Once symbolic of old Calcutta, trams may halt in their tracks | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Once symbolic of old Calcutta, trams may halt in their tracks

By, Kolkata
Jan 06, 2024 06:04 AM IST

Kolkata's iconic trams, which have been part of the city's landscape for 150 years, may be phased out in 2024, with plans to confine them to a heritage joyride

For 150 years, they have been part of every picture postcard, the living symbol of the romance of a city. They started trundling through the streets in 1873, criss-crossing at busy traffic signals, first populated by carriages, and now by sedans and electric vehicles. They framed the growth of a metropolis, from Calcutta to Kolkata, from corner shop addas to glass edifice malls, a constant reminder of what once was, but still very much a part of the city’s present. Slow and measured, dwindling and dilapidated, increasingly out of place, but a running, functioning part of the city’s public transport apparatus.

Representative Photo
Representative Photo

Until now.

In 2024, Kolkata’s iconic trams may find themselves phased out of public consciousness, relegated to a “heritage joyride” in one corner of the city. And, though activists are determined to stave off this change and approach the courts, the government’s mind appears to be made up.

In early 2023, the Kolkata traffic police prepared a report, sent to the state transport secretary in May, which said that though the tram is “cheap, environment friendly, and has heritage value, it is no longer a viable (transport) option for an overcrowded city like Kolkata”.

This report is now part of record in two separate public interest litigations in the Calcutta high court, filed in 2021 and 2022, and now being heard concurrently, that sought that the tram system be resuscitated.

In August 2023, the bench hearing the matter, headed by chief justice TS Sivagnanam, constituted a committee, headed by the chairman of the West Bengal Transport Corporation, to look at ways that trams could be modernised, with the next hearing scheduled on January 8.

But the West Bengal government seems to have made up its mind; trams in Kolkata have now run their course, and need to be confined to one “heritage route”; a relic of the past. “We have already told the court that the tram will operate only on one track as heritage. We are not withdrawing them,” said Snehasis Chakraborty, West Bengal transport minister.

The journey of the Kolkata tram

The first experimental tram rumbled on to then imperial Bengal’s streets on February 24, 1873 as a horse-drawn tram car on a 3.9km distance between Sealdah and the Armenian Ghat in north Calcutta.

It stuttered, and by the November that year, the service was withdrawn. “In November 1880, services were resumed with metre gauge trams pressed into service in the Sealdah-Bowbazar-Dalhousie-Armenian ghat route,” a state government official said.

When they restarted in 1880, the trams were run under the aegis of the British “Calcutta Tramways Company”, formally registered in London. Since then, the tram went from strength to strength for close to a century.

In December 1880, the Calcutta Tramways Company was formed and registered in London. Steam-engine trams were introduced in 1882; by 1900, they began to be powered by electricity. By 1943, the tram network grew so large that it enveloped both Kolkata and Howrah, with tracks spread over 68 kilometres. By 1960, the CTC had a fleet of 450 tram cars.

But from its peak in 1969, the service began to dwindle.

In October 1970, trams were first shut down at Bandhaghat in Howrah followed by Shibpur in December 1971. In Kolkata, the first route to be closed down was Nimtala Ghat in May 1973.

Different, faster methods of public transport became available. Bus services run by the state began as an organised sector in July 1948 with the creation of the Calcutta State Transport Services. The Calcutta Metro, the first in the country, began operations in October 1984. And with disposable income rising, the yellow taxi, another Kolkata fixture that ply to this day, competing with networks such as Ola and Uber, gained popularity.

“From around a total track length of 70.74km in 1969, when the Calcutta Tramways Company was at its peak, we now have trams running only three routes - Gariahat to Esplanade (8.4 km), Tollygunge to Ballygunge (5.6 km) and Esplanade to Shyambazar (5.4 km),” said an officer of the West Bengal Transport Corporation which now runs the trams.

Data obtained from the WBTC shows that in 2011, the year when the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress government came to power, there were 37 tram routes with a total track length of more than 60km. Cut to the present, and trams now only operate on three routes which have a total length of around 8km, with ridership pegged at around 3,000 per day.

Now, it may find itself relegated altogether.

What’s happening now

The report submitted to the state transport department in May 2023, accessed by HT, said that the continuation of the tram network presented myriad problems. “It is invariably observed that derailment from the tracks, power disconnection and the disruption of pulleys from electric lines are a common phenomenon that are hazardous and augment traffic congestion,” the report said.

The report also said that the trams, which run at a general speed of 20km per hour, slow down vehicular traffic, and are a prime contributor to noise and air pollution. “This has a detrimental impact and contaminates both health and environment since increase in traffic jams leads to higher honking and pollution levels,” the report said.

The average speed of vehicles in Kolkata is around 19.2km, based on a three-month-long survey conducted on 28 road stretches by Kolkata Traffic Police in January 2023. While there are no official police data on fatal accidents caused on tram tracks, an RTI filed by Debasish Bhattacharya of Calcutta Tram Users Association in 2022 revealed that there was only one fatal accident of a motorcyclist in the last 10 years on tram tracks.

A former state transport secretary, who did not want to be identified, agreed.

“Trams, in their present iteration, are not a viable option for multiple reasons. The first is clearly their speed, and they are infinitely slower forms of transport compared to metros, buses and taxis. The costs of tram tracks maintenance are therefore disproportionate. Then there is the issue of quality of service. They are now irregular and not punctual. It is not as if trams cannot be made viable, but that will require planning and investment,” he said.

Senior government officials confirmed to HT that the West Bengal government was now considering shutting down the three existing routes, and reviving one — 4.9km between Esplanade and Kidderpore — and reframing it as a “heritage tram route”.

“This came up in a meeting held in December which was chaired by the city’s mayor, and attended by the state transport minister, transport secretary and the police commissioner,” a government official said.

The report by the Kolkata traffic police also refers to this route, and one other for the sole purpose of tram maintenance, and says, “...the one (route) located at Kidderpore to Esplanade via Maidan may be preserved as a heritage track since its existence does not interfere with the normal traffic and jeopardise road safety. In addition, tram track from Esplanade to tram depot located at Nonapukur may be kept for tram maintenance and survey purpose.”

An official of WBTC however said that this attempt to shift trams to “heritage status” was not new, but a gradual process that began three to four years ago. “In 2020 the world’s first tram library was launched in Kolkata, and in December 2020, an art gallery was launched on a tram where artists can exhibit their paintings. We also decorated a tram with jute handicrafts made by inmates of two correctional homes. A children library on trams was also launched. In October 2023 we launched a puja pandal-themed tram,” said the IAS officer.

The criticism and the high court hearing

But critics point out that across the world, there are multiple cities that have revived trams. “At a time when trams are being revived in places such as Lisbon, Dublin and Berlin, tram lines in Kolkata are being shut down,” said Debasish Bhattacharya, president of the Calcutta Tram Users Association, a city-based non-governmental organisation which has been advocating the use of trams.

A team of experts from IIT Kharagpur, which has been studying tram routes in Kolkata, said that trams could still exist, if attention was paid.

“For any mode of transport, whether it is the Metro rail, buses, trams or app based cabs, to be successful, they need to have sound service characteristics — network, frequency, availability, infrastructure and spread of operation among others. But unfortunately, neither past governments nor the present government has given Kolkata’s trams any priority. As a result, they have had no upliftment. An efficient tram service could have been Kolkata’s answer to rising pollution and traffic snarls. Authorities in the city have been widening roads and removing tram tracks. But in fact, what would help with congestion and less pollution, is a movement towards mass public transport and an efficient tram system. Several European and Asian counties have revived trams. What worked there will not work here, but we should be able to develop our own model,” said Bhargab Maitra, a professor of civil engineering IIT Kharagpur, who is part of the team of experts.

In 2022 and 2023, the debate reached the doors of the Calcutta high court with two separate PILs filed before it, both looking to explore ways to keep the trams in existence. On August 8, 2023, hearing both petitions concurrently, a division bench led by chief justice TS Sivagnanam and justice Hiranmay Bhattacharya set up an 11 member committee headed by the chairman of WBTC and representatives of the Calcutta Tram Users Association.

Three months later, on December 11, the court said, “Several private individuals will be willing to participate in the exercise that may be undertaken by the state of West Bengal for restoration of the tram services provided a proper module is created as is being done in several government projects with PPP model. This aspect can also be considered by the committee and appropriate recommendation can be made. The first aspect the committee needs to be considered is to modernise the tram cars and make them appealing providing better seats, lighting facility etc. which will encourage not only regular office goers for using the tram services but it will serve as an entertainment as well.”

The court ended the hearing on December 11, with a note of hope, and said that perhaps the court mandated committee could bring a resolution, and scheduled the next date of hearing for January 8. “We adjourn the matter with the fond hope that in the next hearing date something more fruitful will come from the committee and the Government also shall give a thought to the suggestions made by this court with regard to the PPP model,” the court stated.

But senior West Bengal officials say that their mind is now made up.

“The Calcutta high court wanted to know our plans for the city trams and to come up with a policy. But they existed in at least 15 cities in India at one point and now they are only in Kolkata. Why did other cities do away with them? West Bengal is at the forefront of introducing environment friendly vehicles, and it has relatively fewer traffic snarls and accidents. We have to keep these things in mind going forward with the growing challenges and have already told court that the tram will operate on one track. We are withdrawing them,” said Snehasis Chakraborty.

All eyes are now on the court hearing on January 8. The future of Kolkata’s trams hangs in the balance.

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