Tracking the journey of trams that were once a popular mode of transport in the city

On the morning of April 12, 1953, hordes of commuters waited in vain for the tramcars. Long simmering problems had reached a boil and around midnight on April 11, the Madras Electric Tramway Company closed shop, citing recurring losses and labour trouble. The abrupt closure created a crisis that kept officials of the transport department on their toes. The tram service daily attracted 1,10,000 to 1,25,000 passengers and finding a quick replacement for the discontinued service was quite a task.

To meet the exigency, the transport department pressed a fleet of around 50 additional buses into service. Shuttle services were also being operated. In this connection, the department did a bit of jugglery. Whittling down the service on a few routes in the outskirts, buses were diverted and operated along the tram routes. ‘Red Lady' type buses were also being readied at Chromepet. The then Minister for Transport, U. Krishna Rao said if he had had prior information that the Tramway Company was clearing out, he would have diverted a substantial number of lorries and other vehicles of the Civil Supplies Department — and also requested the Army to give its lorries — to transport commuters. With benches for passengers, these lorries could have served as make-shift buses.

Two successive public holidays that quickly followed the closure gave the establishment some breathing time. On April 15, Krishna Rao spoke about the effectiveness of the damage control measures: “We carried 95,000 more passengers in addition to our normal load yesterday and today… The normal tram traffic used to be about 1,10,000.”

The majority of tram travellers were poor people — including hawkers and fruit and vegetable vendors of Kotwal Bazaar and other markets — who preferred this mode of transport to its comparatively low fares. Viewed in this light, the tram service was irreplaceable. The closure was also a blow to hundreds of tram workers. Trade unionist and various other groups wanted the service restored.

The Government — which rejected the idea of “taking over the service and running it” — however responded to suggestions on how to get the trams going again. Consulting with the ministers concerned and others connected with the issue, then Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari did his best. But it was soon clear that Madras had seen the last of the trams. Concentrating on how to absorb the hundreds of jobless tramway employees into the transport and other Government sectors appeared to be the best thing to do.

However, the hope of a revival did not die down easily. In 1954, the City Trade Union Council urged then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj to ensure the Government takes over and revives the service. Proposals to restart the service were offered. Corporation Commissioner V.N. Subbaroyan proposed that the Corporation could run the tramways with Government subsidy. The salient feature of his proposal were: a working capital of Rs. 25 lakh obtained from the Government “half as loan and half as grant”, an agreement that loss in the first and subsequent years would be shared equally by the Government and the Corporation; and the Government supply electricity at the same rate at which the Madras Electric Tramway Company purchased it. The proposal did not take wing.

It was not long before the Corporation authorities were weighing the options of either burying the tram rails with tar-macadam or pull out the rails and re-lay the roads. The Government settled the issue: it directed the Madras Corporation to pull out the rails.

However, the rails remained on the roads for a few more years as the vestige of a great transport service that was unrivalled in utility and beauty.

They remember

Koothabiran, radio legend

The closure of the tramways came as a jolt to the public — they were caught unawares. People in menial jobs who relied on this service returned home in perplexity. Dabbawallahs — who carried baskets of lunches packed in metal boxes — patronised the service. Most of them travelled from Luz Church Road in Mylapore to Mount Road and gave these boxes to employees of Simpson's, TVS, P.Orr & Sons and other big establishments on Mount Road. During certain hours — usually from 10.30 a.m. to 11 a.m. — the trams would be crowded with these baskets.

The drivers and conductors were polite and would wait patiently as dabbawallahs carried their huge baskets off the trams. The drivers would always steer the trams, standing. It was probably because the tram was moving at an amble, and people were constantly crossing its path. A bell was used by the driver to warn off the pedestrians.

Families that were out shopping enjoyed travelling by trams because its slow pace added to the sense of leisure. The children enjoyed these rides more than their parents because trams enabled them to gaze longer at the moving images of Madras. As a boy, I experienced this and the withdrawal of the service was a loss to me.

Vikku Vinayakram, ghatam maestro

Slower yes, but trams would have beaten buses in popularity vote. It provided a more fulfilling sight-seeing experience. As a small boy living in Triplicane, I had quick access to the trams. Before I began to play the ghatam at concerts, I was taking private tuitions for a few people. To reach their houses, I travelled by trams. As a ten- or eleven-year-old boy, I found the travel quite exhilarating. I liked the fact that the fares were easy on the purse. I remember travelling by trams only for a year. Its discontinuance was a huge disappointment to me.

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