The best way of slowing down time is to stir a pot of tomato soup. Or ride a tram. An Indian-American friend who lived and worked in Kolkata for a while once said that.
She was right.
That is not to say a tram is slow. But in a city that is always in a hurry, the tram is unperturbed. It will not try to overtake anyone. It will not jump lanes. It moves at its own rhythm on its own track—an act of resistance to a frantic city.
Kolkata was the first Indian city to have trams. At that time, it was a sign of its modernity. It remains the only Indian city to still have them. Some think that is a sign of its backwardness, the last refuge of trundling trams and wheezing Ambassadors.
February 2023 marked 150 years of trams on Kolkata’s streets.
The first trams
The first trams ran from Armenian Ghat to Sealdah in Calcutta—a distance of 3.9 kilometres—in 1873, writes Samir Chattopadhyay in the book Calcutta/Kolkata. Initially, citizens did not take to this new-fangled mode of transport and the service was soon discontinued. Then the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) was set up in London in 1880. Those first trams were drawn by horses. At one time there were 177 trams and 1,000 horses. Then came steam engines. In 1902, Calcutta became the first Asian city with trams that ran on electricity.
“What the red double decker bus is to London, the tram is to Kolkata,” said Rajanvir Singh Kapur, Managing Director of West Bengal Transport Corporation (WBTC). Outside his office there is a huge photograph of a horse-drawn tram. The names on the buildings around it evoke another Calcutta—Ranken & Co, Henry Clark, Alexander Cumming. A photograph of a sleek modern 21st century tram also hangs beside his door.
But even as the 150th birthday celebrations kicked off in Kolkata, Transport Minister Snehasis Chakraborty said while Kolkata was not saying farewell to trams, they were not feasible in a congested city where roads occupy only 6 per cent of the area. “We cannot bring back all routes but we are planning a heritage loop,” he said. “Tourists can ride them.”
“It can be a living mode of transport. Why make it only heritage?” says transport planner and road safety consultant Suvendu Seth. He says technological and traffic management solutions are possible for all these issues. “So many cities in Europe and North America are trying to bring back trams, often at great cost. We had it and we are letting it die.” A city where the Air Quality Index is routinely above 250 during winter months should not let its oldest and greenest mode of mass transit just trundle off into the sunset.
“In a city that loves to “festival-ise” everything, a tram festival is a crowd-pleaser. But can it actually save the tram?”
Roberto D’Andrea understands that mindset well. He is a trammie aka tram conductor from Melbourne, a city that fought to keep its trams at a time when they were being dismissed as antiquated.
He encountered Kolkata trams almost 30 years ago on his first visit to India. “While walking down the famous Chowringhee road, I could hear the trams ding-dinging in the distance.” He went to a tram depot. He spoke no Bangla. So he pretended to drive a tram; to ring its bell, he mimicked the whoosh of an air compressor.
That visit forged an unlikely partnership—a Kolkata-Melbourne tram friendship based on the fact that Melbourne and Kolkata have two of the few surviving tramway systems in continuous operation outside Europe.
That in turn led to Tram Jatra, described as “collaborations between trammies and the tram-loving communities of the two cities” that started in 1996. “I thought a tram festival was a unique idea and I jumped at it,” says filmmaker Mahadeb Shi whose film about trams, Kaather Baksho (The Wooden Box), is an ongoing project. He even captured footage from the last day when trams ran on Howrah Bridge. Each Tram Jatra had a different theme: the environment, Durga Puja, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, and so on. This year, the 150th anniversary celebration comes with its own hoopla: a parade of gaily decorated trams, sit-and-draw competitions and debates, and celebrity guests, including D’Andrea. The transport corporation provides the trams and the venue. Tram Jatra organises the celebration.
In a city that loves to “festival-ise” everything, a tram festival is a crowd-pleaser. But can it actually save the tram? D’Andrea thinks the Tram Jatras help beyond the song and dance. He remembers badly decayed tracks in the 1990s with trams frequently jumping off the tracks. “We shared tramway technical information from Melbourne and played a major role in relaying the new tram track system,” says D’Andrea. He got to meet the then Transport Minister. Usha Uthup sang on board a tram in 2001. Watching a huge crowd cheer as she sang “Kolkata Kolkata, don’t you worry Kolkata”, D’Andrea felt that trams might have turned a corner.
But now it is back to square one. When Kapur took over the transport corporation in January 2020, there were only five routes running where once there were over 50. With the COVID-19 lockdown, that figure became zero. In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan struck Kolkata and snapped many wires and felled trees. Now the city is down to two operating tram lines. Some were halted because of Metro construction work, but there is no guarantee that they will return. Sunil Kumar Yadav, Deputy Commissioner of Traffic in Kolkata, says the tram corporation is in the process of requesting some lines to be reopened, and the police will examine that request.
A source within Kolkata Police says that trams are of minimal concern to them. “Whatever vacuum there was has been filled up by buses, autos, and the Metro. No-one really feels the absence of trams any more.”
That is not quite true. The CTUA, or Calcutta Tram Users Association, was set up in 2016 to fight for the trams. Its president, Debasish Bhattacharya, an academic, remembers the shock he felt in the 1990s when Left Front Transport Minister Shyamal Chakraborty called trams obsolete.
At that time the tram workers’ union was led by the Communist Party of India. Another workers’ union was run by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Bhattacharya says they could not protest too strenuously against a CPI(M)-led government.
Subir Bose, who retired as a letterman for the tram company in 2022 after 39 years there, says it has always been a battle to keep the trams alive. In 1983 when he joined the CTC, it had received Rs.46.2 crore from the World Bank in 1980 to upgrade the systems. There were 443 trams running. The Nonapukur workshop (for maintenance and repair) was bustling—“2,300-2,400 people worked in engineering alone. I remember in 1984 machine parts worth some Rs.16 crore being bought for the workshop.” In 2021-22, he says, Nonapukur received a mere Rs.60 lakh, more than half of which went to repair tyres. The last time he went to the Nonapukur workshop it was being used for a film shoot in the middle of the week.
But Bose admits that the tram system had become bloated with over 14,000 temporary and permanent employees. In 1992, the union agreed to let buses come under the umbrella of the company. “We thought that would save jobs, and some 2,000 employees were shifted to buses.”
To counter complaints that trams were too slow, the union helped design faster single-bogey trams that took 6-7 seconds to cross an intersection unlike the old two bogeys that took 20-22 seconds. They were also far cheaper than the cars built by Burn Standard and Jessop. “We thought a tram could survive as a single-bogey car in Kolkata,” says Bose.
When the police complained about traffic congestion, the company agreed to concretise the tram tracks so the road space could be shared by buses and cars. But when the dedicated raised tram tracks disappeared, so did the tram stops. Bose remembers the last time he painted a tram stoppage board. “It was on a green board with white ink. That was 2012.”
Now passengers have to board and disembark from trams in the middle of crowded thoroughfares, dodging careening buses and zipping autos. The very people who used the tram most faithfully, the elderly and women with children, can no longer access them easily.
“Those tram tracks should have been laid at the side, not the middle,” said a police official. Now the government can claim that the trams do not carry enough passengers. Fewer passengers mean more irregular schedules. “It’s an egg and chicken problem,” said Seth. Bhattacharya called it “planned obsolescence”.
Yet, trams have survived so far against all odds. Mumbai had double-decker trams which were discontinued in the early 1960s. Delhi’s short-stretch trams were decommissioned. Kolkata’s trams have survived, says Bhattacharya, probably because of a strong union culture. “Also, the public used the trams heavily. Schools, colleges, hospitals, cinema halls were all connected by tram lines.”
The WBTC is hoping that muscle memory can still protect the trams. In the last few years, it has created several projects to make trams cool again and not just be figments of nostalgia. Like a tram library that ran past colleges in north Kolkata, a Freedom Tram in collaboration with Amritsar’s Partition Museum during the 75th anniversary of Independence, a children’s tram in partnership with the 100-year-old Oxford Bookstore. Now, consulates and galleries want to host events in trams.
A tram depot that had been filled with weeds and broken bottles became a Tram World museum and is now a buzzing open-air café. Some tram enthusiasts complained that it was too gimmicky, with trams painted in candy colours and the oldest wooden tram languishing outside the shed, but at least the 150th anniversary celebrations have a venue.
“WBTC has always tried hard to make sure that commuters get good service,” said Kapur. “We came up with Tram World, colour-coded the tram routes, created an app, tried to make trams more youth-friendly so that trams can serve two purposes—both as heritage and as a mode of transport.”
At the very least, it gets people talking about trams again. But not enough. When the city set up the planned township of New Town, it could have created a light rail system for it but the hot-ticket transport item there is electric buses.
“We are not against electric buses,” said Shi. “Funding for public transportation and electric vehicles is crucial. So is promoting cycling and walking. But it is also crucial to revitalise existing networks like trams.”
When we talk about sustainable transportation, a tram should be on the top of the list. But a tramways official admitted that perhaps this was the problem. That it is too leakage proof. With a diesel bus you can steal diesel. With a tram you cannot pilfer electricity. “I feel that when we do the postering we should say it is also possible to steal from trams,” said Debasish Bhattacharya drily.
Moreover, the city makes a lot of income from car parking fees. The shuttle autos that ply the old tram routes make for a powerful political lobby that employs far more people than a tram does. The tram depots sit on valuable real estate.
But the tram has defied all arithmetic, logic, and political expediency and hung on. “I think this city really cares,” said a police official. But, as letterman Subir Bose said with a wry smile, “One cannot wait forever even for a loved one.”
He remembered seeing a boy and his father near Sealdah station once. The child was pointing at the disused tram lines and asking if they were rail lines. No, said the father, those are tram lines. What do trams look like, asked the boy. “I thought of Apu’s wonder when he saw that train in Pather Panchali,” said Bose. “But it also broke my heart.” According to Bose, if the government invests even Rs.30 crore over the years, “we can keep trams running for the next 15-20 years with minimal upkeep. Easily!” He worries however that the trams still running are way behind on their maintenance routine. D’Andrea says the lesson of tramways in Melbourne is simple. “Engage the public, use the media, work with tram workers, engage the government, WBTC, and traffic police. And focus on solutions.”
A few days later, I boarded a tram near my home in Kolkata. As it trundled down the road, bells ringing, I felt myself calming down. The familiarity of the faded signs was comforting: “Beware of pickpockets”; “Please give correct change”; “There will be no change for Rs.50/100”; “Please ring the bell only once to stop the tram”.
As I got off, I noticed one other sign.
“Ei gaari apnar. Doya kore jotno neen”. (This car is yours. Please take care of it.)
I hope the city is listening.
Sandip Roy is a novelist, podcaster, and columnist currently living in Kolkata. His award-winning debut novel was Don’t Let Him Know.
- February 2023 marked 150 years of trams on Kolkata’s streets.
- Kolkata was the first Indian city to have trams.
- Even as the 150th birthday celebrations kicked off in Kolkata, the number of tram routes in the city is steadily decreasing.
- The issues plaguing trams are lack of maintenance, traffic congestion caused by trams, and their slowness as a mode of transport.
- The West Bengal Transport Corporation has created several projects to make trams cool again and not just be figments of nostalgia.