A mode of transport dating back to the 19th century has undergone a cool, 21st century transformation. A refurbished tramcar, retrofitted with air-conditioners, has emerged as a beacon of hope for the century-old tramways, which has shrunk drastically in the past two decades, with only a skeletal service on severely truncated routes now operational.
It may trundle along Kolkata’s streets at an average speed of 35 kmph, an anachronism in this age of under-river Metros that promise to revolutionise travel across the city, but the AC service between Shyambazar and Esplanade, one of the oldest routes, has been drawing passengers in hordes since it was introduced at the beginning of this month. Making six round trips a day, this single-coach tram has been clocking thrice the revenue of a usual twin coach tram.
And the high demand for the AC tram has even made sceptics sit up and take notice. “No tram in Kolkata has generated as much revenue in years as this single-coach AC tram has registered since it was introduced,” said a senior West Bengal Transport Corporation official. “Enthused by it, we are considering a proposal to introduce such a service in other parts of the city.”
He said AC trams could also help cross-subsidise non-AC services, which are currently loss-making. While a ride on the AC tram costs Rs 20, that on non-AC trams cost Rs.6 up to 4 km and Rs.7 beyond that distance.
A coach from a 1982-make twin-coach tram was completely overhauled at the Nonapukur central workshop and the body built on the chassis from scratch before being fitted with a 7.1-tonne AC unit.
The idea was to combine old-world charm (trams in late 19th and early 20th century Kolkata sported only one coach) with modern-day comfort.
While the length of each coach in a twinbogie tram is 28ft, the length of the single-coach tram is 36ft. The tram has pneumatic doors, which are operated from the motorman’s cabin. The renovation has cost Rs.25 lakh.
This is not the first AC tram, although it is the first to be commercially operated for regular commute. Back in 2013, the same workshop had manufactured two AC trams that were christened ‘Charoibeti’ and ‘Rupasi Bangla’, which were used exclusively for heritage tours in central and north Kolkata. With a capacity of seat 24 and equipped with television and FM radio, the AC trams, with a fare of Rs.250 per passenger, including snacks, used to undertake four rides daily. The service was popular in the winter but response was lukewarm at best in summer. WBTC had thereafter introduced a fine-dining service in an AC tram travelling from Esplanade to Kidderpore. It did four trips daily, twice at lunchtime and twice at dinner.
The tramways’ latest effort was inaugurated by transport minister Subhendu Adhikari in February, but the coach was put into service only in May. Tram routes along the city’s north-south axis have been severed at Esplanade due to the ongoing East-West Metro corridor project. The Park Circus depot has virtually been cut out of the network and services from the Gariahat depot are few and far between.