A new eating joint has come up in Kolkata and, what is more, being mobile it even moves, Kolkata Tramways recently put out one of its trams with The Victoria Tramcar Restaurant that was inaugurated on 13th October last. The restaurant is one of its kind in the only city with a tramcar service running in the country. During the Pujas it served only delectable Bengali dishes and after Bijoya it is serving every kind of food from Chinese to Continetal.
Kolkata’s tram services were dying a slow death in these days of rush and hurry. They were being used and abused for being slow, unwieldy and noisy. For more often than not they were criticized for obstructing traffic on narrow but busy streets during the rush hour. The tramcar services were being neglected and were being starved of funds. In fact the authorities concerned had decided to kill it by gradually closing down routes on which the trams plied. Many of them were closed for the sake of development and speeding up traffic by building flyovers. The closed routes were never reopened. That is how the intricate extensive network of tramlines laid in the early 20th Century serving practically the entire metropolis has been reduced to current only around 18 kilometres.
The system by now would have been killed and cremated but for the fact that a new virtue that was discovered in them. The new environmental awareness in the city saw to it that the trams remained and continued to render their services without hurting the city in any way. Though running mostly on dirty energy they do not emit any greenhouse gases like buses – their automobile counterparts. Hence trams continue to run in Kolkata, though on enormously reduced lengths of their lines providing the cheapest mode of mobility to the townsfolk.
Besides, in addition to the environmental factor their heritage value also came to their help. While the other cities in India with streetcar services like Delhi, Kanpur, Nashik, Mumbai and Chennai were in a hurry to get rid of the trams people in Kolkata, realizing their heritage value, resisted efforts to wind down the services. One recalls protests in Kolkata when certain routes were contemplated for closure. The people in the city had always an upper hand in settling matters that adversely impacted their interests.
The trams in Kokata were introduced almost 150 years ago though these had then cars that were hauled by horses over embedded tracks. But by 1902 the horses were discarded and electric traction was introduced for haulage. A very extensive network of tracks was laid for the commuting public and the transit in them was really very cheap. Kolkata then was the Imperial Capital of India and it had to have the modern means of locomotion available in those times.
As faster means of commuting within the city became available trams came to be looked upon as a liability. Their slow and noisy movements with their ponderous gait they came to be looked upon as a distracting factor for a city that was striving to beautify and modernise itself. That is why they were being discarded slowly and steadily. There were official plans even to close the service but somehow the officials could not do that.
In order to keep its head above the rising waters the Kolkata Tramways has been relentlessly trying to keep this slice of the city’s history in the forefront by sheer innovative efforts. While a tram museum was opened another of its remarkable initiative was a restaurant in a tram. People of the city love heritage and they also love food. The Kolkata Tramways offers both in a stationary tram and again now on a moving tram. What is more such trams have also been air conditioned for the comforts of the commuters/customers.
One cannot really imagine the reason for apathy in India for trams which are clean and articulated modes of transportation within the confines of the city. While Metros are admittedly fast they are expensive to build and uneconomical for the commuters. The metro needs not only separate sets of tracks it also needs a station overground or underground for stoppages. Commuters have to get off at the station and then catch a feeder transport for their destinations. Trams, on the other hand, ply through the streets and a commuter can get off at a stoppage of his choice closest to his destination. Even Light Rails are not as advantageous as for them too stoppages have to be built and tracks have to be laid in a dedicated corridor.
A perusal of the list of tramways revealed various cities in Asia, Europe, USA and North Africa introduced trams as late as in this century. Obviously there are distinct advantages in a tramways system and hence city administrations have been opting for trams wherever they find it beneficial. There are even inter-city tram services. I remember to have gone to Baden from Vienna catching one from the Opera House for the 24 kilometre trip.
For Kolkata it would be desirable to look at what is happening around the world and strengthen the tramways system by upgrading it, reopening the closed lines wherever possible and try and run only air-conditioned trams at cheapest possible tariffs after speeding them up. In that case not only will the system become popular, it will also be able to take the pressure off the Kolkata Metro and road transport systems providing a clean hassle-free alternative commuter service.