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KOLKATA, India (Reuters Life!) - They've been rumbling down Kolkata's roads for more than a 130 years, and now vintage trams are undergoing a makeover in their only home in India to entice commuters and reduce choking pollution.
For decades, the trams have fought a bitter turf war with cars and buses in Kolkata, a former British colonial capital and a city of over 15 million people considered an urban nightmare due to its belching public transport and congested roads.
The slow-paced but environment-friendly trams, which often fill the air with electric sparks as they trundle down their tracks, have been plying Kolkata since 1873, but over the years they have been abandoned in favor of faster transport, and their tracks have been pulled out to make way for more vehicles.
But now, the vintage contraptions are back in after a multi-million, government-funded makeover which began a few years ago. So far, 12 trams have been renovated at a total cost of over 14 million rupees ($290,000), with 12 more slated for renewal.
"After fears that trams might be phased out there is hope," says Zainuddin Khan, a tram driver for the past 30 years.
"The remodeled cars with the large airy windows are comfortable and they contribute nothing to the pollution levels," he added, steering a freshly painted white-yellow-green car out of a sprawling downtown depot into a narrow city road.
The Calcutta Tramway Company (CTC) has a fleet of 272 but only 100 trams trundle out of the depots, criss-crossing the city, often with a few tourists on board. Kolkata is the only city in India to have an electric tram network.
"Besides some heritage tour cars, we have renovated two trams for regular use, in our own workshop. Twelve more are getting ready," CTC managing director Pradip Kumar Chattopadhyay told Reuters. "A new tramcar would cost 24 million rupees. But in our workshop we spend much less to renovate an old rake," he added.
The oldest tramcar in Kolkata is 70 years old while the last a new car was purchased was 30 years ago.
According to SS Ghosh, a CTC engineer overseeing the renovation project at an expansive workshop in the heart of Kolkata, the basic 1920s technology of the trams remains the same, but they will be equipped with modern features such as uninterrupted power supplies and polycarbon bodies.
Many commuters are happy with the makeover.
"I have been using trams for over 10 years now. With the revamped cars I have no desire to swap this eco-friendly means for a faster, polluting vehicle," said Hemant Kanoria, 47.
Satish Kumar, a 32-year-old tourist from Bangalore, was thrilled to take a ride on a remodeled tram with his family. "This is unique and I feel nostalgic," he said.
Renowned local artist Samir Biswas, whose works form part of an advertising campaign that adorns the sides of the trams, says the cars always get his creative juices flowing.
"They have invariably featured in my city sketches in the past three decades. We must keep the tramcars going," he added.
Ignoring repeated raps from the courts, Kolkata's government have yet to phase out aged, polluting vehicles or convert them to use cleaner fuel such as compressed natural gas. In the meantime, eco-friendly commuters can hop on a tram.
Editing by Miral Fahmy