Tram Renaissance in Kolkata

Roberto D’Andrea was a Melbourne tram conductor, Now he is the Director of The Connies, a performance troupe, which has travelled back and forth between India and Australia forging a cross-cultural commitment to trams— not just as a practical means of transport, but as a way of life. Roberto shares his views with  Abhijit Ganguly.

Kolkata and Melbourne have two rare surviving tramway systems outside Europe. Both cities have a love for trams and kept trams running against the trend of the 1960s to abandon them. In India, trams plied the streets of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kanpur and Chennai. In Australia, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth once had extensive tram systems. Around the world there has now been a tram renaissance to combat urban air pollution and traffic congestion. Cities in France, England, Canada, Brazil, Turkey, Tunisia, the United States and others have rebuilt, or are currently building tramways often called light rail. So Melbourne and Kolkata made the correct decision to retain trams many years ago.

This is my seventh visit to Kolkata since 1994 and all visits have had trams and the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) central to the script. With many and varied transport modes from human drawn rickshaws to a well run underground Metro, there’s room for trams in Kolkata’s transport mix. The CTC was nearly closed in the early 1990s. On my first visit to Belgachia Depot in 1994, I was told by local trammies that there was not much time left. I was glad this changed after local and international pressure and by the time I had returned to Calcutta in 1996 with a travelling tram show there was more hope that trams would have a future in this congested and air polluted metropolis.

There has been some good work done and cause for optimism. The Nonapukur Tram Workshops has skilled engineers and tradesman and have built in the last few years more than 25 modern looking fibreglass trams with high capacity seating. Catching Calcutta trams in the 1990s and early 2000s was a bumpy affair with tram tracks having many broken rail joints. Crunch crunch was the often heard and felt sound as the metal wheel navigated an uneven and windy monsoon worn track.

To my pleasant surprise when I was here for the 2012 Paribesh Bandhu Tramjatra, I found CTC trams on new tram track. They were still noisy but with smooth running and much less derailments and faster tram speed. With new tram track on much of the CTC network I have been happy to see a big increase in patronage in North Kolkata along College St and Bidhan Sarani from Esplanade to Shambazzar. Sadly the opposite is the case on the wide roads like APC and AJC Bose Roads. Tram stops where people can safely catch and board a tram are urgently required. Reserving the tracks and keeping other vehicles from using tram track on wide roads like RP Mukerjee Road  to Tollygunge will speed up trams and increase reliability. Increasing timetable frequency is also needed so passengers don’t wait long periods of time to catch trams. Ideally a tram every 10 minutes on popular routes would be a good start. Tram track renewal is still needed in the Maidan, Sealdah Flyover and other sections of the CTC network along Elliot Road from Nonapukur Workshops to Wellington. Tram lines open and close in Kolkata. A most welcome return is the opening of the No 29 Tollygunge to Esplanade tram route via Kalighat, Hazra, Alipore and Kidderpore in south Kolkata. Had some wonderful Tramjatra journeys in the south most notably with the much loved Usha Uttup singing on the Sundari tram in 2001. I look forward to Rash Behari Avenue opening and once again seeing trams in the Ballygunge Goompty. This is a vital link between the Metro and Ballygunge Rail Station.

I believe Kolkata needs a tram museum so visitors are given the opportunity to see the history of Calcutta’s trams. An audit is urgently required so the CTC can preserve the last of the British wooden bodied trams and beautifully built Hati Gari trams. Rabindranath Tagore’s tribute tram, Gitanjali was a Hati Gari tram number 498 built in the early 1940s at Nonapukur. I am confident that tram enthusiasts would come to Kolkata to see a display of CTC trams in one of the world’s great cities. Kalighat Tram Depot would make a great Tram Museum located near Kalighat Metro stop and Kali Temple.

"Over the twenty years of Tramjatra it has become clear that the guiding values of international friendship, care for the environment and a universal respect and appreciation for all human life were also values championed by Rabindranath Tagore a hundred years ago. There’s something about being on a Kolkata tram that is very relaxing despite the clatter and outside noise from buses, cars and autos. There’s also something about the internal environment of trams that promotes human interaction. It makes for a fascinating performance space. Tram networks are being revived around the world.

Cities in Europe which previously removed their networks are now reinstalling them at great cost. Kolkata undoubtedly needs trams. Not only because they are the only form of mass transit that does not create air pollution but because trams also emphasize our common humanity."
Polash Larsen, Bengali-Australian cultural activist based in Australia

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