Wheels Of Heritage

Anindita Mazumder

Tram may be regarded as the first mode of public transport in old Calcutta though it was initially conceived for the purpose of transporting goods from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat, the nearest point to Howrah Station across the river. Previously, the only mode for public transport was either hackneyed carriage or palanquin which initially was just a platform-like structure but then a hood was attached to it and eventually acquired two pair of wheels to be converted into a palanquin-car. The horses of the hackneyed carriages were no more than a bundle of bones since the discarded animals of phaetons and broughams owned by the Europeans and the rich natives were bought and used to pull the carriages. As the city turned into a metropolis, its population increased substantially, the need for public transport was felt more and more. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we trace the growth of city’s oldest public transport from horse drawn to electric tram cars.

In 1870 the Justices of Peace (in charge of developing the city) proposed laying of tram tracks for transporting vegetables and other goods from the rural suburbs through Sealdah Station to other parts of Calcutta. The report submitted by the Justices proposed that tram tracks may be laid from Sealdah through Bow Bazar to Armenian Ghat, Ahiritollah Ghat till Chitpore Bridge via Sovabazar and beyond Bag Bazar Municipality railway tracks on an experimental basis. However, Bengal Government gave their permission for laying tracks till Armenian Ghat only at an estimated cost of rupees one lakh. Armenian Ghat was chosen as the terminal destination because it housed the ticket counter of East India Railways. In 1873 the first tram tracks were laid at a cost of Rs 2.5 lakh from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat via Circular Road, Bow Bazar Street, Dalhousie Square and Strand Road.

On February 24, 1873- the day tram began its maiden journey there was quite a commotion since native people boarded it in such large numbers that even the two strong set of horses brought to pull the cars could not budge it at all. A large number of people had also gathered in the neighbourhood for a glimpse of the first horse drawn trams. However, the newly-introduced trams ran up huge losses amounting to Rs 500 per month and resulted in winding up of the business by November. The tracks and tram cars were then sold off by the corporation to English businessmen – two brothers, Dillwyn and Alfred Parish and Robinson Soutar but the popularity of tram as a public transport had convinced the trio about the future of this mode of transport.

They proceeded to set up a company called Calcutta Tramways Company and signed an agreement with the Corporation on April 2, 1879 which allowed the company to run trams in eight areas including Sealdah to Dalhousie via Bowbazar, Chowringhee Road, Chitpore Road, Dhurramtolla Street, Strand Road, Shyambazar, Khiddirpore and Wellesley Street. The company procured sturdy horses, remodelled the tram cars and began services once again from November 1, 1880. Horse drawn trams continued to ply in this city from 1880 till 1902. Initially, the drivers and conductors of CTC wore huge red pugree (headgear) and the tram cars were of a dull grey shade, popularly known as CTC Grey. The pair of horses which drew the cars also wore headgears of pith with only their ears protruding out of the contraption.

In 1896 there were six depots for housing the horses including at Shyampukur, Chitpore, Sealdah, Kalinga, Bhawanipore and Khidderpore. Till 1908-1909 there were no tram stops, instead at every mile there was a designated station with a stable where the horses could be changed and the passengers could also board or get down from the tram cars. Such stations existed at Jorasanko, Harrison Road, Lallbazar crossing, Dalhousie Square, Esplanade, Shyambazar and Wellington Square. The horses had a really difficult task in hand, drawing tram cars loaded with passengers in hot and humid climatic conditions which often did not suit them at all. In 1881 many of these horses died because of a prolonged hot spell.

CTC attempted to introduce stream run tram cars but in a year six accidents derailed their plans somewhat. By 1896, a British company, Killburn and Company had set up a power generating unit at Imambag Street (Prinsep Street). They entered into an agreement with CTC and applied for permission to Corporation for running electric tram cars. They readily agreed and it was estimated it would cost Rs 18, 78, 529 for converting to electricity. CTC had to pay taxes to Corporation for running the trams. In 1898, the work for converting the routes for electric trams began in two routes, from Government Place East to Old Court House Street and from Chitpore to Burrabazar via Mechuabazar. On March 27, 1902, the first electric run tram began its journey on Khidderpore route.

The coming of electric tram rendered the horses idle and from December 23, 1902, CTC gave out a series of advertisements for selling off its fleet of horses. The advertisement read: “The opening of the Company’s system by electric traction has released a number of C-B Geldings suitable for Phaeton, trap and Hackwork generally; amongst them are also a number of good saddle horses. The horses can be seen at any time during the day at the Company’s Chowringhee depot, Russa Road on application to the European Foreman in charge.”

The extension of tram network spelt the doom for hackeneyed carriages and palanquins and their rule finally ended in 1909 with the coming of buses and motor taxis. Tram was introduced in Calcutta’s twin city, Howrah in the year 1808 and on the Howrah Bridge in 1943.

Even after independence, the British owners continued to run CTC. Tram is also inextricably linked with the history of politics of protests in the city. Its employees had struck work in 1921 and in 1953 a raise of only a single paisa in ticket prices of second class triggered off violent protests led by the Leftists leaders of Bengal. In 1967 when the United Front government came to power it took over the running of trams in its hands. However, the state government converted CTC as its own corporation, taking over its assets only in 1976 through an ordinance.

In today’s Calcutta, trams are often looked upon as a sluggish mode of transport, stalling faster movement of traffic and eating away vital road space. Yet, the tinkling bells of tram cars bring back that sense of romance and nostalgia of the city’s past.