Around the World in Trams: Kolkata 191

During April “Around the World in Trams” will be leaving Europe as we head to India for a selection of photos taken in Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was at the time) in 1978.

The city of Kolkata’s first tramway system was a metre gauge horse line which operated for a short time in 1873. Then eight years later the British owned Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC) operated a metre gauge network of horse trams until 1902 when the entire system was electrified. It was also, unusually for India, converted to European standard gauge. The first electric cars were supplied by Dick, Kerr of Preston (who also undertook the conversion work) and as with all trams delivered since they were single ended. There are terminal loops at the end of the routes and a complex network of interlocking loops at Esplanade, the main city centre terminus. Two classes of accommodation were provided on the trams and many latter cars were either built or converted locally, though regularly using trucks and other components imported from Britain – and latterly motors from Hungary.

The photos over the next few photos were taken during 1978 by which time the CTC was run by the Government of West Bengal, having been nationalised only a couple of years earlier in 1976. There were 26 numbered routes which operated over 62kms of double track, using over 430 cars. About three quarters of the system was on-street, with the remainder either median-strip or side reservation. The first closures had taken place earlier in the decade but even so 800,000 passengers a day were claimed to be riding the trams and extensions were still being discussed (including the significant southwards section from Behala to Joka which opened in 1986 as route 37).

The main issues affecting the trams in the 1970s included aging infrastructure and an elderly fleet operating in demanding conditions, but predominant was the very slow average speed imposed by sharing congested road space with traffic that was frequently animal and people powered. To solve some of these problems thoughts had turned towards an underground Metro and the first line of the 5’6” gauge (Indian broad gauge) system opened in 1984 – by 2024 it had slowly grown to a three route network, with a further three lines either under construction or planned.

As for the tramway it still survives in 2024 but only just. At the end of 2023 there was a proposal from the West Bengal Government to reduce the already much truncated system to a single tourist route, though this does appear to have been defeated, not least because the tram is seen as an iconic part of the city’s heritage.

In the below photo which was taken on 22nd November 1978 utility car 191 – a permanently coupled two axle motor and trailer which had been converted just a year or two before from ex-Howrah C and D class 2-axle trams dating from the first decade of the twentieth century. Until the early 1970s trams in the city had been in a livery which was mostly grey, but by the end of the decade things had brightened up by a variety of liveries of which this is the most striking. The setts in the road also recall British systems than a bygone age.

The tram is passing IR’s Sealdah Station and is near the start of its route 14 journey from Rajabazar Depot. This route terminated at the city centre High Court turning circle but on this occasion it was a short working to Binoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (previously Dalhousie Square). It was named after three mid-twentieth century Indian independence activists who assassinated the British Inspector General of Prisons in the Square in 1930.

Photograph by Donald Brooks, 22nd November 1978

This entry was posted in Around the World in Trams. Bookmark the permalink.