However, the decline of tram systems in India has also been swift. As of last year, only Kolkata retained an operational tram network. In contrast, 403 cities abroad had at least one operational tram system in 2021, and over 16,000km of active tram lines altogether. Europe alone had 58% of the world’s total LRT network and 75% of ridership.
So, why have trams faded away from Indian cities? There’s a complex web of factors behind their downfall:
Competition from motor vehicles: Cars and buses offer a more flexible and faster alternative to trams. Soaring personal vehicle ownership has eroded the appeal of trams.
Urbanisation and growing demand: Explosive population growth in Indian cities has increased demand for efficient transportation, but trams are constrained by limited capacity and fixed tracks.
Traffic congestion: Trams, which share road space with other vehicles, are increasingly bogged down by traffic congestion. This not only affects their speed and reliability but also raises safety concerns. Besides, as Indian cities reallocate road space from tram tracks to cars and two wheelers, the tram system’s operational footprint is further constrained.
Inadequate maintenance and infrastructure: Tram systems need to keep their infrastructure shipshape. Fraying tracks, overhead wires and rolling stock lead to service interruptions and disgruntled passengers. Trams have a creaky image, which is why decision-makers favour metro rail over them.
Despite their decline, trams have not vanished from India’s urban canvas entirely. Kolkata persists as a torchbearer, keeping its tram systems operational. Growing interest in reimagining trams as an eco-friendly mode of urban transport may also herald their revival in select Indian cities.
The writer is managing director (India) for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT)