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Saving a beloved icon: Growing drive in Kolkata to restore Asia's oldest running tram system

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A tram running in Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it was known then) in the 1970s 

It is on the dexterity of the likes of Mr A.K. Pandey that the survival of Asia's oldest running tramway system hinges. Operating these creaking machines, which resemble antediluvian leviathans on Kolkata's packed streets, is no mean task.

Mr Pandey, a tram operator in the city for four decades, keeps his eyes peeled on a January morning for stubborn intruders on these tracks that have carried electric tram cars continuously since 1902. His left arm grasps a speed controller, while the right is clasped around the air brakes of a car built in the early 1980s.

His right heel taps away frenziedly on a small knob as if he were a drummer furiously working his drum pedal. The action sounds a bell that competes with the cacophony of horns outside. And this is not enough.

He has to even hurl out warnings to keep others safe. "Lag jayga re (You will get hurt)," Mr Pandey yells at the driver of a taxi that is clearly at fault as it veers in dangerously on the tracks from the opposite direction.

Yet, it is Kolkata's graceful trams that have been vilified. They have been blamed for causing congestion despite evidence pointing otherwise, dismissed as "obsolete" and even condemned to die a "natural death".

From a peak of around 50 routes in the 1960s that ferried nearly half of the city's commuters, the system has faced institutional apathy, allegedly at the behest of other transport lobbies, and runs erratic services on just five routes today.

It shines on only in the imagination of a nostalgic few, its glory perpetuated through Bengali books and films that immortalise trams as an essential motif in their classic tapestries.

The Kolkata tramway system's status today, to put it bluntly, is that of a comatose patriarch, whose reverential family members dare not pull the plug.

But a growing campaign by dedicated tram users, led by the Calcutta Tram Users Association (CTUA), now seeks to revive it to what it was in its heyday.

Since it was founded in 2018, the association has organised several public campaigns, including a protest on Dec 26 last year, demanding regularised as well as increased tram services.

"Our goal is to revitalise the tramways to its original position," said Dr Debasish Bhattacharyya, 63, the CTUA president.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the city, then known as Calcutta, had grown along the tram network, the tracks spanning it like arteries and nourishing its body. "Today though, that network has been reduced to a vegetative state with no utility," he added.

But it is not the tramway's heritage value, going back even further to 1873 when horse-drawn trams were introduced in the city, that is being tom-tommed but its role as an affordable and eco-friendly mode of urban transport.

"We already have this electric mode of transport," said MrShouryaBasu, 21, a hotel management student and one of the younger CTUA members. "Why abandon it and introduce more fossil fuel-powered cars and buses on the roads?"

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A protest organised by the CTUA to demand increased tram services, in Kolkata on Dec 26, 2020 

Trams cars, which rely on overhead electricity cables, have a significantly longer life span than buses and do not involve the challenge of safe battery disposal that electric buses do.

Yet, blind to its many benefits of enhancing sustainable mobility for the masses, the authorities in Kolkata have gnawed away at the network. Roads have been built over tracks at some spots, its accompanying electric cables still hanging overhead. Cables have been pulled down elsewhere to make way for flyovers, tracks still gleaming below.

Even reserved stretches alongside tracks - allowing passengers to get off and wait for traffic to clear before crossing the road - were encroached on to widen roads for other vehicles but inconveniencing tram users.

"Both young and old will start availing themselves of the system in a big way if it is modernised and made reliable as well as safe," added Mr Anurag Mitra, 38, a bank analyst and another CTUA member.

The city's many tram depots are today littered with unused and decaying tram cars and some real estate assets in these depots have been sold off in lucrative deals.

Mr Subir Bose, the general secretary of the Calcutta Tramways Workers' and Employees' Union, said nearly 120 cars lying around in these depots can be used if new drivers are recruited and trained.

But recruitment of new drivers stopped around 2010 and an in-house driving training school folded four years ago.

Lack of drivers - the tramway system has around 85 of them - often leads to delayed and irregular services, putting off even the few remaining dedicated commuters. The budget for spare parts, Mr Bose added, has also fallen to a third from around 60 million rupees (S$ 1.09 million) in 2011-12.

The West Bengal Transport Corporation, which manages the system today, has sought to make trams more attractive through initiatives such as air-conditioned services, a tram library and even wi-fi services introduced this month to attract youth. Its managing director Rajanvir Singh Kapur did not respond to a request for an interview.

But these measures have failed to placate the CTUA and others who termed them an "eyewash" and no substitute for a frequent, punctual and efficient - even if basic - tram service.

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The West Bengal Transport Corporation has tried to make tram services more appealing by introducing air-conditioned services, besides offering others such a tram library as well as wi-fi on board

"The tram has a sentimental value for people in Kolkata and all these efforts are just an attempt to protect that sentiment," said Mr Bose. "There is practically no vision on how to make tram services better overall and draw more commuters."

Dr Bhattacharyya told The Straits Times the tramway's revival should be relatively easy as most of the infrastructure required, such as tracks, depots, a workshop, electric posts and coaches, exists already. "What's not there though is the political will." he added. "Do I give unions running auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) priority, or trams?"

Survival, revival of tram systems

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People walking past a tram in Hong Kong on Nov 29, 2020 

Many other Asian cities had functioning tramway systems that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These systems, including the ones in Mumbai and Singapore, have mostly shut down.

The exceptions include the systems in Kochi in Japan, and Hong Kong. These cities continue to operate tram systems that go as far back as 1904.

But trams have seen a renaissance as a viable public transport system in recent years. Beijing, for instance, opened a new tram line last month.

In Australia, Melbourne continues to operate the world's largest network of trams, with 250km of track and more than 5,000 services every day.