Image of Trams in the Old Delhi

Life does come a full circle. Delhi government has announced its decision to re-introduce trams (Delhi introduced them in 1908 and the last one ran in 1963) in Delhi albeit on a small stretch of 4.3 km between Digamber Jain Mandir near Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque, on Chandni Chowk Road.

The Lieutenant Governor had earlier mandated Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) to prepare a Detailed Project Report (DPR) and now is in process of ordering it to proceed with preparing the feasibility report for operating the tramline.

The Delhi government proposes to develop a tram track on 4.5 kms of which 1.6 km shall be elevated. The plan is to have 3-coach trams running at an average speed of 15 km per hour and is expected to carry around 1 lakh commuters daily. The track is to be developed on the left side and there will be a station every 300 to 350 metres. DMRC has proposed a gated corridor for smooth operation and will operate a smart card based ticketing system, similar to the existing one being used in the Delhi Metro.

The Delhi government plans to rejuvenate the almost defunct Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) with greater powers and supporting budget, to take over the integrated development of the old city, while retaining its original character.

Will the proposed tramline end up as another white elephant?

The recent decision to close the BRT Corridors in Delhi after spending crores, only highlights the dismal record in planning and executing infrastructure related projects, with no accountability for wasting taxpayer’s hard earned money. Similar experience was seen in various ill planned subways and overhead foot bridges that came up in various parts of the city. Most have turned out to be white elephants.

Grand plans are first announced by politicians to suit their vested interests and then sycophant bureaucrats go along their grand plans, without any serious thought of how practical, feasible and viable the project will be over time and to what extent will people benefit. There are several factors to be considered before the government is allowed to proceed with this tramline.

According to the DPR, 1 lakh commuters are likely to travel daily in the proposed trams. The DPR also mentions that there will be no vehicles or rickshaws along 250 meters of the line. Now, anyone familiar with the Chandni Chowk area knows that it is a busy and crowded wholesale market, and most people who are seen there are buyers or sellers of all kinds of goods. Due to crowded streets, they use push carts, coolies, rickshaws, cycles etc to carry goods to and from the market.

The question is, how will these people now move their goods if there is no movement of rickshaws, vehicles etc along the tramline? Secondly, majority of the people seen on the streets at any given point of time are either buyers or sellers, therefore, will these people be able to carry their goods in the trams? If not, a large chunk of the proposed 1 lakh commuters will not be able to make use of the service and will have to rely on the usual modes of transport to carry goods, thereby defeating the very purpose of the trams.

At one lakh ridership, the trams will be a boon but the feasibility and viability of operating them will reduce proportionately with any drop in ridership. So it needs to be asked, who will comprise the proposed 1 lakh daily commuters? The shopkeepers travel on foot once in the morning and return in the evening to their respective parked cars nearby and most don’t carry goods. The local residents aren’t too many, as compared to the overall people seen there during the day, which leaves the maximum potential segment of users – various buyers and sellers that move throughout the day in the area.

Now, if the tramline is going to be elevated, even partially, how do these people get their goods up to the line? And if they are not permitted to transport goods on the tram, then these people will have to go back to whatever means they were using, which will only ensure that the area continues to remain congested through the day, again defeating the very purpose of the tramline.

Why are trams making a comeback in cities around the world?

There are several cities where trams are running successfully. Melbourne, Toronto, Prague, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh are amongst several cities patronising trams. In the US, San Francisco, Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati and Tampa are all continuing with their tram operations, and people love them! They are quiet, clean, environmentally friendly, safe and most of all, very comfortable. But most of these cities have wide roads and adequate space for trams to run smoothly. Urban living is moving towards a greener world and trams meet the light mass urban transport requirement adequately. Therefore, there is a renewed interest in trams.

The experience is quite the opposite in Kolkata, which is the only city still operating them. Besides nostalgia, there is very little reason to continue to operate trams in a crowded city like Kolkata. The roads have remained narrow and congested with all kinds of traffic, thus making it impossible for the trams to move smoothly, so much so, that at many points, it is easier to get off and walk the remaining distance. The tram cars are old, noisy, uncomfortable and obsolete, and breakdown frequently. The cost of salaries, benefits and pensions of the staff of Calcutta Tramways Corporation (CTC) far exceeds its revenues, leaving no money to spend on modernisation of any kind.

Much like the BRT in Delhi, they fight for road space with cars, buses, trucks and yes, pedestrians and are forced to move at snail pace. Which brings us to the question, are trams really viable and commercially feasible in an area like the walled city of old Delhi? What works for an international city may not be feasible in a crowded space like Chandni Chowk. BRT was and is successful in several cities of the world but its implementation in Delhi was ill-conceived and was the main reason for its failure.

This time around, have we adequately consulted and got a buy-in from various stakeholders like the shopkeepers, traders, daily commuters, residents etc? Have we really done our homework on the cost-benefit derived from the proposed project or will we end up regretting 5-10 years down the line, except that our hard earned money in the form of taxes would have once again gone down the drain.

Before the Delhi government proceeds on the project, it may be a great idea to organise its much flaunted ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ in the Chandni Chowk area, and have open discussions involving all stakeholders on what they feel on the project. A feasibility report only throws up numbers not emotions. And this project needs an emotional connect to succeed, a lesson one hopes the BRT experience would have taught the government.

 

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