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A Streetcar Named the Kolkatan Tram

April 2009
A Streetcar Named the Kolkatan Tram

In Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle nicely captured India’s enduring love affair with trains. Why isn’t it surprising? Because prior to making this film, Boyle was most closely associated with Trainspotting. The Indian Railways has 1.4 million employees, making it the biggest commercial employer in the world. Its arterial network of 39,350 miles is the most extensive rail system in Asia (and the world’s second largest under one management). It transports over 18 million people every day on 7000 passenger trains.

While trains play an outsized role in the nation’s life, trams—seen here as distant cousins—are close to extinction. In fact, Kolkata is the only Indian city to have this quaint mode of transportation. With a history of 130 years, Kolkata’s tramway—like India’s railways—is a legacy of the British Raj. In its heyday, back in the 1930s, about 319 trams plied the streets of what was then called Calcutta. Now only about 100 trams operate on a regular basis, although 20 modernized tramcars—10 of which will be electric—are expected to be introduced over the next two years. While most passengers are ordinary citizens, tourists do climb aboard for a nostalgic ride through the City on the Hooghly.   

Luckily for the aam admi (common man) who still uses Kolkata’s trams, it’s not the end of the line yet. The hand-pulled rickshaws are gone—thankfully, many would say—but these trams will continue to give the city its distinctive, old-world charm.

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