The forgotten tram

By Sayantan Bera

Kolkata is seeing the last days of a non-polluting and once-efficient mode of transport, while trams make a comeback in cities around the world

On a cold December night at the Kalighat tram depot in south Kolkata, an elderly man in khakis sitting in a stationary coach was reading a newspaper in the dim light of a 40-watt bulb. A few people asked him about the next tram to Tollygunge and left as soon as they were told the wait would be for 30 minutes.

Five years ago, the Kalighat depot used to be one of the busiest in Kolkata. Trams would ply on three routes covering about 16 km. Now a lone tramcar rattles along the 3 km track between Kalighat and Tollygunge. Seven years ago this car—like all other Kolkata trams—ran on lines embedded in large grass patches reserved for trams. These patches were ripped away in 2004 to make space for cars and buses. Trams now run in the middle of the road and passengers have to get past speeding traffic to catch a tram, risking their lives.

The Calcutta Tramways Company began in 1880 with horses hauling tramcars on Calcutta’s—as the city was then known—serpentine streets. By 1905, the system was powered with electricity and by 1943 the network covered 67 km. In 1967, the West Bengal government took over the tramways company marking the beginning of four decades of neglect. Since the takeover, only 10 km of track length were added to the network, while more than 32 km were either closed or shut ‘temporarily’ for construction work.

“Temporary is an euphemism for shutting down for good,” says Debashish Bhattacharya, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. The Calcutta Tramways Company advertisement depicting tram as “a slow moving electrical reptile… add (ing) to the romance and old world charm of this city” angers him.

A tram’s service life is 60-70 years compared to five-seven years for a bus. It does not pollute, navigates narrow streets with ease and accommodates 150 passengers. With a dedicated corridor, trams move much faster than other fuel guzzlers and boast of an enviable track record on passenger safety, points out Bhattacharya, adding that major European and South East Asian cities have revived their tram networks in the form of Light Rail Transit.

Bhattacharya has taken up the cudgels over the ‘temporary’ shutdown of the tramline near Ballygunge railway station. In 2004, the West Bengal government suspended traffic on the line for constructing a flyover. According to Bhattacharya, the line was a conduit between the railway station and rest of Kolkata. He estimates the tramways company lost between Rs 60,000 and Rs 70,000 per day as a result of the shutdown. Tram traffic did not resume after construction was completed in 2006. Bhattacharya filed an RTI application asking for information about reopening, but he received no answers.

Kolkata’s metro rail project struck the first major blow to the city’s trams. A 12 km stretch connecting south Kolkata to the heart of the city was ‘temporarily’ shut in 1980. The route never reopened.

Derailing included reduction of public dependence on trams where the West Bengal government did away with volume-based rationalisation: the practice of more trams during peak hours was stopped. According to data gathered from the Calcutta Tramways Company’s website and the West Bengal Statistical Handbook, 2008, the number of commuters came down from 0.75 million per day in the early 1980s to a dismal 77,500 in 2008—a decline of more than 10 times in a period when the city’s population increased by 67 per cent.

Most of the 90-odd trams that the tramway company currently has run on 1940s technology. Swarup Kumar Pal, the company’s chief operating manager confirms modernisation has been limited to the tram superstructure. “We once thought of importing new trams but the idea was abandoned because we had no funds. Recently, though, the cars have got a transparent polycarbonate body,” Pal says. But the new look—at a cost of Rs 14 lakh per tram—has not found much favour from commuters.

Funding is drying up. The last capital infusion for the tramways came from the World Bank-sponsored Calcutta Urban Transport Project in 1982. With a Rs 108 crore assistance, 200 trams were purchased and 10 km of tracks added to the existing network.

This has also led to a loss of interest in reviving the tramways. The metro rail project gobbled 7 km of tram tracks in the 1980s and is all set to render three tram depots and another 25 km of tracks defunct in 2011. Sitangshu Sekhar, the works manager at Nonapukur Workshop where trams—some almost 70 years old—are brought for repair, rues the government’s neglect. He says, “The 22-km metro was constructed at a cost of over Rs 1,800 crore. Construction has started on metro corridor, a portion of which will run underwater across the Ganga. The projected cost of the 14.7 km track is more than Rs 4,000 crore. The 60-odd km tram network could have been modernised at a fraction of that cost.”

Those who seek heritage in the tramways, however, need not be worried: luxury trams are well preserved to take winter tourists on a seven-hour joy ride around the city. The working-class people, though, jostle for space in buses.