The loud, rumbling sound when a two-coach tram ambles past, is immediately recognisable to anyone who has ever been to Kolkata. The tram system in the City of Joy is operated by the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) and is the only tram network operational in India. It is also the oldest running electric tram system in Asia since its beginnings in 1902.
An eco-friendly mode of transport that has been running since ages!
The slick, fast and manoeuvrable single-coach machines that have been running since 2012 have modernised the tram system. Today, one can see state-of-the-art tram cars, that sport fluorescent lights, FM Radio, digital advertising boards and route indicators.
But every great story has humble beginnings, and the tram system in Kolkata isn’t any different.
It was in 1873 when the first attempt to run a 3.9 km tram service between Sealdah and the Armenian Ghat commenced. It folded up in the same year, due to lack of patrons. It would be seven long years before the service resumed, in 1880.
The Calcutta Tramway Co. Ltd was formed in 1880 and was registered in London on 22nd December. Metre-gauge rails were used, and the trams were drawn by horses. Lord Ripon, the Viceroy at the time inaugurated the route.
An experiment was carried out to haul trams using steam locomotives in 1882. By the end of the nineteenth century, the company grew–it owned 166 tram cars, 1000 horses, seven steam locomotives and around 19 miles of train tracks.
It would take a further two decades for the electric tram to emerge in 1902 and continue to this day. The tracks were altered as well. Then rolled the first electric tramcar in Asia, from Esplanade to Kidderpore on 27th March, and on 14th June, from Esplanade to Kalighat.
Over the next few years, new routes were opened up, and by 1905, the electrification work was completed. Work suddenly expanded exponentially, and over the next few years, from 1906 to 1943, the tram network grew, crisscrossing the city and connecting important nodal points. By 1943, the total track length spread over Kolkata and Howrah, was around 68 kilometres.
After India’s independence, in 1951, the West Bengal Government and the Calcutta Tramways Company entered into an agreement. And with this, the Calcutta Tramways Act of 1951 came into effect. The government assumed all rights of the tram system, even reserving the rights to purchase the system, with two years notice, on January 1, 1972, or any time after that.
During the 1980’s, when Kolkata was still adjusting the antennae on her TVs to get the right picture quality, or reaching out to others through landline phones and telegrams, the Maruti 800 made an appearance, alongside the reigning king of the road–the Ambassador. During this time, the first tram of the day would crawl out of its depot every morning just before the sun rose.
Trams were a crucial mode of transport for Kolkata’s population–the last tram, still overflowing with commuters would enter the depot at 11:50 p.m. The crowd would be a mix of lawyers, babus, vegetable vendors, the working populace or religious people heading to the Hooghly ghats.
Cut to a few decades later, and we are miles ahead, ordering food and taxis from apps in our phones. The sudden infrastructure boom that began in the late 80s spelt doom for the tramways.
The first blow came with the introduction of the Metro corridor, a step that would be the first of several–to provide a robust subway system for the city. As time went by, and other modes of public transport became more widespread, and trams slowly disappeared into the background.
A 2008 survey showed that just 77,500 people travelled by tram in that year–a far cry from the 80s when around 7.5 lakh people travelled a day. It seemed to be the end of the tram. In less than three decades, the commuter base had dropped by around 90%, despite a corresponding 67% increase in Kolkata’s population during the same period.
Today, the tram is seen as more of an inconvenience. Kolkata’s population wants a faster mode of transport. Although they are less frequent, trams are an integral part of Kolkata’s heritage.
What would this city be, without its tramway?
Hence, a Tram Museum opened up the in September 2014, at the Esplanade depot. The Calcutta Tramways Company has turned a 1938-built tram car into a tram museum. The departure site of the first electric tram in Asia is now the permanent home of the museum, a favourite amongst history enthusiasts. Visitors at the museum can browse photos that showcase different kinds of trams through history.
There are old archives, old tram tickets and passes, badges, caps and apparel worn by the tram staff, and ancient equipment like controllers, etc.
Trams have always been the darlings of celluloid. From the Satyajit Ray classic Mahanagar to the new age movies like Kahaani and Yuva, the tram has been a part of the silver screen, enchanting viewers who get a glimpse of an inseparable part of the city’s heritage.
It is indeed sad that the tram that runs without polluting the atmosphere is losing out to faster modes of transport that rely on fossil fuels.
The Calcutta Tramways Company has decided to rent out tram cars to private tour operators, as well as movie producers and directors. Since then, private parties and even weddings have been organised in a tram car. The tram can be hired for a day, and all the necessary arrangements will be made for a certain price.
Running smoothly for decades, the tram, with its ubiquitous conductor holding neatly folded notes between his fingers and the small tinkling bell that rings at stops, is being threatened by modernisation.
It would be indeed tragic, if the tram melted into obscurity, only to be mentioned in history books. However, if the commuters realised the value of this mode of public transport, given its reasonable fares and eco-friendliness, the tramways in Kolkata could very well have their glory days back.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)