Kolkata: Hand-pulled rickshaws, horse carts, underground Metro, ferries, trams, diesel-guzzling and smoke-belching buses, taxis and autorickshaws—Kolkata’s public transport system has them all, carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day. And now, if the Calcutta Tramways Co. (1978) Ltd, or CTC, has its way, another mode of transport might soon be vying for the city’s 6% road space—trolleybuses, which draw power from overhead wires, but, unlike trams, run on pneumatic tyres and not on tracks. Some modern trolleybuses don’t rely on overhead wires and are equipped with super-capacitors that are charged at terminals and then run using the stored power, quite like battery-operated buses.
Along with the East-West Metro and the Light Rail Transit System (LRTS), which are in the planning stage, trolleybuses and trams will provide an integrated non-polluting public transport system in Kolkata, according to Rajdeo Goala, a Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, legislator, who doubles up as the chairman and managing director of CTC.
Development plans: A tram on a Kolkata street. The trolleybus project may cost about Rs60-70 crore. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The East-West Metro, which will connect the city’s information technology hub in Salt Lake and Rajarhat in the east to the Howrah station across the Hooghly river, is expected to cost Rs4,310 crore. And the LRTS, which is expected to run from Joka in the south-western suburbs to Panihati in the north, is estimated to cost Rs3,300 crore. “Compared with these projects, our trolleybus project will cost a modest Rs60-70 crore,” says Goala.
Incidentally, this is the tram operator’s second attempt to launch trolleybuses in Kolkata. The first attempt in the late 1990s had to be aborted because the state authorities, such as the transport department, the police and CTC, could not agree on various aspects of the project.
Even this time round, things don’t seem to be on track. With only three companies so far expressing willingness to advise CTC on introducing trolleybuses in Kolkata, the company has extended the deadline for submission of bids by consultants by two months from 3 March.
“We have extended the deadline to enable more entities to bid as well as to give the existing bidders a chance to go to China and study the system there,” says Ramendra Nath Ghosh, the chief accounts officer-cum-secretary, the nodal officer for the trolleybus project.
The so-called global tender floated by CTC, and published only in a handful of local newspapers, said it would prefer collaborators from China and South-East Asian countries. “We won’t be able to afford the European buses even though that is where trolleybuses are most prevalent,” says Ghosh. CTC, according to him, would apply for funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and expects to receive at least 35% of the project cost from the Centre. The rest will be provided by the state government.
CTC, which employs 7,000 people and had accumulated losses of at least Rs500 crore in 2006-07, is dependent on state government subsidies to stay afloat. Of the 272 trams in its fleet, only 105 are in use currently. “We’ll keep about 200 (eventually) and auction the rest which are of 1930s and 1940s vintage and were bought second-hand from the UK,” says Ghosh. “Our aim is to run 140 trams and keep 60 in reserve.” Even bus services, launched by CTC in 1992, have failed to stem the rot. Though trams don’t make money and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had once said they should be phased out, CTC doesn’t plan to sack the trundling trams.
A few years ago, Bhattacharjee had said only the elderly and the unemployed used the tram. Yet, the state government has been rebuilding tram tracks across the city which, according to Ghosh has given the tram “a new lease of life.”
CTC plans to use its own men and depots to run the trolleybuses when they are launched. “The trolleybuses will complement the trams and will run in areas where there are no trams,” says Ghosh. CTC plans to run 25 trolleybuses, as part of a pilot project, on one route, before they are launched across the city.
“We are looking at Galiff Street (in the north) where we have a depot to Panihati (in the northern suburbs) or from Joka to Esplanade,” says Ghosh, who admits that CTC hasn’t factored in how a trolleybus system on these routes, along with the accompanying overhead wire network, will coexist with the LRTS. “That’s why we are looking at super-capacitor-run trams that are a hit in China,” explains Ghosh.
The CTC hopes that the trolleybus will not only prove to be a comfortable and speedy option, but also eco-friendly. “Our trams are all these but lose out on the speed factor which we hope will be addressed by the trolleybuses,” says Ghosh.
The emphasis on environment friendliness comes at a time when the state is racing against time to implement a Calcutta high court order banning two-stroke autorickshaws and phasing out 15-year-old commercial vehicles by the end of July.
A study released recently by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-governmental organization, shows that the level of respirable suspended particulate matter in Kolkata’s air exceeds the national average. Speaking at the release of the report, CSE’s director Sunita Narain had said there should be more trams in the city.