Mobility: Kolkata’s “Tram to Oblivion”

Kolkata, population 15 million,  is one of the densest cities in the world.  So far less than two percent of people have cars,  but as ownership rises like in the much of India cars pose a particular issue in Kolkata: there’s very little space to put them. Only 6% of land is road, compared to 23% in Delhi for example, a comparatively teeny amount of space to move millions of people. Add to this India’s only tram system, which has snaked through the narrow streets since the 1880’s but in more recent years has had to compete with cars, buses, and autorickshaws – and it’s slowly but surely being nudged out of the right of way.

Kolkata's tram. | Photo: Flickr user Avik Pramanik

The Center for Science and Environment (CSE) tells the demise of Kolkata’s trams, a story of  nostalgia, neglect, a fight for precious little street space and what mode should have the right to claim it. Author Sayantan Bera indicts the city for allowing the system to become the “tram to oblivion” – with so many people needing to get around, and infrastructure already in place, how could a seemingly viable form of public transit be phased out as the city continues to expand?

Built in the 1880’s, the first tram cars were pulled by horses (much like the New York horsecarts around the same time):

Life size horse tram model at Kolkata's City Centre arcade | Photo: Flickr user H G M

The trams were electrified in 1905 and remained  a fixture in the daily rhythm of the city through most of the 20th century. As Bera writes,

Till the early 1990s, trams used to cater to a variety of passengers. The first car at 4.40 am was a fixture for those catching an early morning train at the Howrah station. A little later, the pious would crowd trams for a bath in the holy Ganges. Then came schoolchildren escorted by doting mothers. Later in the day lawyers and babus would rough it out on crowded trams to reach the office-hub at Dalhousie square. Trams were the lifeline before autorickshaws, buses and metro became the priority.

The tram’s failure has many reasons: old cars that haven’t been replaced for decades plus sweltering heat made for an uncomfortable ride, the infrastructure has been neglected for years, services were cut for “repairs” and never reopened – the list goes on, but the tram hasn’t been modernized for a lack of funds or simply ignoring transit needs. It’s more an intentional shift in what transportation modes are prioritized.

For example, much of the tramway used to run on lines embedded in dedicated patches of grass:

Tram right-of-way. | Photo: Flickr user jcdl

That strip of earth and grass basically said tramways belong to trams and the people that ride them. But these were ripped up in 2004 and paved over to make more room in the narrow streets for cars and buses – so the trams run in the middle of the road and people have to dodge traffic to get to them.  The photo below shows a stop  where passengers have to stand to board the tram with hardly any physical separation from traffic:

Tram halt on Kolkata street. | Photo: Sayantan Bera

It’s a striking case of how street design impacts mode choice:  almost immediately after the grassy patches were erased and automobiles given more right to the right-of-way, ridership plummeted. As a longtime tramway employee plainly put it in the CSE article, “Why would people want to risk their life to catch a tram?” Seems logical.

Funds have poured into an expensive underground metro system (India’s first and built without international assistance) and the streetscape has changed to prioritize buses and cars over trams, so investments in transportation infrastructure are there. Some claim that modernizing the tram and realigning it to the side of the road so that passengers can board without fearing for their lives would be a fraction of the price, pollutes less, and serves more people – and makes a lot more sense than piling cash into the underground metro or catering to private automobiles in an already packed city.

Tramway and taxis. | Photo: Flickr user chopr

If you’ve taken a ride on Kolkata’s tram it would be great to hear your experience, and if you think the tram is worth saving. Check out CSE’s photo gallery too if you’re a lover of trains and want to learn more about tram drama.

~Amy

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for your piece on Kolkata trams and for referring to the article. I hope the city planners pay heed to ‘common sense’ to undo decades of apathy. But going by the state of affairs here that seems unlikely to happen.

  2. amyloufaust

    Thank you Sayantan – your article and images are excellent. I’m looking forward to reading more of your reporting. I agree that planners could use a dose of common sense to overcome apathy, and need the resolve to overcome such powerful forces that believe cars above all have the right to the street.

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