History of Trams in India | Industry study | Business History
By Aniket Gupta | 15 Nov 2023
I am Sheetal Gaikwad, and the video I am presenting to you is based on a script written by Aniket Gupta; it is about the history of trams in India.
You may be wondering why I am talking about a mode of transport that is almost obsolete. People who have never been to Kolkata, or people in Mumbai who were born after the mid-1960s, have probably not seen what a tram looks like. Unless they have been to San Francisco or some other foreign city that uses trams as a mode of commuting for its citizens.
Why I am talking about trams in India is because there is a good chance that trams will make a comeback. And why am I saying this? It’s because the escalating prices of petroleum-based fuels and the uncontrolled pollution that petroleum-based fuels create in our cities make trams a viable option for the future.
So let us explore how and when trams came into existence in some Indian cities.
Those who know all about trams, please forgive me, but I must ask this question for the benefit of those who do not know about them.
So, to begin with – what is a tram?
A tram is a type of rail transport vehicle designed to operate on tramway tracks on city streets.
Trams are powered by electricity and use sunken rail tracks to maneuver through the city roads. Because they are tied down to these sunken rails, their movement is limited. They cannot deviate from the straight and narrow, so to say. Not even a bit, unlike trolley buses.
Trams enjoyed great popularity in the first half of the twentieth century. Right until the nineteen-sixties. All over the world.
Trams were used in nearly every big city in Europe and in many American cities. And, then, they suddenly dropped off from view in most cities because of competition from buses and cars.
Now I am going to focus on tram services in Indian cities.
Contrary to popular belief, trams were not only functional in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) but also in Madras (that is, Chennai), Delhi, Nashik, Kanpur, Patna, Cochin (or Kochi), and Bhavnagar. Until they were closed down.
Did you know that?
With the passage of time, their numbers dwindled, and now Kolkata in West Bengal is the only city in India that continues to use trams.
Trams in Kolkata are operated by the West Bengal Transport Corporation (or WBTC). Not only is it the only operating tram network in India, it is also the oldest operating electric tram service in Asia.
The city had 257 trams, of which 125 used to run daily on its streets, but today only 35 trams operate daily. On 24 February, 2023, Kolkata trams celebrated their 150th anniversary.
But did you know this? The first trams in India, as elsewhere in the world, were pulled by horses. Electric-powered trams came later. And so did they in Kolkata.
The first horse-drawn trams in India ran a 3.9-km distance in Kolkata on 24 February 1873 [A1] between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street next to the Hooghly River. That service did not last very long and was discontinued on 20th November in the same year.
In 1880 the Calcutta Tramway Company was registered in London. Meter-gauge tracks were laid from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar Street, Dalhousie Square and Strand Road for horse-drawn trams to run on.
Then, in 1882, steam locomotives were made to haul tram cars as an experiment. By the end of the 19th century, the Calcutta Tramway Company owned 166 tram cars, 1,000 horses, seven steam locomotives and 19 miles of tram tracks.
Then came the year 1900, and it was time to say goodbye to the tired horses. The tramway was electrified and its tracks were reconstructed to a standard gauge. The first electric trams in India ran in Kolkata in 1902, plying the route from Esplanade to Kidderpore on 27th March and from Esplanade to Kalighat on 14th June. They continue to run today with a reduced fleet.
In 1865, Bombay, as Mumbai was known then, was presented with a proposal for a comprehensive public transportation system. The proposal came from an American company that had also requested permission to operate a horse-drawn tram system within the city. Regrettably, though the license was approved, the project never took off due to the city's enduring economic downturn at the time.
Then, in 1873, the Bombay Tramway Company was established. In 1874, the Bombay Presidency passed the Bombay Tramways Act after reaching an agreement between the Bombay Tramway Company, the municipality, and the Stearns and Kitteredge Company. This legislation granted the company the authority to operate a horse-drawn tram service in the city.
On 9 May, 1874, the first horse-drawn carriages began running in Bombay, covering routes from Colaba to Pydhonie via Crawford Market and from Bori Bunder to Pydhonie via Kalbadevi.
The fare for this journey was a modest three annas, which later dropped to 2 annas as the service gained popularity.
The Bombay Tramway Company wanted to start electric trams in the city. So, in 1899, they submitted a formal application to the municipality seeking permission to do so. Unfortunately, the city wouldn’t see its first electric tram until much later. This was due to a lack of sufficient electric supply in the city.
Then, in 1904, the British Electric Traction Company, represented by the Brush Electrical Engineering Company, applied for a license to supply electricity to the city. This was a turning point for the Bombay Tramway Company, as they could now revive their dream of running electric trams in the streets of Bombay.
On 31 July, 1905, the Brush Electrical Engineering Company was granted the electric license for Bombay with endorsements from the Bombay Tramway Company and the Bombay Municipality. Together, they formed Bombay Electric Supply and Tramway Company, or BEST.
BEST obtained a monopoly on electric supply and introduced electric tram services in the city, acquiring the assets of the Bombay Tramway Company for ₹9.85 million. Two years later in 1907, the first electric tram made its debut on the streets of Bombay. In the same year, a 4,300-kilowatt steam power generator was inaugurated at Wadi Bunder.
In 1916, the city began procuring power from Tata Power, a private company, and by 1925, all power generation was outsourced from Tata.
To cope with rush-hour traffic, double-decker trams were introduced in September 1920. These trams served the commuting needs of the city until the local train network and the bus services were improved, leading to the discontinuation of the tram service on March 31, 1964.
In 1874, shortly after the opening of the tramway in Bombay, Madras was the third city in India to get a passenger tram service. This too was a horse-drawn tram service. The main route was between Royapuram and Triplicane.
The tramway ran for a few years, but it was discontinued due to poor financial returns.
Then, on 7 May 1895, tramways saw a revival in the city. The Madras Electric Tramways were opened in 1895, connecting the docks and the inland areas, and carrying goods as well as passengers. When it began, it was India's first electric tram system.
In 1921, at its peak, it ran 97 cars over 24 kilometers of track. Sadly, by 1950 the tram company had gone bankrupt and was closed down on 12 April 1953.
In 1889, Nashik in Maharashtra, became the fourth city in India after Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai to get trams. The trams first used two carriages pulled by four horses and ran 8 to 10 km. They were discontinued around 1933 after the service incurred heavy losses during successive years of famine and plague.
Trams were introduced in Kanpur in June 1907. The system had 20 single-deck open trams that ran on 6.4 km of track between Kanpur railway station and Sirsaya Ghat on the banks of the Ganga. The service lasted until 16 May 1933.
In Cochin, trams operated from 1907 to 1963, and brought teak and rosewood from the neighboring forests for global shipment from the port.
Then, on 6 March 1908, trams were launched in Delhi. At its peak in 1921, Delhi had 24 open tram cars and 15 kilometers of track that included Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Lal Kuan, Sabzi Mandi, Sadar Bazar, Paharganj, Ajmeri Gate, Bara Hindu Rao and Tees Hazari. Delhi trams were shut down in 1963 because it was felt that they added to the congestion in the city.
Patna, in Bihar, used horse-drawn trams. These trams ran in the populated area of Ashok Rajpath, from Patna City to Bankipore, with its western terminus at Sabzibagh. But it did not get enough customers. The service was discontinued in 1903 because of lack of passengers.
The princely state of Bhavnagar, now in Gujarat, had a narrow-gauge tram built in 1926 for a short distance and then extended from Bhavnagar, south to Talaja, and was extended to Mahuva in 1938. In 1947, the 108.6-km tramway was taken over by the Saurashtra Railway, which was in turn amalgamated with the Western Railway. The tram lines were closed during the 1960s.
The popularity of trams in India began to decline in the mid-20th century. This was due to a number of factors, chief among which was the rise of automobiles and the construction of new bus and metro systems.
Trams were once considered a useful mode of transportation, but due to rising competition from alternative modes, they could not survive. The decreasing number of trams in Kolkata is proof of this.
But trams are making a comeback in cities around the world. And India too may follow soon.