How Successive Bengal Governments Killed Kolkata's Trams

The tramway, a sustainable, emission-free, cheap and effective means of mass transportation, last received an investment intended to upgrade its services 41 years ago. Now it is known only for its heritage value.

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This is the second of a two-part article series on Kolkata trams. Read the first part here

Kolkata: In 1980, the World Bank gave a grant of Rs 46.20 crore to Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) for a transportation improvement project. CTC then got 169 new steel-body tramcars from Burn Standard and Jessop and about 25 tramcars were rebuilt at the Nonapukur tram depot.

That 1980 grant was the last time the CTC received an investment intended to upgrade its utility as a mode of transport.

In the 41 years since the World Bank’s grant, negligence by successive West Bengal state governments has brought Kolkata’s trams to almost a grinding halt. The government currently in power sees trams purely from the view of heritage tourism: sometimes a tramcar is converted into a restaurant, sometimes into a library, sometimes into a museum. But the authorities have never modernised a single tram or track. Instead, any monies invested in the CTC after the World Bank’s 1980 grant was used simply to maintain the existing infrastructure, not upgrade it.

In 2011, 37 trams operated across routes totalling 67 km. Today, trams are only operational on three routes over a stretch of 15-17 km. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of operational tramcars fell to 20 from 180. In 2001, Kolkata had seven tram depots and four sub-depots. Today it has only two depots and one sub-depot.

The number of operational daily tramcars also witnessed a steep decline from 107 in 2011 to 20-23 in 2021, even as the fleet strength fell marginally from 270 tramcars to 258 tramcars as of March 2019, reveals a document acquired under the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005.

Also read: If the Bengal Govt Is Serious About Electric Transport, Why Is it Killing Kolkata Trams?

The number of permanent workers in the CTC was also slashed from 7,300 to 2,300 during the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government’s rule, while CTC itself ceased to exist in 2016 when it was merged with the West Bengal Transport Corporation (WBTC).

Today, more than 78% of the current staff strength of the tramways work in bus services. The remaining tramways employees however, have been parked at the Nonapukur tram depot, where they do nothing for seven and a half hours a day.

Subir Bose, who has been working at the Nonapukur depot for more than 34 years, told The Wire, “Our life is a punishment. I come at 9:30 in the morning and leave at 5 in the evening. In the last three years, I have done no work here because there is no work.”

Bose, who is also the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M))-backed workers’ union, said: “Even the Left governments were apathetic about the tramways and harmed its operations in many ways, but we still had the space to debate and disagree. Now we don’t have even that.”

Poor management

Those who believe that trams are an outdated mode of transport usually argue that fewer people use trams these days than they ever did, so it makes sense to scrap them. For example, a senior officer of the transport department told The Wire, “Even a decade back, more than 75,000 people travelled in trams daily. But today, not even 10,000 people travel in trams.”

But those who believe Kolkata’s trams should be revived and scaled up not just for their heritage value but because they are sustainable, emission-free and cheap, point out that well-managed tramways around the world draw commuters. The key to note, however, is that those tramways are managed well.

Two abandoned tramcars at the Park Circus depot. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

“No public transport can work efficiently without an effective service design,” said Dr Bhargab Maitra, a professor in the civil engineering department of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, who has worked extensively in the sphere of public transportation systems, traffic management and transport policy.

“Today, no one in Kolkata is aware of the routes on which trams are operating, the frequency of the trams and the stops on the routes. Given this situation, how can we expect people to use trams? But effective service design and efficient operations can make tramways an important mode of transportation in Kolkata,” Dr Maitra explained.

Kolkata’s tram network, Dr Maitra said, offers many existing advantages to a government seeking to introduce emission-free transport.

“The tram network in Kolkata is extensive and should be used to its full potential. The whole world is rapidly adapting to the light rail transit system so we should also revamp the tram service to make it an integral part of urban mobility. Reviving the trams instead of scrapping them will be not just pragmatic but an essential step towards sustainable mobility for our future generations,” said Dr Maitra.

Destroying infrastructure

Policy-makers who argue in favour of scrapping the tramway make another overused point. Kolkata’s streets are narrow, they say. Trams in the middle of these streets cause congestion.

It takes just a few drives around Kolkata to see the true culprits behind congestion. For example, a drive from Shyambazar to Esplanade, passing through Bidhan Sarani, College Street, Nirmal Chandra Street and Lenin Sarani, shows cars parked on both sides of the road all seven days of the week. Traffic police themselves sometimes sit atop two-wheelers parked at the side of the road.

Also read: Delhi Colonies Clear Trees to Make Room for Cars. A Forest Official Thinks That’s a Bad Idea.

From Shyambazar to Hatibagan, from Gariahat to Bhowanipore, large stretches of roads are packed with hawkers. Neither the Kolkata police nor the administration have taken any measures to clear the roads of hawkers. But they blame trams for traffic congestion.

In 2004, the then Left Front government invested about Rs 110 crores in the CTC. About 80-85% of the amount was used for the de-reservation of tracks and concretisation. The rest was used to buy one tramcar from BEBBCO, modify and rebuild 10-20 trams with vista dome-like features and maintain the tracks.

The only newly built wagon manufactured by BEBBCO in 2008, then and now.

The de-reservation of the tram tracks led to two serious problems. First, it allowed other vehicles to use the tracks meant for trams. This slows the pace of the trams. Second, since most tram tracks run along the centre of the roads, de-reservation jeopardises the safety of passengers. Where once there was a designated space on both side of the tracks for passengers to board the trams or alight from them, now that space has been made part of the roadway and passengers must board and alight from trams in the middle of speeding traffic.

To avoid these problems, Professor Arkopal Kishore Goswami, who heads the Multimodal Urban Sustainable Transportation research group at IIT Kharagpur, suggested: “Tracks could be shifted in a few places to follow a more linear / segregated network and, like the bus rapid transit system, small, low-height stoppage platforms should be created for trams.”

Debasish Bhattacharyya, president of the Calcutta Tram Users Association, a civil society group, said: “Trams are the most sustainable mode of mass transport and they already exist in Kolkata, with all required infrastructure. Destroying a low cost, durable, safe, user-friendly, emission-free mode of public transport is a crime at a time of climate change. For decades, the state government was hell-bent on destroying trams on one pretext or another, while not a single honest measure was taken to improve the tramways. Policy-makers must understand that electric buses cannot replace trams because trams are far more economically viable and socially acceptable. In fact, trams are being reintroduced in other countries to decongest roads since they can carry a huge number of commuters.”

A document acquired under RTI revealed that between 2014 and 2016, the state transport department sold 349.01 cottahs (approximately 5.7 acres) of land that belonged to the city’s five tram depots for Rs 229.31 crores. The major portion of this land came from the Tollygunge depot, where 249.51 cottahs (approximately 3.98 acres) were sold for Rs 180.82 crore.

Union workers of the WBTC allege that the state government did not allocate “a single penny” of sum acquired from the sale of the land to the corporation, let alone to the trams themselves. However, the RTI document said, “Money recovered from the sale of land was utilised for the implementation of the first phase of VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) and repayment of bank loans, payable to the government of West Bengal.”

In May 2019, the WBTC began running single-coach tramcars to avoid traffic snarls. But by now, many of them have stopped operations. This makes poor financial sense, say the workers of Nonapukur tram depot, who point out that for the cost of Rs 20-25 crore, 80-90 tramcars could operate for the next 10 years.

Relegated to history

The TMC-led West Bengal government’s apathy towards Kolkata’s trams can be dated to May 25, 2011, just five days after Mamata Banerjee was first sworn in as the chief minister. On May 25, 2011, the Joka-Behala tram route was closed.

In 2013, the CTC launched a couple of air-conditioned trams in Kolkata by retrofitting air-conditioning machines in refurbished trams. Later, the WBTC tried to make use of trams as heritage structures, converting one into a restaurant and one into a library.

More recently a large chunk of the still-in-use Gariahat tram depot was converted into cultural centre of sorts called ‘Tram World Kolkata‘, which displays historical photographs and items related to trams.

Even as Kolkata seems determined to push its trams into the past, a project in Melbourne, Australia, called ‘Tramjatra’ (tram journey) celebrates the cultures of the only two cities outside Europe that have had tramways in continuous use for more than a century. One of Melbourne’s tramcars, the Tramjatra is dedicated to Kolkata and its culture.

The “Tramjatra” car that ran on the streets of Melbourne for two years, celebrating Kolkata and Melbourne friendship and to create an awareness about environment. Photo: Calcutta Tram Users Association

Tramjatra was started in 1996 by Roberto D’Andrea, a former tram conductor and driver in Melbourne who, as a Tramjatra conductor, has visited Kolkata often.

“I have spent much time in the CTC-WBTC head office, working with the senior management. I have travelled on all the tram routes many times over, worked in all the depots and at the Nonapukur Tram Workshops,” D’Andrea told The Wire by email. “Kolkata is well placed to act now by reviving the once great tramways. All the infrastructure required is in place. Most importantly, the tram tracks are in good condition after the system-wide renewal in the early 2000s and the Nonapukur Tram Workshops is able to build new trams that are comfortable and can move with traffic at a good speed.”

He added: “We need [state] transport minister Firhad Hakim to think of trams. He thinks autos and he thinks buses. He thinks flyovers. We would like him to think of the tram! Trams don’t cause congestion; they help lower traffic congestion and air pollution.”