The Lost Ride: Of Kolkata’s Trams And The Neglect They Face

Posted on June 29, 2012 in Specials

By Habiba Insaf:

It looked like a displaced wagon. Or conjoined twins who ran on tracks. A cable car. A train running wild on the streets. My First Tram Ride! I don’t know what I had expected. A Giant Wheel thrill or a simple run of the mill ride home. But like everything else in Kolkata I hoped this too would be an authentic pleasure — like the spongy wet Rasgullas to the windy, generous Howrah Bridge.

Just for a joyride, I along with a friend hopped on the tram near the Park Circus Crossing along with just two other passengers. The tram readily embraced us and we heaved our day’s exhaustion over its wooden framed seats. I looked out of the adjoining window and saw the city move at an abnormally faster pace than me. My city slicken mind immediately began to turn critical; after all, speed is synonymous to my city, Mumbai. But I let it subside. I turned around to my friend to point out the distant shadow of Victoria Memorial freeing itself from the letching stare of the setting sun. However, the loud wailings of the tram drowned my voice. For the rest of the journey, [which was unbearably long] I sat meditating on the galvanizing roars of the engine and the pounding of the wheels against the tracks.

I was disappointed. The roar of a lion with the pace of a snail! Trams belong in the bygone days and they can very well stay there. To me they were uninspiring and inconvenient.

As I shared my anti-tram sentiments to my Bengali friend, he promptly replied, “The trams have been giving a comfortable, pocket friendly ride to people long before metros arrived. They are a part of the Kolkata legacy. Today when there is no pause from the bustling engagement of life, trams reminds people of who they are.”

But should trams simply stay for their old world charm without being judged for their efficiency in delivering what it promises to the passengers of a speed hungry world? Often, the shifting scale of progressive terrain makes us question where “progress” lies and what it entails. Does it arrive with a cost of discarding the old or does it come with a promise of refinement through a careful assessment of what’s good and what’s not? The question then to be asked is whether trams are sentimental concerns of a few —a travel tradition that has to die a slow death to welcome the modern era of luxury buses and metros? Or whether they are another case in point of thoughtless bulldozing and uprooting?

Trams are eco-friendly and do not pollute. They can navigate easily through narrow streets with ease and can accommodate 150 passengers. Besides, trams are built to deliver speed -even a 50-year-old tram can run at a speed of 40 km per hour- a fact overshadowed by its misguided repute as being slow. They are also built to assure safety-it is easier for pregnant women and children to alight and aboard them.

The once efficient tram systems have suffered a long history of neglect. Construction of subways and flyovers has frequently cost the trams their home ground on which they fearlessly travelled for over a century. Trams that once gloriously ran between Ballygunge and Gariahat between Behala and Joka, over Majerhat Bridge and many others have been forced to trace their step back to allow bridges, flyover, subways and metro lines to establish themselves. Not only did the trams have to limit their trudging across Kolkata, many tracks over which they run are caved in resulting in uneven tracks and derailments.

Though a recent few attempts to give trams a “facelift”— a new transparent polycarbonate body have been made, major expenditure has been made on luxury trams frequented by tourist and foreigners while most of the 90-odd regular trams still run on the 1940s technology.

Adding to the dwindling popularity of the tram and the declivity of the funds generated by the CTC [Calcutta Tramways Company], Kolkata Traffic Police have recently decided to extend one way traffic rule on the trams as well to un-clog busy streets like Lenin Sarani, where Esplanade-bound trams run in the direction opposite to the flow of traffic. Today, trams can no longer boost of these promises which they once diligently delivered. Instead of helping trams grow their very wings have been clipped away.

Stripping away the very virtues that the tram stood for to garb her in a new aversive avatar for making a strong case for modern transportation is not “modernization”, it is ABUSE. It is ironic that after International tram systems like Yarra Trams are tying up with global climate change campaigns and activist are welcoming the step to revive the tram systems across the world, we are reminded yet again that what we possess is worth preserving and safeguarding.
After all- “All that is old should not be sold”

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:

Habiba Insaf is a writer, critic and student based in Mumbai.Besides her blog, she writes for Ignitink, Art and Deal and Emaho Magazine.[/box]