Iconic Kolkata tram begins its trundle towards sunset

At a time when fuel prices are skyrocketing, it would make sense to restore tram services, one would wonder

Updated - April 12, 2022 03:30 pm IST

Published - April 04, 2022 10:26 am IST - Kolkata

A tram near the Esplanade depot.

A tram near the Esplanade depot. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Filmmaker Mahadeb Shi, who grew up in Serampore — not very far from Kolkata and connected to the city with the suburban train — still hasn’t forgotten the sight that would greet him at the Howrah station on winter mornings.

“The row of tramcars waiting at the Howrah station depot would be barely visible because of the fog. Inside the tramcars, however, the scenario would be quite different. The second-class coaches would already be packed with morning traders while the first-class compartments with the so-called babus,” reminisces Mr. Shi, an acclaimed documentary-maker who has also made several films on the iconic Kolkata tram, including Kather Baxo, or wooden box.

The historic tram route no. 5 that connects Esplanade and Shyambazar

The historic tram route no. 5 that connects Esplanade and Shyambazar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“I would often board a first-class coach of route no. 29 (Howrah-BBD Bag-Esplanade) or route no. 20 (Howrah-Park Circus) and occupy a window seat to admire the Howrah bridge or the old buildings on Strand Road through the wide-open windows. For this luxury, I would spend only 10 or 15 paisa from my tiffin money,” recalls the filmmaker who, during his student days, would come to Kolkata — then Calcutta — to learn spoken English.

That was the 1970s, the heyday of the Calcutta tram, when the city boasted of as many as 52 routes. At present, starting April 1, only two routes remain functional, with 50 being gobbled up by almost as many years. And since history shows that a route once shut has never been resumed, even when the closure was meant to be temporary, it can be said that the iconic Kolkata tram is now trundling towards sunset. As a mode of transport, it might soon be the end of the road for this easy-going vehicle that neither consumes fuel nor emits smoke.

After an experimental run in the early 1870s, the tram was formally introduced in Calcutta in 1880 with the setting up of the Calcutta Tramways Company. From crossing the half-century mark in the 1960s, the number of routes drastically dropped to a single digit by 2019: just six. Then came the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan, when the entire city was shut down. Once normal life resumed, three of those six routes were discontinued — including the scenic route no. 36 that connected Esplanade with Kidderpore via Maidan.

Watch | Will Kolkata Trams Die?

And earlier this week came the announcement that the historic route no. 5, connecting Esplanade and Shyambazar, was being suspended because of metro work on Nirmal Chunder Street. That leaves only two routes — Esplanade-Gariahat and Tollygunge-Ballygunge — functional at the moment. Officially, there is no assurance about the resumption of suspended routes or, for that matter, about the future of the tram. In fact, no one at the helm is willing to speak on record about the future of this non-polluting mode of transport.

“At a time when fuel prices are skyrocketing and when tramcars are rotting away in depots, doesn’t it make sense to restore tram services across the city? But not many want the tram to stay, it is more than clear, or else at least route no. 36 would have resumed by now,” said a source connected to senior people in the transport department.

Urban policy advisor Arghyadip Hatua, who, like Mahadeb Shi, is a member of the 2016-founded Calcutta Tram Users’ Association, said: “Trams make cities nicer places to be. They improve local air quality, they are very quiet and safe, they improve the image of a city and contribute to economic regeneration. A new tram is a visible, permanent way of showing that an area is being invested in for the future. It attracts business and tourists. But now, yet another tram route is being ‘suspended’ for a metro project. In which other country would you find an efficient existing mode of pollution-free mass transport being so systematically dismantled?”

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