Asia's Only Tram Service Celebrates 150 Years

A ride on one of the Calcutta Tramways Company's streetcars is easily the best way to sample the sights and sounds of the city
Asia's Only Tram Service Celebrates 150 Years
Asia's Only Tram Service Celebrates 150 Years

On Sunday, February 24, Kolkata hosted a unique parade. Made up of eight tram cars,&nbspit travelled across the city, with people trying to get a ride. The parade was held to mark 150 years of trams in Kolkata. The trams included vintage cars such as the 100-year-old &lsquoTram Scrubber&rsquo which was once used to clean the tracks. The other cars were named according to the theme they were showcasing, such as  &lsquoBalaka&rsquo&lsquoBioscope&rsquo, &lsquoPartition Museum&rsquo and &lsquoArt Gallery&rsquo. 

A 150-Year Old Legacy

To boost urban passenger transport, the British introduced the tram in several key cities of India, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras, in the late 19th&nbspcentury. But today it survives only in Kolkata, the city where the first horse-drawn tram was introduced in February 1873.

The first tram plied on the route between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street. However, the service was discontinued in November of the same year. In 1880, services were resumed under the London incorporated Calcutta Tramway Company (CTC). In 1882, steam-engine driven trams were introduced. But the popularity increased with the introduction of the electric tramcars in Kolkata in 1902 and in Howrah in 1905. The trams had two coaches &ndash a cheaper second class and a slightly higher priced first class. The difference was erased as late as 2013. With the passage of time, trams became one of the pillars of the city&rsquos transportation system. Passengers would swear by its timeliness. The slow-moving vehicle was the preferred transport for women and the elderly.

The trams have been witness to a lot of events in Kolkata, pre and post-independence. For example, owing to the on-going Second World War, the British did not dare a formal opening of the Howrah Bridge in 1943, fearing an attack on it. It was a solitary tram that trundled in the darkness of night across what was then the world&rsquos third longest cantilever bridge in the world on February 3, 1943. In 1953, it was the one-paisa hike in tram fare that gave the Leftist parties of Kolkata a strong base to launch their agitation and gain a foothold in Bengal politics.

A Tram Trail

One of the must-do on the list of nearly all visitors to Kolkata is a ride on the tram car. Powered by electricity, it moves like a giant caterpillar on wheels, trundling on its rails, oblivious of the crowd of people and vehicles surrounding it. Take a window seat and enjoy street life unfolding like one long tapestry as the trams cut through some of the most interesting quarters of Kolkata.    

Explore the North At the Esplanade tram depot in the heart of Kolkata, board the tram to Shyambazar in old Kolkata (or North Kolkata). As buildings dating back a couple of centuries zip by, you will be transported into the past, to the capital city of Colonial India. Shyambazar is a fascinating area with crumbling Bengali-European mansions and townhouses, fronted by airy verandahs with ironwork and charming louvred windows. One of the oldest areas in the city, it used to be the hub of the Kolkata elite in the 18th century. Shyambazar was an important point in Kolkata's transportation map, and the introduction of the metro station here served as a conduit between north and south Kolkata.   

The South of the City&nbspAnother excellent tram ride is between Tollygunge and Ballygunge. The route takes you through contemporary South Kolkata areas. You pass through the busy Rashbehari-Gariahat stretch full of shops.

As you traverse the two different sides of this fascinating city, your mind goes back to the first tram which rolled out in the tracks was on February 24, 1873. One can only imagine the awe people would have felt seeing the carriages lumber across the iron tracks, like a mini train of sorts. The maiden journey was from Sealdah to the Armenian Ghats. Several trams still plying date back to that era with electrically driven carriage that have survived the ravages of time, seen the Indian freedom struggle, the World War, and the dawn of independent India. That's quite a lot to take in, sitting in these ancient and hardy vehicles. 

Tram Cafes And Museums

There have been efforts by various private organisations to use the trams for special events or use the tram depots as unconventional venues for cultural programmes to spread awareness about trams as a part of the city&rsquos legacy.

The Smaranika Tram Museum for instance offers an interesting insight into the history of trams in India. Housed in a 1938 built tram which belonged to the Bombay fleet, its two coaches have been refurbished into a museum gallery and a café each. The museum contains models of trams down the ages. Equipment, caps, badges and other similar paraphernalia, tickets and coupons, even old coins and pens are on display here. Lots of photographs from the yesteryears. The Tram Museum is open on all days except Thursday between 1pm and 8pm (the official opening time is 3pm but it opens early on popular request) 

Address&nbsp6, Esplanade East, Maidan, Esplanade, Bow Barracks, Kolkata, West Bengal 700069

You can also have a cup of excellent coffee in a tram depot. Located in south Kolkata&rsquos Garcha Road, Tram World Cafe is run out of the Gariahat Tram Depot. So your coffee and snacks (we highly recommend their chicken quiche and apple pie) will be accompanied by vintage trams and a 200-year-old banyan tree. 

Address Tram World Cafe,Tram Depot, 52, Gariahat Rd, inside Gariahat, Dover Terrace, Ballygunge, Kolkata, West Bengal 700019

Outlook Traveller