Tram car arrives

In 1865, an American Company applied to the government for a licence for running a horse-drawn tramway service in the city. The licence was granted on certain conditions, but the project did not materialise just because a war ended rather abruptly. It was the American Civil War. The boom in trade brought by the war was suddenly over, and there was a financial crash. The city’s economic life was badly disrupted. A large number of firms went into liquidation. The disaster snuffed out the tramway project.The Times of India of 27th November 1871 carried an announcement put out by the Bombay Omnibus Company. According to it, a bus service was proposed to be run between the Malbar Hill and Fort in the mornings and evenings for the convenience of the Europeans residing on the hill. The monthly season ticket was priced at thirty pounds. However, owing to unsatisfactory response, the scheme had to be dropped, as the Times of India of 8th December reported.

A few years had to elapse before a similar project was mooted. This time it went through rather smoothly, and the Bombay Tramway Company Limited was formally set up in 1873. The contract granted the Municipality the right to buy up the concern after the first twenty years, or after every period of seven years thereafter. After this contract was entered into between the Bombay Tramway Company and the Municipality, the Government of Bombay enacted the Bombay Tramways Act, 1874, under which the Company was licensed to run a tramway service in the city. The tram-cars were of two kinds : those drawn by one horse and those drawn by two. The Company started with a fleet of twenty cars and two hundred horses. When it closed down in 1905, it had as many as 1,360 horses.

 The service first started on two routes : Colaba to Pydhoni via Crawford Market, and Bori Bunder to Pydhoni, via Kalbadevi. That was on 9th May, 1874. The fare from Colaba to Pydhoni was three annas. The conductor collected the fare; but issued no tickets. There was no way of checking if any passenger had a free ride, or if the conductor had collected precisely what he handed over to the Company, and no more. This merry situation could not possibly go on for long. Within four or five months, the tickets were there. So was checking of tickets. The fare was brought down to two annas; it dropped down to one anna in 1899.

In the early days of the horse-drawn tramway, the novelty of it provided quite a thrill. But that was not the only reaction. There were those, like the drivers of ‘shigrams’ and ‘reklas’, who were agitated as they saw in this new means of transport a threat to their occupation. Some of them would express their protest and displeasure by inserting dust and bits of stone in the grooves of the rails so that they should be clogged, and the wheels should go off the rails. Naughty boys would enjoy themselves thus obstructing the tram-cars. Once, as reported, a man playing the trick was caught redhanded by the Company’s officials, and they administered a sound thrashing to him on the spot without bothering about the formality of an inquiry. They say the passengers in the tram-car thus sought to be obstructed were quite pleased with what they said was a proper lesson.

However, partly because of such incidents and partly because it was an unfamiliar vehicle, the tram-car was not at first received with the enthusiasm shown for the railway. The Company had to make a special effort to persuade the public that this mode of transport was fast and smooth, and that it was cheap too. The persuasion included free rides in the first few days. On the third day (12th May, 1874), the Times of India expressed its doubts about the prospects of the tramway. It offered some suggestions too : The vehicle must move faster; the fares must be brought down; more interesting than either, passengers should be prohibited from resting their feet on the seats. Characteristically for the times, a section of the educated people was suspicious of the innovations imposed by the white foreigners, and to them the tram-car was one such innovation. Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar, renowned grammarian voiced the sentiments of that section when he wrote : “Our people here are in distress for lack of employment, and yet these seven or eight years some wealthy fellows from Boston in far-away America have been carrying on this business of running for hire vehicles are dwinding in number, and these fellows, sitting in America, are regularly making hundreds of rupees, by putting the wool over our eyes. The people of Mumbai should have at least resolved not to travel by these tram-cars, just as the people of Calcutta and Madras did. Instead, they are helping bring greater poverty to the country”.

This is an extract from Shishubodh. Some eighty years later, in 1964, a move was organised to ask people to desist from travelling by buses as a protest against a rise in fares. It too met with a poor response.

It was only to be expected that people should air their grievances and suggestions about the tramway service through the newspapers. An interesting letter of the kind appeared in the Times of India of 28th July 1903. It would seem that there was a regulation that only four passengers should occupy a bench, and not five as usual, if even one of them was a woman. A soldier was fined fifty rupees for breaking the regulation. Referring to this, the letter-writer complained that officials of the company were habitual offenders in this respect. He appealed to the administration to clarify the regulation. In this connection, one Mr.E.W. Fox suggested in the Times of India of 1st June 1905 that the city fathers should get the company to limit the seats to four per bench. Obviously Mr.Fox had a sense of humour, for he added : “Five persons to a bench means friction. If such friction were to generate static electricity who would be responsible for it? But why should the city-fathers worry about it? They go about in their private vehicles as if they are Lords of the Bombay Parliament”.

The Municipality could have taken over the Company in 1894 – at the end of twenty-one years – as stipulated by the contract, but it waived the right. This gave the Company a further seven years’ – till 1901.

In 1899, the Company applied to the Municipality for permission to run its tram-cars on electricity. The application inter alia pleaded that considering the heavy expenditure the company would have to incur on the new project, the Municipality should waive its right of taking it over in 1901. But even before the application was disposed of, the Municipality decided to exercise its right to take over the Company. This gave rise to several legal complications, but finally in 1905, a newly formed concern, “The Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company limited” bought the Bombay Tramway Company. During its thirty-one year’s tenure, the old company had served the city well with its network of tramway routes. From Museum, one route went south-west to Sassoon Dock, another north-east to Wadi Bunder, yet others to the central part of Mumbai, to points like Lalbaug. Jacob Circle and Opera House. Two east-west routes ran from Carnac Bunder to Dhobi Talao, and from the J.J. Hospital to Grant Road. On the first day (9th May 1874) of its service the number of passengers carried was 451 and the takings amounted to Rs.85. On the last day (1st August 1905) the number of passengers was 71,947 and the takings amounted to Rs.4,260. These figures should give a fair idea of how the service had expanded during the years.

Before starting work on a new route the Tramway Company had to secure the approval of the Municipality and the permission of the Government. These were given after due consideration was accorded to the views and recommendations of all those concerned with the new route. The correspondence all this entailed, and unexpected difficulties, often confined the project of a new route to files for years together. By then sometimes the need for the route would become so urgent that the Municipality had to step in and pursue the project on its own. One such project was of the Girgaon Naka-Gowalia Tank route. It was first sent up by the Company to the Municipality in 1905 for approval, which came promptly. But the improvement Trust had just planned a road from Chowpatty to Gowalia Tank. The Government directed that work on the new tramway route should not begin till the road was laid. It was also necessary to strengthen the Frere Bridge over which the route was to pass. The correspondence started, and had kept swelling when the World War started. The War ended, but the project had not moved. It did not move for a few more years.

Finally the route came to be regarded as a ‘must’, and in 1922 it was the Municipality which started putting pressure on the Company to start work on it. Meanwhile, further difficulties cropped up. The estimate of the cost of the project had become out of date. Prices had soared, and the project was not financially viable any longer. At last, with some reluctance, the  Company agreed to take up the project, and the track was laid by April 1924. But another two years had to elapse before the route was opened to traffic. This was because there was difference of opinion about the fare to be charged on the route. The route had its first tramcar on 11th February 1926.

Mumbaites gave a warm welcome to the electric tramcar. The service was formally inaugurated on 7th May, 1907 by Shri Vallabhdas Thakersey, the then Chairman of the Municipality. Among those who attended the function were Mr.Sheppard, the Municipal Commissioner, Mr. R.M. Philips, Deputy Police Commissioner, Sir Bhalchandra Krishna Bhatwadekar, the Collector of Customs, Sir Harikisondas Narottamdas, Shri Ibrahim Rahimtulla and Members of the Municipality, besides important officials of the Company like the Managing Director, Mr.Remington, and the Chief Engineer, Mr.Cooper.

At five-thirty that afternoon the first electric tram-car, specially decorated for the occasion, started from outside the Municipal Office, went as far as the Crawford Market, and returned to the point from where it had left. After this ceremonious, inaugural run, four tram-cars kept plying on the various routes till eleven in the night. People jostled one another to board them.

The service started regularly from the next day. It drew nothing but praise : praise for its speed, its comfort, and its low fares. But, unfortunately, there occurred a bad accident on the  very first day. A passenger, named Shri Malvankar, fell off a running tram; one of his legs got under a wheel. The leg had to be amputated.

The accident was much talked about, and much written about too. Suggestions were sent in telling the Company how to prevent such accidents. One was that there should be something more effective than a chain on the ‘wrong’ side of the tram-car to stop intending passengers from getting in that way. Another was that there should be more stops than the six provided on the route from Colaba to Bori Bunder. And many more of the kind. But not all of the letters carried complaints and suggestions. There were bouquets too-plenty of them.


The order for the first electric tram-car had been placed with the Brush Electrical Company of London. The vehicle arrived in Mumbai in January 1906. There used to be an Upper Class in the tram-cars; it was removed after some time.

By 1910 the service was up against a problem no city transport service can hope to escape for long. The problem was of the rush-hour traffic. The commuters being mostly office goers, the pressure used to be particularly unmanageable immediately before and after the office-hours. There were not enough trams to cope with the rush. Trailers were attached to the trams, but they brought little relief. So the Company approached the Municipality for permission to run a triple car. But the Police Commissioner objected to it; and the proposal fell through. The pressure on the service kept on mounting. The next proposal was to use space which would provide for standees. It was approved by the Municipality. It worked till January 1914, when the approval was withdrawn.


The passing years aggravated the problem of rush-hour traffic. The solution next thought of was the double-decker tramcar. It was accepted, and the first vehicles of the kind appeared on Mumbai’s roads in Spetember, 1920.


Fixing the fares used to be a constant ground for disagreement between the Company and the Municipality. The latter would seek to keep the fares low, and the former would argue at length how such fares were uneconomical and plead for a raise. The Managing Director of the Company issued a statement in 1909 which gave the fare-structures for local transport services in Europe, America and Australia, and in Calcutta to prove that the tram-fares in Mumbai were the lowest. He made other points too : The salaries paid to the Company’s employees and the other expenses were higher than those for a transport organization in any other city in India. More comfort and conveniences were available to the commuters than under the previous tramway organization. The service was more frequent, and speedier too.

With all such pleas and petitions proving of no avail, the Company applied itself to increasing its efficiency without affecting its profits. Mr.James Dalrymple of the Glasgow Tramways Corporation was invited as an expert to recommend ways of effecting economy and other improvements in the administration of the Company, after a detailed scrutiny of its working Mr.Dalrymple’s recommendations were as follows :

(1) The tramway service is excellent, except for its slowness. Between leaving the depot and returning to it, a tram-car moves, on the average, at only 4.8 miles per hour. It is only in the case of horse-drawn trams that so slow a speed can be defended. The present rate must be improved by at least one mile per hour. This will have to be done immediately. The people of Mumbai may not tolerate so sluggish a service for long. The Company should reckon with the fact that the local railway services are soon to be electrified.

(2) There must be a proper time-table for the trams. When it is enforced, conductors and drivers will not have unduly long breaks, as at present, after the vehicle has reached the terminus.

(3) There are more drivers and conductors in the company than needed.

(4) Not enough care seems to be taken by the officials of the Company to the appearance of the vehicles. This is not proper. The vehicles must have a smart turnout, paint and all. Bright-coloured tramcars will draw pasengers, and swell the income.

(5) The uniform worn by the running staff must be tidy. The starter must see to it that no one is allowed to be on duty if his uniform is slovenly.

(6) The far : A flat rate of one anna for any journey is the lowest fare you have anywhere. The cost of laying a new track is very high. The income from the route may be too small for it. Therefore careful thought must be given to every proposal to start a new route. In this connection, the trolley and the motor bus are worthwhile alternatives for consideration.

This brief story of the early tramways in Mumbai will not be complete without a mention of some of their characteristic features.

From the beginning the city transport was modelled on that of London. Horse-drawn tram-cars had started running in London in 1870. Four years later Mumbai adopted that mode of transport. This was the first time Indian city had such an organization. Mumbai was the first again in the use of double-decker tramcars. Thus Bombay Tramways all along gave the lead in securing effcieincy and punctuality in the service, and in charging low fare.

Change is the law of life. It has been very much so in modern life. Every aspect of human activity has to keep pace with the times. Mumbai’s tramways were no exception. They kept growing and changing in response to the environment with new routes to serve localities that had grown, enlarged capacity to meet greater pressure of traffic, better designed vehicles, and reforms in administration. Then another World War was on us. The city’s population suddenly started soaring, as never before. And soon it all gathered at such a pace that the tramcar was out of step, and seemed out of date, and it faded out one night. That was the night of 31st March, 1964. Those modest, if rather noisy, vehicles, had devotedly carried Bombayman up and down the city for ninety years. The last of them, packed to capacity, left Bori Bunder for Dadar at ten that night. Crowds lined the route all the way at that late hour to bid farewell to the much loved, if old-fashioned, transport of the common man. It was a sad farewell.

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