Tram to oblivion

Kolkata witnesses the last days of a non-polluting and once-efficient mode of transport, while trams make a comeback in cities around the world. Sayantan Bera reports

By Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Tram to oblivion

imageIt was quarter to nine on a cold December evening at the Kalighat tram depot in south Kolkata. A row of tramcars stood like ghosts under an iron shed. At the corner of one coach an elderly man clad in khakis read the newspaper in the dim light of a 40 Watt bulb. A few people asked him about the next tram to Tollygunge and left in an instant when told they would have to wait for 30 minutes. Except for a frail 70-year-old who pottered around as buses, autorickshaws and cars breezed past, and a little boy who resisted attempts of his parents to drag him away.

Five years ago, 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.

image“Why would people want to risk their life to catch a tram?” asked Manik Ghosh. An employee of the state-run Calcutta Tramways Company for more than 30 years, Ghosh said trams between Kalighat and Tollygunge now barely have 10 to 15 people even during peak hours—when a single car can accommodate over 150.

Despite repeated requests from tram workers the lines were not realigned to sides of roads which would have allowed more passengers to board. The result: within four years of de-reservation of grass patches earnings from sale of tram tickets dipped by 42 per cent, according to the West Bengal Statistical Handbook, 2008.

Temporary to permanent

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 by1943 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.

  Infrastructure cost of expanding tramways is 20 times less than that for metro, which has been gobbling tram tracks since the 1980s  
“Temporary’ is a euphemism for shutting down for good,” said Debashish Bhattacharya. A scientist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Bhattacharya loved discovering Kolkata on its tram network during his student days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But the scientist’s love for trams is not just nostalgia. 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 boasts of an enviable track record on passenger safety” he said, adding that major European and south East Asian cities have revived their tram networks in the form of Light Rail Transit (see box: Let there be light).

A photograph from 1997 when trams were lifelines of Kolkata’s transport

Bhattacharya has taken cudgels over the “temporary” shut down of the tramline near the 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 that fell on deaf years, no one in the management had any answers to my query,” the scientist said.

Derailed by metro

Till the early 1990s, trams used to cater to a variety of passengers. The first car at 4.40 am was a fixture for those catching an early morning train at the Howrah station. A little later, the pious would crowd trams for a bath in the holy Ganges. Then came schoolchildren escorted by doting mothers. Later in the day lawyers and babus would rough it out on crowded trams to reach the office-hub at Dalhousie square. Trams were the lifeline before autorickshaws, buses and metro became the priority.

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. In the 1990s, tramways corporation introduced bus services and many saw it as a precursor to an end of tramways. “Trams would die a natural death,” the then transport minister Shyamal Chakravarti announced at a public rally in 1992.

To reduce public dependence on trams, 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 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.

Esplanade Tram Terminus is reputed to be the busiest in Kolkata

“Timetables are not maintained, conductors and drivers are not recruited for trams anymore. There is not even a toilet for the employees at the Esplanade terminus,” lamented Ghosh who is now posted at the terminus. Actually the Esplanade terminus is a vast open toilet with commuters relieving themselves at different corners.

Situated at the heart of the city, the terminus still has a busy look about it. One can see long winding queues, but for buses run by the tram company. A “watering car” which once roamed the entire network at nights cleaning tracks with water now rusts at a corner of the terminus, one of its compartments now a gossip room for idlers.

In 1992, the tramway corporation introduced a bus service, ostensibly to increase revenues, but ended up with additional operating losses of Rs 10 crore every year. The corporation’s initial fleet of 40 has gone up to nearly 400, while the number of trams decreased from 476 in early 1980s to 211. Of these, only 90-odd cars run regularly. Debasis De, a trade union leader with the tramways, said, “before the government takeover the tramway company used to be self sufficient, but now its yearly subsidy amounts to Rs 150 crore.”

Cosmetic change

Most of the 90-odd trams run on the 1940s technology. Swarup Kumar Pal, the tramway company’s Chief Operating Manager confirmed 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 said. But the new look—at a cost of Rs 14 lakh per tram—has not found much favour from commuters.

imageThe coaches now draw in a lot of heat and commuters find the ride uncomfortable, especially during Kolkata’s sweltering summer. When told, a senior official of the tramways company joked, “But the passengers do get to see the stars at night.” The last capital infusion for the tramways came from the World Banksponsored 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.

As funding dried up, so did the 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. Not just heritage and romance Sitangshu Sekhar Ghosh, the works manager at Nonapukur Workshop where trams—some almost 70 years old—are brought for repair, rues the government’s neglect. Straining his voice above the clink-clank of metal, he said, “It is wrong to say trams are slow.

imageIn the few dedicated grass patches even a 50-year-old tram runs at a speed of 40 km per hour while the average speed of vehicular traffic in Kolkata is 12 km per hour.”

The works manager does not mince words when talking of the metro: “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 need not be worried: luxurytrams are well preserved to take wintertourists on a seven-hour joy ride around the city. The working-class people, though, jostle for space in buses.

>> Photo Gallery: The Last Car



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  • I wonder if Sayantan ever

    I wonder if Sayantan ever drove on Kolkata roads while trams queue up, stalled, blocking half of the road and the rest is taken care of by clueless drivers! Trams need to go, and for good.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I suppose there are two parts

    I suppose there are two parts to this article, viz., drawing attention to a heritage that has remained a part and parcel of the city's evolution and the practical concern about public transport.

    On the first part, I agree with the author that it is the responsibility of citizens to preserve a heritage. But the the fulfillment of responsibilities are often circumstantial which brings us to the second part: the issue of public transport.

    I agree with Sayantan, that in several cities across the world trams are being revived and they have a "dedicated lane" for operation.Those efforts are truly commendable. But if we look into closely to the case of Kolkata, I fear that there are several factors that makes this task almost impossible and in some ways improbable.

    In megacities like Kolkata(especially with a very limited space and a huge population concentration over 13 million)there is no other way than to go for metro systems or over-head light rails. If you look into all megacities (cities over population of 10 million), that have a good "public transportation system", you'll find a good metro network. And coupled with that a mix of other arterial public transports.

    Besides population what I think remains another major challenge is our vision about transportation policy. The direction in which Kolkata is headed, gives very little deference to issues that are "public" and involves consideration for the environment. We are more about "private luxury and satisfaction" than about "public good". Our policy makers and the many citizens are more interested in roads and highway (or flyovers) expansion to accommodate the ever increasing number of cars, as opposed to providing incentives for public transport development and reduce car driving through proper policies (such as designating car free zones, high parking fees etc.). The local Govt. has JNNURM Grants which if intended can be more efficiently and transparently used for such purposes.

    I truly think that efficient public transportation is the key to make today's cities sustainable...but unfortunately in the process some heritage might need to be sacrificed depending of other social conditions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply


    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Nooooooo! Don't take them


    Don't take them away. Please.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I like both the text and the

    I like both the text and the pictures. The images especially make me remember my evening tram ride way back in 2007. It will be sad if they disappear.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Sayantan, I very much enjoyed


    I very much enjoyed this thoughtful piece on the factors which have contributed to the system's demise. I have referred to your work in a post on my own blog about tramways:

    I am a journalist myself, albeit beset by a lifelong interest in urban transport -- and especially trams. In both contexts, I especially enjoyed your vivid photography.

    Well done. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    Roger DuPuis

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Let me defend myself! To

    Let me defend myself! To begin with, I also acknowledge that depending on private transport cannot be the future. A city must develop a mass transport system. The point is, however, that tram, in Kolkata, cannot become the preferred mode of mass transport. Let me explain, why.
    Kolkata is one of the most densely populated metropolitan cities in the world (refer to this: How many of these most densely populated cities (MDPCs) have tramways in operation? None, but Kolkata. Shenzhen and Taipei have LRT, but thatÔÇÖs a different story. Why no MDPC has tram in operation? This is not coincidental. Tram, as a mode of public transport in MDPCs, is a matter of past. MDPCs in general, and Kolkata in particular, need a transport that does not occupy the existing road space. Giving tram its right-of-way is refusing others the same right. ThatÔÇÖs a problem, not the solution.
    Should private vehicles in Kolkata be refused its right-of-way? From the strict environmentalist point of view, it should be. There should be high financial barriers such as high annual license fee, road tax and prohibitively high parking fee that will work as a deterrent to owning a car. Is that practical, or likely to happen? No, for more than one reason. This decision is politically risky. A state like Singapore or China can afford to take that risk, but Indian politicians have strong reasons for not taking the risk. In a globalized democratic economy where disposable income and aspiration of the middle class are growing at a breakneck speed, ownership of private vehicles is bound to rise. That is how it is. And, can you actually deny the pressure of the automobile lobby in the design of the capitalist system in India? So, denying private vehicles their right-of-way is not likely to happen in India, or in Kolkata. LetÔÇÖs get this perspective right.
    So, this leaves little room for any mass transport that will exclusively occupy the scarce road-length of Kolkata. Hence, tram is ruled out. Can LRT be an alternative? Theoretically, it can be. For that, it will require an elevated, or underground, exclusive path. ThatÔÇÖs what Kolkata Metro requires. IÔÇÖm not pretty sure whether the cost of building the elevated pathway for LRT would be significantly lower than the cost of extending the Metro network. For reference, the cost of building the LRT network in Seattle was $179 million per mile.
    It should be noted that the argument in favor of LRT in Kolkata, or in any city in the third world for that matter, has a severe flaw. The argument is essentially influenced by the Western arithmetic, where the rate of private vehicle ownership is much higher than the third world. While comparing the carrying capacity of LRT vis-à-vis the traditional mode, it should be remembered that the traditional mode here is not private vehicle, but traditional mass transports like buses. This would make the comparison less tilted towards LRT.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • A well researched article on

    A well researched article on trams in Kolkata. How sad that the govt has no clue in solving multifarious problems of a huge metro like kolkata keeping in mind the existing infrastructure and the pollution free alternative already available! Truly a sad state of affairs.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Amitava, in a city where road

    Amitava, in a city where road space is limited to 4-6 percent of total area there is no alternative to an efficient public transport system. Trams carry more passenger per unit of road space than either bus, auto or cabs. And the cost of building and running a tramways network is much cheaper when compared to heavy metro rail systems.

    Thats why more than 200 cities have revived their tramways in the form of light rail network, while kolkata naively ignored its tramways and never invested a penny in upgrading the technology or to extend the network. Be rest assured that when you drive your own vehicle, and so do others, we will end up with a bottleneck much worse.

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Srestha, my basic contention

    Srestha, my basic contention is that trams systems do not occupy as much road space as we seem to presume. If you happen to board a tram in the dalhousie square terminus you will be amazed to see how it navigates a 15 feet lane with ease. A tram carries 150 passengers in a go. Which other vehicle would do so in such little space? The fact is that Kolkata always thought of trams as a heritage element and not as a practical means of mass public transport. Metro can definitely help, but we have to keep in mind the enormous infrastructure costs. Does it make sense to uproot the existing 60 kms trams network to build 14 kilometers of metro at a cost of Rs 4000 crores?

    I completely agree with your views on the public transport outlook of kolkata. Some hard decisions need to be taken (parking fees, taxes etc), but our policy makers are always bowing down before the automobile industry.

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks Roger, for featuring

    Thanks Roger, for featuring the piece on your light rail transit blog. In India, our public transport policy is skewed, favoring the automobile industry. We need a strong anti-car policy, for instance, like Singapore, where high taxes, parking fees etc discourage car ownership. Very few cities in India have dedicated corridors for public transport and the increasing number of private cars more often than not bring cities to a grinding halt. Kolkata happens to be the only city where still the century old trams network work but might not eventually survive decades of palpable neglect.

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Amitava, the moot point is

    Amitava, the moot point is what sense does it make for Kolkata to do away with an existing trams network covering more than 60 kilometers in length? Give me an example of any mode of transport- public or private- which carries more passengers per unit of road space than trams. Its illogical to compare kolkta’s existing network to the 179 million dollar per mile Seattle LRT. I am not talking about building a new LRT network: it take only a miniscule investment to realign tramlines to the sides of the road so that commuters are at least able to board trams.

    And why do transport policies in Indian cities have to play stooge to the automobile lobby and private vehicle owners? Really, you do not need a dictatorship to start dedicated corridors for public transport. We are not talking about ‘what is likely to happen’ given the ‘political risks’ associated. It’s about a normative public transport policy, and not merely understanding the existing state of affairs. By the way, what makes you think a burgeoning city- less than 2 percent of which own private vehicles, I suppose- will object to a ‘right of way’ public transport? After all, the masses are going to benefit from such a system.

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I think the article raises a

    I think the article raises a very important question of the following kind ÔÇô the features desirable in any specific mode of public transport. This is discussed in the context of trams vis-├á-vis other modes of public transport. It seems from the article that capital infusion in trams for modernizing technology and keeping it as a viable alternative mode of transport was deliberately withheld. This was precisely due to the step-motherly attitude of the government, for unknown reasons, which led to a systematic negligence based on a peculiar assumption that trams are inefficient. Comparing trams today with other modes of transport is of course a non-starter; since trams were facing a vicious cycle of indifference which other modes of transport were not experiencing hitherto. The moot point is since trams primarily use alternative energy source and are environment friendly with carrying capacity higher than for example buses ÔÇô careful evaluation is required, on efficiency grounds, than currently undertaken before arriving at conclusions. This is especially true in the context of a city which already carries the basic infrastructure for this mode of transport.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Mr.Sayantan Bera 's article

    Mr.Sayantan Bera 's article is extremely timely and appropriate.It is ridiculous to argue in favour of private transport owned by a minority asking for a lion's share of road space.Trams can definitely coexist with other forms public transport.It is also much cheaper than private transport and it is the tragedy of this country that the politicians and bureaucrats lack the wisdom to understand this.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I have never been to Kolkata

    I have never been to Kolkata but I have used trams in Europe and Australia and I love them. I cannot believe the Govt is spending billions when all they need to do is improve what is already there. A tram network is much faster for short and medium commutes because a metro network always involves going underground or taking the stairs to board a train where as in a tram you are simply embarking and disembarking on the road itself. It is much safer than buses because the tram driver cannot change lanes like the road belongs to his grandfather.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • The article by Sayatan Bera

    The article by Sayatan Bera is very thought provoking. I had been using these trams during my
    employment in Kolkata in fifties. They were the pride of the city and the nation at large. However, the politics played havoc with this service, like any other industry. There is still time, when it can be brought back to its old glory and with further improvement. The following are the steps:-

    1. Develop a feasibility report highlighting the routes based upon requirement. The Metro is not only high cost, but also can not fulfill the requirement of a developing city.

    2. Establish elevated tracks wherever required after due survey.

    3. The trams are based upon old DC traction system. These can now be economically converted to cost effective AC traction system. Such modification in the traction system can be undertaken by its workshop
    using maximum indigenous equipment. One coach of the tram can also be air conditioned and get better revenue and comforts. The energy requirement of the tram system is a fraction of that required by buses. Moreover they can run at a higher average speed. As a matter of fact, this can give rise to a new industry in Kolkata. The existing buses can also economically be converted to pollution free buses by
    its own workshop

    New and more in numbers of modern trams can be built, not only for Kolkata but also other towns as cost effective short gestation solution as part of LRT system.

    The solution is well known to the decision makers; but unfortunately there is no political will. I am sure that such a cost effective Tram/LRT system may easily be funded even partially by bankers. I

    New Delhi

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I just happened to go through

    I just happened to go through your article and it really touched, moved and inspired me. I have been always a supporter of Tram and many times took the ride when I was in Kolkata. Apart from heritage, I feel this is the most economic, environment friendly, safe, silent mass transport which is favored worldwide. Perhaps this is AsiaÔÇÖs only Tram that runs here, in our own city. Thanks for such a healthy column. I am with you.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • another 6 kms of trams track

    another 6 kms of trams track uprooted for extension of kolkata metro. our city planners are talking about more flyovers and the need to have more car parking spaces! when will common sense prevail?

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Mr. Bera, If you receive

    Dear Mr. Bera,

    If you receive this comment, please try to visit the webpage "". Which I had initiated today after having a trouble time in last three days due to Bus and country wide stick.

    I found you reports and photographs really can do lots more. I like the last photo of the series. The boards on the ground the way our last Government grounded. It may be the same for new government too, if they not explore this existing mode of transport in time.

    Kind Regards
    Satrajit Roy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply