Trams Reconsidered

I’m quite a tram fan. From Helsinki to Naples, Portland (Oregon) to Prague – not to mention Hong Kong’s awesome double-deckers – trams are the most intimate and accessible of rail-bound transport, and Calcutta’s are undoubtedly my favourite. What’s more, through various avenues of social media, I’m delighted to discover there are masses of fellow admirers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were as many fans as there are passengers.

This is important because there’s always buzz going around that the trams are an endangered species. As other major cities worldwide are realizing the value of light rail systems, enough to either upgrade existing lines or start afresh, there’s an unsavoury feeling they may be sacrificed as Calcutta yields more and more to automotive demands. Appreciation leads to awareness, followed by preservation and improvement.

After all, the world’s biggest tram tragedy transpired when, starting in the 1940s, the ingenious Pacific Electric Railway Network in Southern California was systematically dismantled in light of the crushing influence of freeways, resulting in an urban traffic hell that is worse than it ever needed to be. Sadder but wiser cities have had to rebuild such systems from scratch, at exponentially higher costs, too.

No longer do trams ply over Howrah Bridge, nor do they link with gentle Behala to the south (alas for the recent Majherhat bridge collapse…), but few can deny their role in the city, which is nothing short of remarkable.

Speaking of the Behala route, it remains my supreme tram voyage. Late one balmy summer night, after dinner with friends, I found the last tram waiting at the terminal. As the only one aboard, sitting in the front seat (finally!), it was so quiet I could hear the slight buzz of the drive motors for the first time. Bliss, all the way to Esplanade.

My tram time has demonstrated that, no matter how crowded the carriages can become (I always thought the old ‘sardine tin’ trope pretty inane), the passengers are invariably polite and even-tempered while aboard. And there’s good reason: trams are mobile havens from the mobile madness without. So much steadier than any lurching internal combustion vehicle too, and far more lovable. Granted, any tram ride is punctuated by a few clanks and groans, but the smoothness can be downright stately.

Of course, any ambience of politeness detectable in and around Calcuttan trams was regulated from the start. In 1886, ‘No car shall be driven at a greater pace than six miles an hour…’ If any rules were breached, both driver and conductor were liable to a fine ‘not exceeding Rs 20’. Today, the sheer volume of surrounding traffic does most of the regulating.

Horse-drawn in the 1870s, then powered by steam, Cal’s trams were proudly all-electric by 1902. Upgrades came slowly, because the Calcutta Tram Company usually operated at a loss. In 1916, stopping stations were not yet illuminated or even identified, but the CTC was ‘experimenting’ with glass panes labelled ‘Tram Stop’, strategically inserted on nearby gas lamps.

New-fangled Euro-appearing coachwork now trundles along. Paint jobs run from adverts to artworks, and the cheeriness is most welcome. I’ll always be fond of the old weather-beaten veterans, though. With exteriors that are venerable and experienced instead of industrially abused and grim, they’ve always struck me as handmade, perhaps by sincere artisans more familiar with bidri work, with surfaces hammered out, not at all meant to be sleek and boring.

For being so scraped and scarred, even in the most unlikely places, I’ve never yet witnessed even the slightest grazing from any other vehicle actually coming into contact with a tram. I’m sure many could reference incidents of all kinds, but it’s almost as if the carriages are ‘pre-bashed’ as a warning to those who would be foolish enough to drive sloppily around such moving monoliths. Never linger in their path, and mind the clang of the bell, used sparingly but with utter solemnity. So unlike the jittering honkers who pass by with such urgency.

By their humble but dignified daily labours then, Calcutta’s trams hardly rate as a novelty. Yet, at least for those of us who are Cal tram fans, a ride on those rails is always a properly novel experience. Long may they run, with renewed importance and enlightened guidance.

Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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