This is the second in a two-part series of articles on Kolkata’s trams. Read the first part here.
Calcutta: In 1980, the World Bank awarded a grant of Rs 46.20 crore to Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) for a transport improvement project. CTC then obtained 169 new steel body trams from Burn Standard and Jessop and around 25 trams were rebuilt at the Nonapukur tram depot.
This 1980 grant was the last time the CTC received an investment to improve its utility as a mode of transportation.
In the 41 years since the World Bank grant, the neglect of successive West Bengal state governments has nearly crippled Kolkata’s streetcars. The government currently in power sees the trams only from the angle of heritage tourism: sometimes a tram is transformed into a restaurant, sometimes into a library, sometimes into a museum. But the authorities have never modernized a single tram or a single track. Instead, all the money invested in the CTC after the World Bank grant in 1980 was used simply to maintain the existing infrastructure, not to modernize it.
In 2011, 37 trams operated on routes totaling 67 km. Today, trams are only operational on three routes over a stretch of 15 to 17 km. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of operational trams increased from 180 to 20. In 2001, Kolkata had seven tram depots and four sub-depots. Today it only has two deposits and one sub-deposit.
The number of daily operational trams also fell sharply, from 107 in 2011 to 20-23 in 2021, even as the strength of the fleet fell slightly from 270 to 258 trams in March 2019, reveals a document acquired in under the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005.
The number of permanent CTC workers was also reduced from 7,300 to 2,300 under the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government, while the CTC itself ceased to exist in 2016 when it merged with the West Bengal Transport Corporation (WBTC).
Today, over 78% of the current tram workforce works in bus services. The remaining tram workers, however, were parked at the Nonapukur tram depot, where they do nothing for seven and a half hours a day.
Subir Bose, who has worked at the Nonapukur depot for over 34 years, said Thread, âOur life is a punishment. I arrive at 9:30 in the morning and leave at 5 in the evening. For the past three years, I haven’t worked here because there is no work.
Bose, who is also the general secretary of the Workers’ Union backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)), said: We still had the opportunity to debate and disagree. Now we don’t even have that anymore.
Those who think that streetcars are an outdated mode of transportation generally argue that fewer people use streetcars today than they ever did, so it makes sense to scrap them. For example, a senior executive in the transportation department said Thread, âA decade ago, more than 75,000 people traveled by tram daily. But today, not even 10,000 people travel in streetcars.
But those who think Kolkata’s trams should be revived and expanded not only for their heritage value, but also because they’re sustainable, emissions-free and inexpensive, point out that well-run trams around the world attract commuters. The key to note, however, is that these streetcars are well managed.
“No public transport can run efficiently without an efficient service design,” said Dr Bhargab Maitra, professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, who has worked extensively in the field of public transport systems, traffic management and transport policy.
âToday, no one in Calcutta is aware of the routes on which the streetcars run, the frequency of the streetcars and the stops on the routes. Faced with this situation, how can we expect people to use the tram? But efficient service design and efficient operations can make trams an important mode of transport in Kolkata, âexplained Dr Maitra.
Kolkata’s tram network, Dr Maitra said, offers many existing benefits to a government seeking to introduce emission-free transport.
âCalcutta’s tram network is extensive and should be used to its full potential. The whole world is rapidly adapting to the light rail system, so we also need to reorganize the tram service to make it an integral part of urban mobility. Reviving trams instead of scrapping them will not only be pragmatic, but an essential step towards sustainable mobility for our future generations, âsaid Dr Maitra.
Policymakers advocating for tram demolition raise another overused argument. The streets of Kolkata are narrow, they say. The trams in the middle of these streets cause traffic jams.
It only takes a few car trips around Kolkata to see the real culprits of congestion. For example, a drive from Shyambazar to Esplanade, passing Bidhan Sarani, College Street, Nirmal Chandra Street, and Lenin Sarani, shows cars parked on both sides of the road every seven days of the week. Traffic officers themselves sometimes sit on two-wheelers parked by the side of the road.
From Shyambazar to Hatibagan, from Gariahat to Bhowanipore, great stretches of roads are filled with hawkers. Neither the Kolkata police nor the administration took any action to clear the hawkers’ roads. But they blame the trams for the traffic jams.
In 2004, the Left Front government of the day invested around 110 crore rupees in the CTC. About 80 to 85% of the amount was used for the opening up of the tracks and the realization. The remainder was used to purchase a streetcar from BEBBCO, modify and rebuild 10-20 streetcars with Vista dome-type features, and maintain the tracks.
The de-reservation of the tram tracks caused two serious problems. First, it allowed other vehicles to use the tracks intended for streetcars. This slows down the pace of the streetcars. Second, since most tram tracks run along the center of the roads, de-booking puts the safety of passengers at risk. Where there used to be a designated space on both sides of the tracks for passengers to get on or off the trams, now this space has been incorporated into the carriageway and passengers have to get on and off trams in the middle of the road. high speed traffic.
To avoid these problems, Professor Arkopal Kishore Goswami, who heads the Multimodal Sustainable Urban Transport Research Group at IIT Kharagpur, suggested:, small, low-rise stopping platforms should be created for trams. . “
Debasish Bhattacharyya, president of the Calcutta Tram Users Association, a civil society group, said: âStreetcars are the most sustainable mode of mass transport and they already exist in Calcutta, with all the necessary infrastructure. Destroying a cheap, sustainable, safe, user-friendly and emission-free mode of public transport is a crime in this age of climate change. For decades, the state government has been bent on destroying streetcars under one guise or another, when no honest steps have been taken to improve streetcars. Policymakers need to understand that electric buses cannot replace trams, because trams are much more economically viable and socially acceptable. In fact, streetcars are being reintroduced in other countries to relieve road congestion as they can carry large numbers of commuters.
A document acquired under RTI revealed that between 2014 and 2016, the state transportation department sold 349.01 cottahs (about 5.7 acres) of land which belonged to the city’s five tram depots for Rs 229.31 crore. Most of this land came from the Tollygunge depot, where 249.51 cottahs (approximately 3.98 acres) was sold for Rs 180.82 crore.
WBTC union workers allege that the state government did not allocate “a single penny” of the money acquired from the sale of the land to the company, let alone to the streetcars themselves. However, the RTI document states that “the money recovered from the sale of land was used for the implementation of the first phase of the VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) and the repayment of bank loans, payable to the government of West Bengal. “.
In May 2019, the WBTC began using single-coach streetcars to avoid traffic grunts. But to date, many of them have stopped their operations. It doesn’t make financial sense, say workers at the Nonapukur tram depot, who point out that for the cost of Rs 20-25 crore, 80 to 90 trams could run for the next 10 years.
Relegated to history
The TMC-led West Bengal government apathy towards Kolkata’s trams can be dated May 25, 2011, just five days after Mamata Banerjee was sworn in as chief minister. On May 25, 2011, the Joka-Behala tram line was closed.
In 2013, the CTC launched a few air-conditioned trams in Calcutta by upgrading air conditioning machines in refurbished trams. Later, the WBTC tried to use the streetcars as heritage structures, turning one into a restaurant and the other into a library.
More recently, a large part of the still operating Gariahat tram depot has been converted into a cultural center called ‘Tram World Calcutta‘, which displays historical photographs and objects related to trams.
Even though Kolkata seems determined to push its trams back into the past, a project in Melbourne, Australia called ‘Tramjatra’ (tram ride) celebrates the cultures of the only two cities outside of Europe that have trams in continuous service. for over a century. One of Melbourne’s trams, the Tramjatra is dedicated to Calcutta and its culture.
Tramjatra was started in 1996 by Roberto D’Andrea, a former tram conductor and driver in Melbourne who, as a Tramjatra driver, visited Kolkata often.
âI spent a lot of time at the CTC-WBTC head office, working with senior management. I have traveled several times on all tram lines, I have worked in all the depots and in the tram workshops in Nonapukur, âsaid D’Andrea. Thread by email. âKolkata is in a good position to act now by reviving the old trams. All the necessary infrastructure is in place. Most importantly, the tram tracks are in good condition after the renewal of the entire system in the early 2000s and the Nonapukur tram workshops are able to build new trams that are comfortable and able to move at good speed.
He added: “We need [state] Minister of Transport Firhad Hakim thinking about trams. He thinks cars and he thinks buses. He thinks of overflights. We would like him to think of the tram! Streetcars do not cause congestion; they help reduce traffic jams and air pollution.