September 22, 2011
I subscribe to the good old maxim of ‘seeing is believing’ though the value of this maxim in today’s fast paced life has diminished to a great extent for reasons well known to all of us. The City of Joy Kolkata is synonymous with Rabindranath Tagore, Eden Garden, Mother Teresa, the elegant and beautiful cotton sarees, the rikshaw pullers, the extravagant yearly Durga Puja and also for the iconic tram services. I wanted to have a feel of the cultural vibrancy of this city and always harboured a secret desire to have the luxury of a tram ride which has become a part and parcel of the history and culture of the city. My urgency was influenced from what I heard and read that the tram services would go into oblivion in the next few years. During my recent stay of 9 days in Kolkata I had the opportunity to give vent to my long awaited tram ride in Kolkata and much more.
Kolkata represents a city of vivacity, a city of dreams where India’s true art and culture is alive, pulsating with numerous takers savoring everything offered in art and culture. It would not be out of place to say this cultural vitality is in the air for everyone to feel. The city holds an effervescent charm to the visitors with its baggage of history, culture, art, architecture – all preserved and showcased in a resplendent splendor.
Kolkotta has many firsts and many unique aspects about it. It is the only city in India which boasts of a tram network which gives the city the feel of that old world charm. Despite seeing the trams in pictures and on television it was really an amazing experience to see the trams jostling for their own place in the much cluttered roads of the busy city of Kolkata and to take a tram ride to get a picturesque view of the cultural capital of India with its colonial architectural wonders.
Not long ago in the late 19th and the beginning of 20th century tram was the chief and cheap mode of transport for the people of this city. Tram was the lifeline of the city that catered to pious housewives, to school going children, office goers, to the visitors and also to the babus working for the British government trying to reach the hub of the city at Dalhousie square. With the passage of time and with the onset of autorikshaws, buses and the metro train services, trams slowly began to lose their importance to be relegated to the list of also ran... on the busy streets of Kolkata. Many wrote premature obituaries of the tram services saying they will be removed from the streets in a phased manner and would vanish any time. The opposition stemmed from the fact that it slowed down traffic in the busy streets of Kolkata and there were hardly any takers for the slow moving trams, which of course is not true. Trams are still popular among the people who want a safe and cheap system of transport without much inconvenience. Now there are 37 routes trams in Kolkotta and the maximum route of this distance is 14.75 kms between Joka and Explanade.
Going by the records the first tram rolled out on the tracks of Kolkata in 1880’s. It was in 1873 the first tram rolled out on the tracks in the city. After a premature experiment for a few years which came to a naught, a horse drawn tram system was opened in 1881. In 1882 steam tramway lines were opened and in 1902 electric trams began to ply on the tracks of Kolkata. Though tram continued to be the lifeline of the city till the 1950’s its importance plummeted after the metro rail in Kolkotta and with that anti-tram voices began to be heard. With the passage of time the old wooden coaches were replaced with steel coaches and facilities were also improved. Struggling with its reduced prominence, the anti-tram lobby, government’s apathy resulting in lack of any new infrastructure Kolkata’s tram has now found a place in the history as Asia’s older operating tram. Currently there are about 36 tram routes in Kolkata out of which a few are closed under the pretext of maintenance or repair. At present about 68 kms of double trak of standard gauge operate in the city and on an average about 170 trams run on the road.
A tram almost resembles like a bus from far except that it has two coaches. Since it runs in the streets along with other vehicles one cannot distinguish it from other modes of road transport. Tram tracks are laid to the same level as that of the road surface and an ordinary person cannot really make out there are tram tracks which run in the middle of the roads. Unlike railway tracks which need a separate station these trams run on the narrow strips of iron with their wheels moving within them.
In fact it is the ability of the trams to run on the ordinary streets that make them easy to commuters. One can catch a tram in any of the stops just like a bus and to my utter dismay I found that the transport is quite cheap ranging from Rs 1.50 being the lowest. Another advantage of the tram is that it is non -polluting unlike other forms of road transport and one need not bother to go to the station and book the ticket in advance.
The Calcutta Tramways Company Limited is a West Bengal India government run company which runs tram services in Kolkata. The inside of the tram coaches is almost like a bus. There is a conductor who collects the fare and issues a ticket and pulls the rope to signal the stop. There are huge fans which offer some respite to the passengers from the sweat and heat. Ladies usually occupy the backside of the coach of the tram. Some A/C trams are also pressed into service to make tram journey comfortable The anti-tram group claims that most of the trams run empty is unfounded and I found that the trams were running packed with people during the morning and evening peak hours used by ordinary people who find it the cheapest mode of transport.
Despite the iconic status trams have come to occupy and the anti-tram groups trying their best to send them packing trams have survived trying to jostle for space in the streets of Kolkata. Any effort to send the trams into the oblivion would be to destroy a part of the rich and unique heritage of Kolkata. When major European and South Asian countries are trying to revive the trams which they had discarded, it is a pity if Kolkata tries to do away with trams.
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