A tram on a city road with colonial-era office buildings in the background of the Esplanade area of Kolkata
A tram on a city road with colonial-era office buildings in the background of the Esplanade area of KolkataShutterstock

Meet The Man Trying To Save Kolkata's Historic Trams

Trams were once celebrated as Kolkata's lifeline but they are gradually fading into the background of the city. We spoke to Debasish Bhattacharyya, the President of Calcutta Tramways Users Association, about their legacy and the need for trams

The trams of Kolkata are one of the oldest transportation systems in Asia and have been operating since the late 19th century. The British introduced the tram in several key cities of India such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai to boost urban passenger transport. In time the trams became one of the pillars of Kolkata's transportation system, and were witnesses to many historic events in the City of Joy. For example, during the Second World War the British did not dare to formally open the Howrah Bridge in 1943 for fear of an attack. A solitary tram was the first vehicle to cross the bridge in the darkness across the world's third-longest cantilever bridge on 3 February 1943. Ten years later a one-paisa hike in tram fare gave the Leftist parties of Kolkata a solid base with which to launch their agitation and gain a foothold in Bengal politics.

Once celebrated as Kolkata's lifeline, trams gradually faded into the background as alternative modes of transportation gained prominence. This is ironic in today's scenario when everyone talks about living a sustainable lifestyle. Several studies have shown that trams are the most energy-efficient mode of transport after walking and cycling as there are no tailpipe emissions.

Debasish Bhattacharyya is a retired scientist and the President of the Calcutta Tramways Users Association (CTUA). He is one of the most important pro-tram voices in a city where this environment-friendly mode of transport still exists. 

Debasish Bhattacharyya (second from right) with female Russian tram drivers from St. Petersburg in February 2024
Debasish Bhattacharyya (second from right) with female Russian tram drivers from St. Petersburg in February 2024Debasish Bhattacharyya

The Importance Of Trams

Bhattacharyya grew up in an area of Kolkata that was covered by a network of Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) and double-decker buses. Trams served faithfully throughout those days, like private cars, ensuring safety and comfort at an affordable price. "Our mobility was never restricted; we could visit any place we wanted," he says.

A rare photo of an L Class PAYE 518 plying Route 29 in Kolkata
A rare photo of an L Class PAYE 518 plying Route 29 in Kolkata@trams_of_calcutta /Instagram

The trams also provided an opportunity for socialising across societal and economic barriers. In the 1990s double-decker buses were permanently discontinued and tram services were suspended. "As I was interested in public transport systems, especially rail-based ones, I smelt [something] fishy in this decision. I collected enough information on light rail transit that convinced me the anti-tram decision was anti-people [and] driven by corruption and dishonest forces," says Bhattacharyya. He has since been protesting the closure of tramways in the city.  

The People's Organisation To Save Kolkata's Trams

The tram is an accessible mode of transport for many
The tram is an accessible mode of transport for manyAbhishek Sah Photography/Shutterstock

The CTUA was formed in 2016 by people like Bhattacharya who felt that a pro-tram voice was needed in Kolkata to publicly advocate for the transport. The organisation has expanded its presence over the years and has been successful in raising various concerns during official meetings and in the media.

The organisation has also proposed several initiatives to safeguard trams. Its diverse membership includes public transport professionals, scholars, environmentalists and other individuals who share a passion for trams, in addition to its founding members. The CTUA has strong links with the international tram community and has active members in Melbourne, Germany, England and Argentina.

The British introduced the tram in several key cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai
The British introduced the tram in several key cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and ChennaiAtif Amin/Shutterstock

According to Bhattacharyya, the organisation came about spontaneously. "The removal of trams in the city had a negative impact on the citizens who relied on them including vulnerable groups such as women, children, students, office workers, small business owners and festive shoppers. As they were not organised these groups were unable to voice their complaints effectively," he said. This was one reason why a group was needed for bringing people together and speaking up on their behalf.

The CTUA was formally convened during a ceremony at the Esplanade tram control room area. "Earlier, various workers' unions and environmental agencies had included the tramway issue in their demands and agendas. There were also numerous articles published in the media in favour of the tramways. All of these efforts collectively laid the foundation for the formation of the CTUA," says Bhattacharyya.

Meanwhile, numerous overseas experts and railway enthusiasts supported the cause of restoring Kolkata's tramways to their former glory. One such person was Melbourne tram driver and conductor Roberto D’Andria, who visited the city multiple times to raise awareness among citizens about the value of the tramways.

Campaigns And Meetings

Officially, the CTUA is a cultural nongovernmental organisation (NGO) whose sole purpose is to vouch for the CTC, says Bhattacharyya. "In reality, it is the only apolitical civic body in the city that demands the restoration of all closed tram routes and the establishment of this reliable public transport system catering to the needs of the citizens. To achieve these goals we primarily create pressure groups that can reverse the current decisions of the state government on the tramways," he says. The CTUA organises meetings and seminars at various venues, from street corners to the Press Club. They drum up campaigns to save the trams, for example by collecting opinions from distinguished personalities, distributing leaflets, organising signature collections, etc.

They have also arranged farewell gatherings for retiring tramway workers to create confidence among CTC employees. The CTUA is recognised by global railway and tramway bodies and associated people says Bhattacharyya. He adds: "Thanks to our younger members, the CTUA has a website and a considerable number of followers across the globe who regularly provide suggestions and recommendations." Based on these relationships, many people have recently visited Kolkata to see this century-old system and visited the CTUA headquarters, which is incidentally located in Bhattacharyya's residence.

The Unique Signature Of A City

The CTUA has organised many events to promote Kolkata's tramways over the years. One successful event was the tramcar parade to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the CTC on 24 February 2023. Working trams dating from 1924 to modern air-conditioned cars participated in chronological order. "Some 100 foreign delegates spanning all continents attended the parade," says Bhattacharyya.

At their last Press Club conference eminent film director Gautam Ghosh was invited as a speaker. "Usually, when we argue in favour of the tramways against the authorities, we discuss subjects like the economic and environmental benefits, road space occupancy, the service life of the rolling stocks, urban land usage, etc., using facts and figures," says Bhattacharyya. He goes on to add that, "The value of living industrial heritage, the lifelong association of the tramways with the citizens of Kolkata, [the] loving memories and its role in Bengali culture—these are parameters that cannot be quantified, so we find it difficult to express them. This is where an artist or a novelist is successful. At the meet, Mr Ghosh very elegantly explained why Calcuttans need their tramways to symbolise their identity. He also explained what the unique signatures of a city mean."

Memories Of Childhood Tram Rides

Bhattacharyya with a tram decorated by the Australian High Commission to celebrate the Kolkata International Film Festival
Bhattacharyya with a tram decorated by the Australian High Commission to celebrate the Kolkata International Film Festival Debasish Bhattacharyya

When talking about his fondest memories associated with trams, Bhattacharyya shares how much they mean to him. One of his earliest memories is taking weekend trips with his father on the trams from Kalighat Depot. "We lived just a few minutes away and we would often take Route No. 31 which went from Kalighat to Esplanade via the Maidan section. The journey was beautiful with lush green scenery at Brigade Parade Ground, and we would often stop to watch the many performers in Curzon Park. At Esplanade I would see many different people who I didn't usually see in my neighbourhood. I loved taking Route No. 30 which went from Kalighat to Howrah Station because it meant we could visit the railway station's concourse and all of its platforms, as well as the iconic Howrah Bridge itself," he recalls.

Burnstandard 278 and 614 stand idle at the Kidderpore Depot in November 2023
Burnstandard 278 and 614 stand idle at the Kidderpore Depot in November 2023Sagnik Gupta/Instagram

He also remembers riding the older 4+4 wheel streamlined tram cars that were typical of central and north Kolkata but absent in the south of the city. "These cars were very open and airy and they would sway more while passing through the narrow lanes of the old city. Despite their moderate speed it always seemed like they would derail but they never did. During my school days I would skip class and explore every corner of the tram routes," he reminisces. "Whenever I fell sick during my teenage years, medications, vitamins and minerals would only help me recover up to a point. I would only fully recover after taking a few joyrides on trams or double-decker buses. My love for aimless travel using public transport still exists today except that I now take metro rail rides for a complete recovery in the absence of trams," he laments.

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