150 years of Calcutta Tramways: This icon is the future solution for the city which wants to write its requiem

All opposition against trams and public transport will fall flat if car users pay the true cost of owning and using a vehicle  

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Friday 30 December 2022
A vintage photograph of a street in Calcutta in the 1930s or 1940s showing a tram Photo: iStock
A vintage photograph of a street in Calcutta in the 1930s or 1940s showing a tram Photo: iStock A vintage photograph of a street in Calcutta in the 1930s or 1940s showing a tram Photo: iStock

I never thought I would be writing a requiem as an year-ender for an old vestige that has stood the test of time to provide zero emissions mobility. This is about the Calcutta Tramways — the first zero emissions mass transport of India. Not many know that the year 2023 is the 150th anniversary of this iconic legacy. As this deserves celebration, it also raises qualms about its survival. 

The network had initially started as horse-drawn and steam-powered tramcars in 1873, got instituted as Calcutta Tramways Company in 1900 and then transitioned to an electrified network between 1902 and 1905. Its service area continued to expand. Even local manufacturing of tram cars had started after independence.

What defies logic is the systematic dismantling of the system over the last few decades despite the mature infrastructure of tram lines, depots, electric lines and grid. All that it needed was a revamp from time to time to increase carrying capacity of the system so that the explosive travel demand in the city could be met.

That did not happen. The best it could get was in 1980s when with support from the World Bank, its capacity was expanded to 30 routes and 300 trams before the slide.

Since then, this network has shrunk drastically to two routes and 10 trams. Tragic! It’s now nearly gone from the original catchment of compactly built north and central Kolkata. The trams are now confined to the (aproximately) 8.45-kilometre route from Gariahat to B.B.D. Bag and the 5.6 km route from Ballyguange JN to Tollyguange.

Evidence of this decimation is stark. In 2011, about 180-185 trams had a daily ridership of about 70,000-75,000. In 2017-18, more routes were dismantled due to the construction of the east-west metro rail corridor and daily ridership dropped to 14,000-15,0000.

In 2020, super cyclone Amphan knocked off electric poles on several stretches but no investment followed to revive those routes. Median platform and crossing facilities for boarding and alighting of passengers have been ripped off, increasing safety risks. 

Missing the woods...

This apathy is the result of misplaced notion and myths about trams. It is therefore encouraging that there are champions like the Tram Users Association who are fighting for its protection and revival. But it is not an easy battle as so many myths need to be busted. 

One is that trams cause congestion, not cars. The most common refrain in the city is — “where is the space for trams when vehicle numbers are growing”?

Out of curiosity we checked out the congestion level based on Google speed data on the existing tram lines, other main arteries and also the routes where trams have been removed.

We could barely find any difference. All are equally or more congested. There is no evidence to prove that congestion has reduced after removing trams. Such myths get perpetrated because explosive car numbers are taken as inevitable and irreversible. 

Can Kolkata allow motorisation to remain irreversible? As opposed to the trend in other cities of West Bengal, the share of cars in annual registration is the highest in Kolkata. If two-wheelers are added then personal vehicles dominate the fleet.

Yet, this city with an area of about 200.6 sq km can impose serious physical restraint on how many vehicles can be added a year. Already, the total vehicle registration according to the VAHAN database has stabilised at an average of 86.6 thousand vehicles a year since 2013-12. If Kolkata ever aspires to match Delhi’s tally of 0.608 million vehicles a year, the city will be decimated. 

Where is the land for more vehicles? Kolkata’s road network is six per cent of the land-constrained city’s area. Parking demand from the existing vehicle stock is equivalent to yet another wight per cent.

Annual addition of cars and two-wheelers is creating more demand for land to park that is equivalent to more than 200 football fields a year. Free or minimal parking fees and lack of restraints is diverting land from other essential services. 

Lost opportunity?

Yet Kolkata could have done this differently. Despite rapid motorisation, as much as 86 per cent of daily work trips in the city are by public transport, walking and cycling (according to the Census 2011).

This is an opportunity. Given its population size and per capita travel trip generation, Kolkata generates a humongous number of daily commuting trips of more than 10 million as per its population. To this is added the trips of floating population.

Imagine what will happen if these trips need personal vehicles daily. It is not even physically possible. Improve people-carrying capacity of the roads through public transport systems by protecting their right of way. That will also improve the speed differential.  

The inherent advantage of this compactly built city with high street density is short travel distances. As much as 58 per cent of trips are within 5 km distance and 91 per cent trips are within 9-10 km distance.

All this city needs is diverse and integrated mass transport with good feeder system and last mile connectivity to be most sustainable. 

It’s a myth that metro routes do not require trams. When travel demand on each corridor is explosive and even with a metro congestion builds up, this requires multiple public transport systems to cater to different income groups. Trams are a more cost-effective mass transport option. Other countries have combined different systems to run parallelly. 

A tram passes through a Kolkata neighbourhood. Photo: iStock

Trams can connect neighbourhoods, services and metro more efficiently. Trams are more flexible and can penetrate deeper into the city area to meet travel requirements. We found that schools in most parts are snugly located along the tram routes and with targeted deployment can ferry students and also connect other services. 

Trams need not be in conflict with real estate interest. One of the biggest concern in the city is the real estate industry eyeing the prime land of the tram depots for real estate development; tram depot land is being sold. 

Yet globally, cities are integrating public transport with buildings to be transit-oriented. In other Indian cities, the transit companies are allowed to do land value capture to earn revenue and keep the systems solvent.

Hong Kong, South Korea and Chinese cities have integrated buildings with public transport systems. In Chongqing in southeast of China, a subway passes through a 19-storey building every two minutes — there is a train stop between the sixth and eighth floor!

Back home, bus transport corporations like the one in Bengaluru has used its depot land for both terminal facilities as well as commercial activities without compromising bus service.

Revenue from these commercial uses eases the financial burden on the agency by significantly offsetting a part of its operational costs. Even Metro Rail Policy 2017 allows income generation through non-conventional resources like property development for office space, commercial space, etc. 

Why is Kolkata then failing to find more imaginative solutions without compromising the tram system?  

The Comprehensive Air Quality Action Plan for Kolkata-2018 has underscored public transport strategies and has stated that the tramways need “modernisation, further strengthening, and network development to build on the unique advantage”.

Yet compliance and progress reporting on this is not being monitored under the National Clean Air Programme. A seed fund set aside from close to Rs 500 crore funding available for clean air action in Kolkata could have aided in the trams’ revival. 

If the city neglects supportive road design and infrastructure for trams, other public transport systems will also suffer. 

Kolkata is taking the lead in zero emissions bus transport. It is already running 80 electric buses with 1,000 more in the pipeline with more planned in the future. Metro lines have also expanded. But its inherent strength — the electric tram — is not part of the zero emissions mobility agenda. 

Yet none of the public transport systems can work optimally, as nearly all the arterial roads have been converted to long stretches of one way traffic, signal free corridors and barricaded medians to not let people cross where they need to.

Such engineering changes can reduce overall public transport usage and congestion can crowd out all public transport including buses. Already, route curtailment of buses due to one-way streets and difficult turn-arounds are being reported. 

If roads are designed for privileged movement of vehicles and not to facilitate the 86 per cent of Kolkatans who walk and use public transport, this will permanently decide our travel choices in favour of cars — if we can afford it. And those who cannot afford will be exposed to serious risks. 

End note

All opposition against trams and more space for integrated public transport can fall flat if the personal vehicle users are made to pay the true cost of owning and using a vehicle — as it has happened globally.

London, with which Kolkata is often compared, could make the big shift because car users cannot enter central London without paying for congestion, emissions and hefty parking fees. The penalty is on cars and not on the cyclists as in Kolkata. 

The time has come to call off the bluff of the personal vehicle users, withdraw their hidden subsidies, recover the true cost, and shift the focus from ‘traffic’ management to ‘road users’ management.

This learning curve is not only for Kolkata but all Indian cities not willing to share more road space with people’s transport. Even this change is inevitable with the clean air and climate goals getting tougher and binding. 

Read more:

Inputs from Shubham Srivastava, Sayani Sen and Ashish Suman

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