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Tramcars, slow and empty, cannot be forever

Those who regularly drive down Lenin Sarani are undoubtedly familiar with the chaos caused by trams, for no fault of the latter though. The totally unruly traffic, with loony bus drivers behaving as if they are in a Formula 4 racing event, is actually brought to a standstill by not one, but often as many as four tramcars moving one after another.

With the ‘up’ and ‘down’ tracks laid on two sides of the street, vehicular traffic is often sandwiched and must wait for the slow and sedate tramcars to pass. What is even more maddening is to find that many of these tramcars are actually half-empty, with some of the passengers blissfully dozing. On such occasions, who can blame motorists who gnash their teeth and silently pray for more power to the mayor, who has been threatening to pull out tramcars from the streets of the city. With more cars clogging the city in the next few years, the cry is bound to get increasingly shrill.

Even in Melbourne, with which this city forged fraternal relations between tram fans, tramcars are coming in for some sharp criticism. A study conducted by engineers from RMIT University there has apparently indicted the trams for causing more pollution than cars and buses that run on petrol or natural gases. The argument is that tramcars are powered by electricity, which in turn is generated by coal. And burning of coal obviously causes more greenhouse effect than petrol or natural gases.

The study also points out that trams actually block traffic, forcing cars to remain longer on the roads, thereby use up more petrol and add further to the greenhouse effect. One of the more startling aspects of the study is where it blames tramcars for generating 20 million kg of carbon dioxide, while cars generate only 6 million kg and trains just 4 million kg.

With just sketchy details available so far about the study, it would be foolhardy to jump to any conclusion. We must also take into account the fact that tramcars, theoretically at least, can replace a much larger number of cars on the streets and are found to be more comfortable by women, children and the elderly. But quite apart from the economic reasons and the mounting losses of the Calcutta Tramways Company (CTC), often cited as compelling reasons for closing it down, the city requires a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to take a final decision.

A couple of points can still be made. While there is a strong case for allowing tramcars to run early in the morning and in the afternoon — when more students can ride them to school and back — and possibly late in the evening, when it becomes uneconomical for buses to ply, there is an equally strong case for withdrawing tramcars during peak hours, when all it does is to slow down the traffic.

The frequency of tramcars also needs to be monitored, because it is fairly common to see two or more tramcars trundling down the Maidan at all hours and in one direction, with barely half-a-dozen passengers in each of them. Clearly, there is a need to calibrate their timing better.

Finally, it is not really understood why the CTC cannot leverage its unique position as the only tram company in the country to offer consultancy and accept turnkey jobs to set up the system in smaller towns, where tramcars can be a roaring hit.

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