Ever since I was introduced several years ago to First Coach by a KL friend — who persuaded me to travel down from Kuala Lumpur with him and some other friends, instead of flying — I’ve sworn by First Coach.
Its start and end points — from and to Singapore — at Novena Square is very convenient for me, because it’s less than 10 minutes by taxi or car from home.
Compare this to the 45-minute ride to Changi International Airport that could cost between $20 and $30 depending on the hour of the day, advance taxi booking fees and the anxiety of not missing the plane and the argument for First Coach is a no-brainer.
That was even be4 the advent of budget airfares and a host of coach competitors.
Price-wise and convenience-wise, First Coach was my preferred coach every time I go to KL. It probably still is but after what happened on my exit and return journeys last week, I might be forced to review my options.
We had started from Novena Square with the usual punctuality and the friendly atmosphere of regular travellers who had made the same journey on several occasions.
I felt particularly hopeful that the journey won’t take the 5 hours estimated by the coach operator, as the coach was only half full which meant we would save time at immigration and customs on the Tuas and Malaysian sides.
Also, the usual rest stop at Pagoh would likely be shorter than the normal 30 minutes. Fewer passengers, less dilly-dallying. I felt sure we would be in KL by 4pm instead of 4.30pm.
But what happened at Tuas took the cake!
The passengers had breezed through the checkpoint and were back in the coach in no time, except for one who stayed outside the coach. And the driver stayed with him.
Then we discovered that actually one passenger had been held back by immigration and the one who didn’t get back into the coach was his friend.
The minutes ticked by. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Half an hour.
An Indian lady was particularly irate. She had an appointment for 5pm in KL. She got off the coach to push the driver to be more proactive. I followed to try and find out the reason for the delay. A third passenger who was the “I’m in charge” type also got off.
Rather than raving and ranting at the somewhat-zen driver, he asked a few questions and then marched back into the immigration and customs hall with the driver in tow. Moments later, they returned and said we could leave, except for the man whose friend still hadn’t been cleared.
The downcast guy got back into the coach, removed their hand-carries and left without a word.
We continued our journey, two passengers fewer. We were 40 minutes behind schedule.
The story from the “I’m in charge” guy was that the man was being questioned by police as his passport photo didn’t match his face. Story teller said man was a Pakistani, as was his friend.
The zen-driver made up for lost time. We skipped the bigger Pagoh stop in favour of the far smaller — and my preferred — Tangkak stop. We got into KL right on time, 4.30pm.
In all my trips with First Coach, it was the first time I’d encountered fellow passengers being left behind due to immigration hiccups — or any other reason, for that matter.
I hoped it won’t happen again but lo and behold, there was a reprise on the journey home.
On entering Singapore, a fellow passenger was held up at immigration and customs, not sure which. He was a Middle-Eastern or Eastern European gentleman. He sat in the seat behind me and had kept speaking on his mobile in a language that was all Greek to me.
The only difference between the delay on the return journey was that after 30 minutes, the guy was allowed to enter Singapore. Also, as he came into the coach with his head bowled, he had the decency to mutter “sorry, very sorry” which no one acknowledged.
We hit huge traffic jams outside the Novena Church as it was a Saturday afternoon. We lost more time. It was well after 6pm when we disembarked.
What’s the common factor here? First Coach? Can it do better in ensuring passengers it carries have the requisite travel documents? Shouldn’t it have a policy on how long a coach-load of passengers should wait for those held back by the authorities?
Or maybe I should simply try travelling on another coach that responds better to unknown-unknowns?