Around Durga Puja, commuters passing through the Esplanade area of Kolkata were astonished to find a bright ‘Glam Tram’ waiting near the busy crossing. Trams are a common sight in Kolkata but this was the first time that a tram was being used by a lifestyle brand as a mobile fashion store. And before people got over this surprise, there was another tram, operated by a private entrepreneur, travelling daily between Esplanade and Khidderpore as a restaurant on wheels. According to die-hard supporters of trams in Kolkata, these are promising signs that are likely to save India’s only surviving tramways from becoming extinct.
One of the must-do on the list of nearly all visitors to Kolkata is a ride on the tram car. Powered by electricity, it moves like a giant caterpillar on wheels, trundling on its rails, oblivious of the crowd of people and vehicles surrounding it. Take a window seat and enjoy street life unfolding like one long tapestry as the trams cut through some of the most interesting quarters of Kolkata.
To boost urban passenger transport, the British introduced the tram in several key cities of India, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras, in the late 19th century. But today it survives only in Kolkata, the city where the first horse-drawn tram was introduced in February 1873.
The first tram plied on the route between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street. However, the service was discontinued in November of the same year. In 1880, services were resumed under the London incorporated Calcutta Tramway Company (CTC). In 1882, steam-engine driven trams were introduced. But the popularity increased with the introduction of the electric tramcars in Kolkata in 1902 and in Howrah in 1905. The trams had two coaches – a cheaper second class and a slightly higher priced first class. The difference was erased as late as 2013. With the passage of time, trams became one of the pillars of the city’s transportation system. Passengers would swear by its timeliness. The slow-moving vehicle was the preferred transport for women and the elderly.
The Smaranika Tram Museum, tucked away in a corner of the Esplanade tram depot, offers an interesting insight into the history of trams in India. Housed in a 1938 built tram which belonged to the Bombay fleet, its two coaches have been refurbished into a museum gallery and a café each. The museum contains models of trams down the ages. Equipment, caps, badges and other similar paraphernalia, tickets and coupons, even old coins and pens are on display here. Lots of photographs from the yesteryears. The Tram Museum is open on all days except Thursday between 1pm and 8pm (the official opening time is 3pm but it opens early on popular request). There is a nominal entry charge of ₹ 10 per head which entitles you to a 45-minute stay inside the tram. It takes around 10-15 minutes to see the gallery. The café sells tea, coffee, soft drinks and basic packaged snacks, and is a favourite with young couples.
For an experiential travel, a journey by a regular tram may be a tad uncomfortable. In that case, you may take a trip on the air-conditioned tourist tram that operates three days a week. On Wednesdays, the tram leaves the Esplanade depot at 3pm; on Saturdays and Sundays, the tram leaves at 9am, 3pm and 5pm. Tickets are priced at Rs 150 per head; light snacks available on separate charges. They take rides into north and south Kolkata.
The trams have been witness to a lot of events in Kolkata, pre and post-independence. For example, owing to the on-going Second World War, the British did not dare a formal opening of the Howrah Bridge in 1943, fearing an attack on it. It was a solitary tram that trundled in the darkness of night across what was then the world’s third longest cantilever bridge in the world on February 3, 1943. In 1953, it was the one-paisa hike in tram fare that gave the Leftist parties of Kolkata a strong base to launch their agitation and gain a foothold in Bengal politics.
In 1967, the state government took over the company’s management. In 1978, it became a government company through enactment. Since then, CTC has gone through a lot of changes. New routes commissioned and old routes scrapped. The increased pressure of vehicular traffic has spelt a doom for tram routes. Many want the system scrapped to widen carriageways. Construction of new roads, overpasses and the city’s Metro Railway saw the uprooting or closing down of many routes. The latest phase of Metro Railway construction has led to the disruption of tram movement in the city’s famous Esplanade area, a key terminus of many tram routes. Although it has been said that the tram route will be restored once the construction is complete, only time will tell if the trams will be plying through Esplanade once again. However, according to many tram fans in the city, the days of this distinct transport system are numbered. Maybe it will not happen any time soon, especially with the news that new one coach trams are being introduced in the city. However, the need for a speedy traffic system in the city remains a threat over this rare non-polluting transport system.
There have been efforts by various private organisations to use the trams for special events or use the tram depots as unconventional venues for cultural programmes to spread awareness about trams as a part of the city’s legacy. Apart from the Glam Tram and the restaurant tram (Victoria on Wheels), there are social welfare groups who arrange for event-based tram journeys for children, senior citizens, etc. A restaurant held its first anniversary in the air-conditioned tourist tram. A couple of years ago, a group of young artists organised a cultural programme called Tram Tales at the Gariahat Tram Depot. They painted several coaches and organised musical programmes, photo booths, film shows, etc. in them. Trams have also featured in innumerable Bengali and Kolkata-based Bollywood movies (think Kahaani to Byomkesh Bakshi).
Trams of Kolkata are said to be the oldest operating electric tram system in Asia, running since 1902. So it would be sad indeed if this legacy is relegated to the history books.