Passengers at Ranchi railway station on Thursday. In the background stands the Garib Rath that was driven by the unauthorised railway employee. Picture by Manik Bose
Question: Mr Engine Driver, what do you do when someone grabs your train and thunders past you on a 440km ride?
Answer: Hop on the next Rajdhani and chase him down.
Thus was flagged off one of the most audacious and risky runaway rides in recent memory when an unauthorised railway employee commandeered the New Delhi-Ranchi Garib Rath Express on its inaugural run and flogged it all the way to Kanpur, 440km away, on Wednesday.
The rogue driver, identified as Ram Swaroop and said to have been drunk, was intercepted at Kanpur, the first official stop after Delhi, by authorities alerted by the authorised drivers giving hot chase on a Rajdhani Express.
The 50-something Swaroop, railway sources said, is an assistant driver qualified to handle only slow-moving goods trains and not the Garib Rath, a superfast express billed the common mans Rajdhani. The train has 18 coaches all AC 3-tier.
Railway minister Lalu Prasad the Garib Rath is his pet project said he was not aware of the incident. If any such thing has happened, I will ask my officials to look into it, he said.
Sources said Swaroop had been assigned to take the train from the railway yard up to New Delhi station, a distance of less than 2km. He drove it to the platform and waited for passengers to board.
Two drivers assigned to the train Manoj Kumar Singh and Shafeequl Alam completed the mandatory fitness tests and came to the platform around five minutes before the scheduled departure at 5.10pm.
But, Singh said, they found the engine door locked. We tried to open it but could not. The person inside refused to open it and said he was to drive. We tried to call senior officers but saw the train pull out of the platform on time, he said.
The hapless drivers alerted the authorities and hopped on to a Rajdhani Express leaving for Guwahati which, like the Garib Rath, has its first stop at Kanpur to give chase.
The passengers had no inkling they were in unsafe hands, but some sensed something was amiss. The driver stopped well over a dozen times at various places between New Delhi and Kanpur, though the route was a straight run without any station in between, said Mohammed Zahid, a passenger.
For an unauthorised driver, Swaroop did manage to chug into Kanpur around 11.25pm, only 15 minutes late. His run, however, ended there.
The train left Kanpur, this time with an authorised driver in charge, a little after midnight. It reached Ranchi around 11.20am on Thursday, two hours behind schedule.
Asked about his misadventure, Swaroop remained evasive. I am at a probe centre, he told The Telegraph. But earlier he had told reporters at Kanpur that he had driven the train at the behest of seniors.
The authorised drivers alleged that Swaroop was drunk and not in a normal state. Railway officials have conducted a breathalyser test on Swaroop, but refused to reveal its outcome.
The embarrassed officials said investigations were on. Chief public relations officer, North Central Railway, R.D. Vajpayee said the incident was being blown out of proportion.
The alleged unauthorised driver is also a railway employee and he is not an outsider, he said.
R.B. Singh, a senior crew controller stationed at Kanpur, said Swaroop did not have the required experience to run high-speed trains like the Garib Rath.
Railway veterans said it was a miracle that nothing untoward happened as such drivers lack the expertise to handle modern fast trains.
Although not as fast as the Rajdhani Express, which travels at 130-135km an hour, the Garib Rath runs at an average of 90-95km an hour. These trains have different control systems and communication modes. Their signalling indicators are much more sophisticated than goods trains, said an official at North Central Railway.