THE FAINT MEMORY OF AN INDIAN TRAM

Trams could have stayed- but seems thrift and short-sightedness wins more often than not.

Trams were introduced in India by the British in the 19th century. Its earliest form had little to do with electricity or fuel or the carriages one might expect to see for a tram. It was a transport system that meant horse-driven carriages that ran on rails!

The first electric tram ran in Chennai or Madras as it was known then in 1895, between the docks and mainland. It was very popular because it facilitated fast travel for thousands of commuters. At its peak in 1921, the tram company had 97 cars running over a 24km track till it began to face losses and was eventually bankrupted in 1950 and an order was passed to remove the overhead cables and tracks.

In India, till recently, the tram system was in a good running condition in Kolkata. In Kolkata, trams were managed and functioned by Calcutta Tramways Company Limited in 1873. This company was registered by the British as a joint-stock company in London in 1880. But though the beginning was ambitious the number of people using it was not adequate.

After the British left for their shores, the indigenous dispensation came up with their barmy ideas of progress – the half-baked socialist variety.

In 1951, the government of West Bengal reached an agreement with CTC (Calcutta Tramways Company) and took over all rights over tramways but for similar reasons most tracks were closed in 1980 and not reopened. But the Bentinck street track line had the overhead lines hanging until 14 years later. 

CTC today owns 257 trams out of which 125 trams are doing their regular routes on the streets of Kolkata daily. Kolkata trams had a single deck with a capacity of 200 passengers but only 60 seats. Modernisation of trams is still a far cry and the Kolkatan has to do with the rickety version.

In Bombay (Mumbai, as it was known earlier) tram services contract was first given to Stearns and Kitteredge in 1873. The contract for construction to this British company worked for 21 years after which electric trams were introduced. The first trams, between Parel and Colaba in the city, were drawn by teams of six to eight horses. When the tramways started in 1874, Stearnes and Kitteredge had a stable of 900 horses.

In 1905, the order for the first electric tram-car was placed with the Brush Electrical Company of London. This first electrically operated tram-car had an Upper Class for the ruling classes. Thankfully, it was removed in a couple of years. However, due to the problem of rush-hour traffic and to ease the situation, double-decker trams were introduced in September 1920.

The sorry part was that after independence, instead of upgrading this easy, pollution-free means of transport, it was simply shut down in1964, ten years before Mumbai could celebrate a century of the tram service.

This transport system’s closing down also destroyed a valuable heritage. One wonders why the authorities didn’t have the vision to keep at least one tram running, something on the lines of the tram in San Francisco that simply runs a short distance to underline the historicity of the old model.

Delhi also started with the tram system in 1908. With this, Delhi became another important city in India at that time to be introduced to tram services. The system in 1921 functioned in its full capacity with 24 cars covering a track of 15km. It connected the suburbs of the now Old Delhi and neighbouring market settlements to the main city. 

Kanpur, Patna, Nasik, Kochi, and Bhavnagar were also provided with the facilities of the tram system. Imagine the scene of a tram running on the 6.4 km of tracks in Kanpur next to the Holy Ganges. In the evenings, it would have been an experience of a lifetime which cannot be explained in words. But that was almost a century ago so moaning will do no good.

Now, one can only mourn and realise the loss of what was a grand and ambitious project. The future and to an extent the present generation will never experience the romance and the joy of the ride in a tram in those cities. 

In today’s perspective, trams could have been a good mode of transport in Delhi suburban. The metro is no alternative to trams but it takes more people, runs underground, is faster and is already almost as big as the London tube. Ultimately economics and convenience does win over nostalgia. Or does it still survive?

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