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My earliest sepia-toned memory is of trying to cross a busy main road, hand firmly clasped in my dad’s, when suddenly, a train rumbled down the middle of the road.
It was an amazing sight. “Baba!” I squealed in delight. “Train!”
“No. Tram.” My rather serious father looked down at me from his six-foot frame, a smile playing on his lips. “Only two compartments.”
Soon after, I took my first journey on a Kolkata tram as it trundled from our stop towards College Street. Even then, the carriage with its wooden seats and rusty interiors felt like a relic from the past.
So it did not come as a surprise to hear that the colonial tram system was being phased out of Kolkata.
Kolkata’s Tram System
Calcutta trams had their heyday well before I was born. Interestingly, when the tram was first introduced in 1873, it was a horse-drawn vehicle that ran only 3.0 kms. Meter-gauge, horse-drawn tram tracks were laid from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar Street, Dalhousie Square, and Strand Road.
The Calcutta Tramways were formed in 1880. Horse-drawn trams gave way to steam trams between 1883 and 1902, before the electric version arrived in the 1900s. The first electric tramcar in Calcutta ran from Esplanade to Kidderpore in 1902.
Trams were the preferred mode of transport well into the 1970s. There were as many as 52 routes spread across Kolkata. Now, there are only two.
Childhood Rides On Kolkata’s Tramway
But nostalgia is not mine alone. Rohan Sharma, a 25-year-old IT developer who lives between Illinois and Kolkata also shares fond memories of childhood rides on the tram. School days were exciting recalls Rohan, “not because I enjoyed meeting friends and sharing lunch with them, but because I could take a tram ride to and fro.”
Rohan remembers waiting at his tram stop through sweaty summer, rainy days and gloomy winter mornings.
“Bomkesh Kaku (uncle) used to drive the tram on my school route from Ultadanga to Sealdah. He would give me a high-five each morning. I would sit on a single wooden chair next to the window, right behind the driver.”
Rohan recalls that the tram ride would take about half-an-hour, as it meandered through busy Kolkata roads, while Bomkesh kaku chatted with him about school and studies. Sometimes, he would even offer Rohan a piece of dry cake from his tiffin box.
Pulling String To Stop A Tram!
Over a leisurely cup of sweet milky tea, Rohan and I shared stories about Kolkata’s tramline. They were an economical form of transport said Rohan, recounting “the fun part,” when the conductor or passenger pulled a string that rang a bell in the driver’s cabin to alert him to stop and let passengers board or alight.
“I miss those old days,” says Rohan. Many years later, he took the early morning tram in the direction of his old school to the Victoria memorial. “To my surprise, the tram was being driven by Bomkesh Kaku who recognized me and was overjoyed seeing me waiting at the stop to catch the tram.”
The conversation that followed was like a reunion between old friends.
“How are you? How old are you now? Where are you working? Did you get married? And so on…”
Phasing Out The Tram Line
When Rohan heard that West Bengal transport minister Firhad Hakim had announced a proposal to phase out trams from Kolkata’s congested routes, he immediately thought of Bomkesh Kaku and his family.
“I never asked him about his family. But I feel he had a lot of responsibilities. And, that’s why, even in his late 50s or early 60s, in fragile health, he is driving the tram,” worries Rohan.
Though Hakim’s announcement comes as a blow to nostalgic Kolkatans, the tram’s decline really started in the 1930s. Kanpur tramways was the first to close, followed by networks in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. It is surprising that the Kolkata trams survived as long as they did.
Already in my youth, financial losses and street congestion had closed popular routes like the Birla Planeterium line. Then Howrah Station closed and became a bus terminal. Tram tracks were removed on Rabindra Setu and from Howrah Bridge to Metcalf Hall. By the 1990s, the Kolkata Tram System was crumbling.
Tram Track To Modern Rail
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin was Kolkata’s new metro rail construction that will ferry passengers across the city, as tram tracks give way to modern rail.
For those who have grown up watching these gentle electric beasts make their way out of the winter mists of early Kolkata mornings, it will be a huge loss.
But, with fuel prices skyrocketing, wouldn’t it have made better sense to have held onto these eco-friendly modes of transportation? One wonders…
Images: Umang Sharma