snap back neatly, possibly kneecapping the poor man behind me. Disaster. The Wi-Fi didn't work. The driver shook his head and confessed to knowing nothing about it. Nor was there any noticeable food compartment, and a man who boarded the bus with a coffee was turned sharply away and told to drink it outside. I asked the lady sitting next to me if she was commuting to Abu Dhabi. "No," she said sleepily, and dozed off.

All in all, an inauspicious beginning. By 8.20, though, our driver had shuffled about the ladies' seats so the bus was full and we inched out of the city. The trip got me to my desk at 10.45 after a door-to-door travelling time of three hours and 15 minutes. Phew. The return trip that evening was a similar marathon. In part, this is because there are no stops between Abu Dhabi and Dubai's Trade Centre Roundabout, a major omission from the bus timetable.

Charlie Fawls, a passenger I met one morning, lives in Dubai Marina but took the bus to work in Abu Dhabi for two days after he was in a traffic accident in his car. "I couldn't do this trip every day," he said. "It just makes no sense when it goes from the wrong part of the city for me." Many who are based in Dubai and work in Abu Dhabi live in Dubai Marina, Discovery Gardens or Jumeirah Lakes Towers. For them, a trip deeper into Dubai to catch the bus isn't feasible. So they drive. But if there was a bus stop nearby, then catching the bus would be a more likely option.

The good news, Alali says, is that the RTA will consider adding bus stops if there is sufficient demand for them. Another problem is rush-hour traffic. After leaving Sheikh Zayed Road one evening, it took us 45 minutes to sift through the glaring signals and tailbacks of Bur Dubai before we reached Al Ghubaiba. I shared a shortbread biscuit and tutted over the traffic with Sarah, an Emirates Airline hostess who was travelling to Dubai after visiting a friend in Abu Dhabi. I arrived back at my apartment at 9.00pm, collapsing immediately into bed. Why is sitting on a bus so tiring?

Rising early and full of good cheer in the morning is a challenge for me, so for the next two mornings the earliest buses I caught rolled out of Dubai at about 7.30. I napped for much of the journey, as did most of my fellow passengers. It was no mean feat, really, given that we had to ignore the driver's CD, which might have been called Backstreet Boys, Not Our Greatest Hits. But I reached the office by 10.00am, relatively refreshed and ready. The bus service and I were slowly making friends.

One afternoon on the return trip, I got talking to Angela Simmons, a British schoolteacher who has lived in Abu Dhabi for two and a half years and was going to Dubai to see a friend. It was the first time she had taken the new service. "Don't the buses have internet?" she asked hopefully. "Not yet," I told her. When asked, the RTA says "it is still being tested and will require further development". It adds that the food compartments will not be part of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai buses, either, but will be reserved for other routes that are still to be decided.

"I haven't been to Dubai since November," Simmons subsequently said, explaining that she was too nervous to drive. The bus, we agreed, allows passengers to relax and not worry about other cars darting around them like flies. Of course, as luck would have it, we pulled away from Abu Dhabi and immediately ran into a bout of road rage on the motorway. Our bus driver, angry at a small white Daihatsu for its constant, random lane changing, pulled alongside to shout at its driver, who threw a bottle of water in our driver's face. All this while we cruised at approximately 120kph. It was the sort of chase I could envisage in a film, with passengers clutching their seats in panic.

We stopped near Ghantoot, where our bus driver had called ahead for a police car to pull over the Daihatsu, and we waited for 10 minutes while several men gave their version of events. Then we soldiered on again. Angela and I, sitting in the front of the bus, regained our breath and reflected happily on the new buses' seat belts. Most often, it was the return trip from Abu Dhabi that seemed to prove problematic. One evening, I was due for dinner in Dubai, and, grimly surmising how long the bus would take, left the office three hours before my appointment. But I then sat at the Abu Dhabi bus station on Muroor Road for 45 minutes waiting to leave. With no discernible sense of urgency from the driver, who loitered outside with a cigarette, I was forced to abandon the bus and catch a taxi to Dubai.

My weakened resolve raised another issue for those who hope to become regular users of the bus service: enjoying any kind of social life. Not being able to estimate when you will arrive home in the evening means that organising events is somewhat problematic. My taxi that night took me to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel perfectly on time for dinner, but, had I been on the bus, I would have probably arrived just in time for coffee afterwards.

But it was the penultimate day of my pilgrimage when relations with the bus took a seriously bad turn. I had arrived at Al Ghubaiba Station at 7.00am only to see a luxury bus pull out and I was told that another wasn't due at the station until 10.00am. I harassed the nearest bus driver, who explained that the luxury buses are operating in a shift system because there are only eight of them on the road. Four buses leave Dubai at the same time that four leave Abu Dhabi, and there are three- to four-hour gaps between, when the old service is reverted to instead. Alali confirmed that this is how the service is operating, but said that almost three times as many buses will be running in weeks.

An unlucky family was caught in the same predicament that day, and they needed to reach Abu Dhabi for an appointment. When the bus finally rolled into the station at 11.00am, the father, Mr Nassif, started shouting at the unfortunate driver. "We are not crazy people," he bellowed. "But we have been waiting in the sun for an hour." Nassif told me that he was in Dubai with his mother and wife to visit his brother. "We have been told for an hour it would be here in five minutes, then another five minutes. It is so frustrating."

Once we finally left, tempers calmed as we shared some crisps and Mrs Nassif and I swapped copies of Ahlan! magazine. But by that point I had been waiting at the station for almost five hours. In a hunt for breakfast, I had exhausted the myriad culinary possibilities of Al Ghubaiba Station, and I felt fraught. The situation didn't much improve. We arrived at Abu Dhabi station, and as I waved off the Nassifs I was told that the luxury bus shift was leaving again soon. I could either catch a bus immediately, or wait until 9.00pm, when the last bus would depart. I opted to go back straight away, so didn't even set foot in the office and practically crawled back to my apartment in Bur Dubai at 6.00pm. Eleven hours of travelling, and I had no work to show for it.

I woke on the final day of the experiment, delighted to think that it was nearly over, and headed to the station for the earliest bus I could find, still trying to track down these elusive commuters at which the RTA says the service is aimed. On the 6.20am bus, I spotted a man in a suit, but he said he was going to Abu Dhabi for a one-off meeting. He looked confused and alarmed when I told him I'd made the journey every day for a week. So, too, did Vikram Jindal, another suited man whom I quizzed about commuting. It turned out he was going to Abu Dhabi to organise his visa.

And that, in the end, is who the service is best for right now: day-trippers, tourists and weekend commuters on journeys that don't require them to reach their destination with much haste. The RTA says that although buses are leaving when full at the moment, more buses will be on the route within weeks and a set timetable will then be followed more accurately. The fact that the buses I travelled on mostly filled up quickly indicates that the demand is there, but as an option for commuters who want to avoid the long drive every day, it's not yet a wholly practical solution. Even so, for the odd trip back and forth, it works, and once the Wi-Fi is up and running I'll be a luxury bus convert. But after a dizzying total of 31 hours' travelling last week, I might just need a short break from them first.


smoneycoutts@thenational.ae