Another year, another exotic location, another travel report…
I’ve long toyed with the idea of visiting Calcutta (now called Kolkata). In February 2011 this dream became a reality. Together with a fairly large group of fellow enthusiasts from the US, Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Germany (21 in total) who wanted to join me we met at the nice old fashioned Oberoi Grand Hotel. A direct flight from Frankfurt was my choice, others travelled via Delhi or Dubai.
Day 1 (Saturday)
#637 approaching Esplanade from B.B.D. Bagh (on route 25)
Some of the tour members had arrived the day before and were out chasing trams already but due to our late arrival at 3am this very morning we opted for a late start. We walked the short distance to Esplanade terminus. Thousands of people on the pavement (sidewalk) and nearly as many salesmen. It is often easier just to walk in the road (close to the pavement). At Esplanade we soon discovered the secret of the place: hundreds of men urinating shamelessly. I’m sure Esplanade originally was a nice garden (a friend who visited the city over 10 years ago saw mainly rats in the gardens – they have all gone maybe because of the strong smell of pee; well we only saw one dead rat there anyway). Trams came and went and we explored the various loops and tracks (the best photo opportunities are usually standing fairly close to the streams of urine – if one wants some background). Works car RS-3 was as expected still parked there (and seems to live there). Around the CTC control tower we noticed various CTC buses and also some rubber tired service vehicles. An old tram body acts as mess hut. Line 36 to Kidderpore has its own loop there and is thus not operationally connected to the rest of the system (but connecting tracks are available and some cars based at KP do run over these to take up service on other lines). We walked to the close-by B.B.D. Bagh terminus (originally called Dalhousie Square). The original big loop around the water has been replaced by a smaller loop around the block of big office buildings at the southern end of the pond. After taking photos there as well we boarded our first tram: a number 2 to Belgatchia. We went all the way. All trams consist of two separate carriages, the front one is 1st class (sporting ventilators under the roof) and single forward facing seats, the rear car is 2nd class (with longitudinal seating and without ventilators) – only the newly rebuilt cars are all 1st class. Ladies seating is situated at the inner ends, the conductors (each carriage has one = 3 man crews needed) also like to lounge there. We experienced full and fairly empty trams during our visit. In the rush hour it can be very busy. Headways seem haphazard – the heavy traffic takes its toll. At Belgatchia the tram enters the depot to loop round and we took some photos at the entrance. Security men chase photographers away quickly but as we found out that one boards the tram to go back into town inside the depot we simply put the cameras away and just walked in – no problems. We decided to go back to B.B.D. Bagh because I had noticed earlier that this a good place to get a private (red) bus to Behala. We had heard that the Behala – Joka shuttle was still running but we were of course not sure if this information was genuine and current. After a lengthy ride in a very busy bus (the bus is about twice as expensive as a tram ride = 7 to 8 rupees) we spotted tram tracks (north of Behala little remains of the track) and got out. The Behala loop is single track through a very narrow street with lots of shops and people. Yes, trams were running! After taking some photos we took a tram down to Joka. On most maps we had seen this shuttle line seemed rather short but in reality this is fairly long and it took some time to reach the terminus. Joka is the newest line on the system but it will probably be closed shortly. The new metro is being built on a viaduct in the middle of the street and thus directly over the tracks. Joka loop is surrounded by a wall and has space for a very big depot. This was never built but may now become a bus garage. A security guard lives in one of the two tram bodies dumped there and keeps the area save from photographers (he was not quick enough for us). I later heard that they have to keep people out that may establish a commercial residence there (then impossible to evict) like a tea shop or a barbers tent. Cow on the tracks outside! It was already getting dark when we made our way back to Behala. 5 of the 6 trams on the line operated during the rush hour! Finding a bus stop was tricky but we managed in the end.
Day 2 (Sunday)
Back to Esplanade. Today we had met our guide from Real India Journeys. I had chosen to employ someone professional to organise all our charters and depot visits. Much easier! We had been issued with a permit by the tramway company CTC to visit all depots but unfortunately, the permit was dated starting next day. We tried our luck at Park Circus depot and soon discovered that we had to come back the next day if we wanted to take photos. Again, we were able to roam round the depot – but “no photos”! Not easily deterred we boarded a couple of Tuc Tucs to go south and try our luck at Gariahat depot. Same problem there. We then heard that all tram services had suddenly stopped because of a big political rally in the city centre. What to do? Some of our group went back into town by Tuc Tuc but I wanted to use the time to see what was left of the tracks to Ballygunge. All still there (but not connected to Gariahat anymore)! Only the wires at the loop have gone. We then made our way to Kalighat depot. To our big surprise I saw a tram in the street. Here? No service, surely… Well, they do run a service between here and Tollygunge depot in the south. No route number is carried. We took photos and rode down to TG. The tram again loops round the depot (and we remained on board). We had given up taking photos in Kalighat and Tollygunge (well, when the security is looking the other way what harm is done by a quick shot) knowing that from tomorrow we had our photo permit for all depots. Again it was getting dark and we headed back into town. This time by metro. We did not manage to get out at our station at Esplande because of the hundreds of people pushing in without letting anyone out. We did get back from the next stop and this time there was no problem.
Day 3 (Monday)
Our first tram charter (private hire). I had planned to start this charter from Nonapukur works so we could visit the place before our tour went on the road. We took a tram from Esplanade that stops right outside NP. It did take some time getting in (despite the permit) but once inside we could roam around at our leisure. Lots of works cars there. It is not a workshop we would find at home: very old, lots of scrap metal and dark and dusty. Still, it does the job: keeping trams on the road and slowly modernising the fleet (well, at least the car bodies). Our two axle charter tram no.125 (not the real number, it was built for the 125th anniversary of the company) duly arrived. The exit gate is always full of parked small lorries but their drivers seem to live in them and it only took a few minutes to clear the track. We headed to Park Circus and today nobody bothered us about a photo permit. Gariahat depot – same welcome there. We headed north to Bidhan Nagar and made a photo stop on a unusually quite stretch of road – under the railway. Bidhan Nagar on some maps is shown as a depot but this is only two tracks in a walled-in property. On the way back we stopped at Rajabazar depot where the permanent way fleet (both steel wheel and rubber tired) is also housed. We had to come here to be able to move north to Belgatchia. These days many track junctions on the CTC network only allow you to go in certain directions. We later went to B.B.D. Bagh and our tour finished at Esplanade. Some time left (before it went dark) to walk a bit of the Kidderpore line along the bus station. Poor people live in tents along the streets.
Day 4 (Tuesday)
Today I had originally planned to have two charters but I guess with the heavy traffic and my suggestions for routes the CTC could not help but change the plan to have one long charter today and another the next day. This did not leave us any time to visit the suburban railway workshops (we had a permit!) or the metro depot (permit did not arrive in time – it is part of the state railway but they like to think independently). Well, a good to reason to return again in a few years. Today our charter started at Esplanade but before it did we walked along Lenin Sarani to capture some trams on chip. Early morning it is fairly quite (few people and few cars). They burn rubbish and leaves in the gutter in the morning so the smokefilled air allowed for some interesting photography. At Esplanade waited our tour tram no. 281. This has a modern body and is all first class. The CTC had wanted to give us no.125 again but we insisted on something different. We had just one (senior) conductor – possibly an inspector – and he was very busy all day keeping the public out of both carriages of the tram (shouting and waving). We took the tram over the connecting tracks to the Kiddepore line and had a few photo stops along this scenic route (and also on the bridge near Watgunge Junction temporarily halting all the traffic going south). The points and tracks towards Behala are all still in place. After visiting the Depot we returned north and ended up in Belgatchia again (we visited this depot four or five times I think during our stay) – they know us all by name now, I’m sure. Howrah Bridge terminus was our next destination. Very busy! For the first time (rush hour had started) I noticed how extremely difficult it is for trams to run against the flow of the traffic in a 5 lane one way street (no wonder the car bodies of the trams are so “battered”). The tour finished for most of us at Esplanade but my original plan had said Nonapukur works (where we would then have started our second charter). So there we went, had another quick look around and said good bye. Taxi ride to Kalighat next. Chasing trams by taxi or Tuc Tuc saves a lot of time and is cheap. With my photo permit I had no problems taking photos there and also at Tollygunge. The man in charge at TG talked to us for a long time, served us tea and I even ended up with a few souvenirs (metal destination signs) as well. He even drove us back to our hotel in his chauffeur driven car. Amazing! We learned that TG was closed (only the bus part open). There are about 50-60 stored trams there and at Kalighat. 5 are used and serviced at Kalighat only. He has hopes of the line from Kalighat to Watgunge Junction reopening. They take few fares on the Kalighat – Tollygunge shuttle (the metro runs parallel) mainly because here like in so many parts of the town now the trams run in the middle of a busy 3 lane street with no space for the passengers to wait and alight. Previously there had been a private right of way in the middle with plenty of space. At least the tracks got renewed whenever they replaced the median. The city also forced the CTC to reduce the number of trams running – to ease the flow of traffic.
Day 5 (Wednesday)
Originally reserved for the suburban railway depot and metro depots we used this day for another full-day tram charter. It took our guide some time to persuade the CTC to give us a regular tram (“they will not like”, “the seats are uncomfortable”…) but in the end we won. Instead of an old tram from Gariahat depot (and they usually have the oldest cars) we got the nice looking one from Kidderpore. We started the day by walking from the hotel to Lenin Sarani and then taking Tuc Tucs to Nonapukur works. This time they waved us through and we had more time to see everything including the workshops where they rebuild the tram bodies, many of us had missed this hall on the previous visit. I spent a long time with the boss of security because I had asked if I could take a car number sign I had found on a heap (probably a scrap heap but who knows). As nobody wants to make any decisions we had to wait for the works manager but he was not yet in. So I told them I would return later in the day. A huge Muslim parade (not a demonstration) halted traffic along APC Road but also gave us a few additional photo stops. It was hard to refuse all the food and drinks we were offered by the happy Muslim children – everybody was out in their best white dresses. Another photo stop under the railway on the line to Bidhan Nagar (again no traffic) and a repeat visit to Rajabazar depot. We then headed to Galif Street (first to B.B.D. Bagh). The only tracks we did not ride on during our charters was the eastern end of Lenin Sarani and the short stretch south of College Street. Noted for the next visit! Some of us left the charter near Sova Bazar (it was heading back to Esplanade) to walk over to Shyambazar. Like Bidhan Nagar (and Joka) this is not a Depot (Galif Street is the same) but a walled-in property with 3 additional storage tracks. Now we had visited all depots and all loops. Then quickly by tram to Nonapukur works to see the boss. We caught him just in time. After a pleasant talk I was allowed to take my souvenir home and this ends our visit to the CTC. Next day we headed back to the airport, most tour members flying home but 7 of us continued on to Hong Kong…
I would like to thank Sumit & Ashok Sharma from Real India Journeys of New Delhi for all the assistance they gave us (who wants hotel food when you can eat with the locals) and dealing with the CTC. We will be back! Also Alan Murray-Rust for allowing me to use his excellent map (click map to open larger pdf image ). Note: the line 12/1 terminus shown at B.B.D.Bag should read 13/1.
Tram Lines (as of FEB 2011 – road, sarani etc. omitted):
Tram Depots (the depot code is carried on the front of most of the non-refurbished trams; some cars have been moved to other depots before the track connection to Kalighat and Tollygunge was severed):
* spelling as per CTC English language destination signs on some trams (though most signs are in Bengali/Bangla), some maps show it as Kidderpur, Kyderpur or Khidipur (there are even more versions!) – on the CTC website it is shown as Khidderpore – take your pick
Photos taken on day 1:
#281 at Esplanade on route 36
Works Car RS-3 at Esplanade – this car seems to live here
#708 at the same location (route 12/1)
#622 at the same location (route 14)
#217 at the same location (route 2)
#226 at B.B.D. Bagh (route 6)
#705 at the same location (again route 6)
at B.B.D Bagh we found one of the few tram stop signs…
#234 at B.B.D. Bagh (route 8 )
#235 ditto (route 14)
#211 Behala loop (shuttle route 35/37)
a look inside the 2nd class carriage of #645
#297 approaching Joka loop (35/37) – this image shows the old centre reservation right of way as could be found all over Kolkata before the modernisation (i.e. widening of the streets for automobiles)