The tramcar near Ballygunge Phari before a recovery van towed it away to the Gariahat depot. Pictures by Bibhash Lodh and Sriyanka Chatterjee
A tram stalled by a power cut sprang to life without the driver in his cabin and smashed nine cars as it hurtled down Ballygunge Phari, chased by two young men who got in and stopped it 300 metres away.
Drivers and passengers emerged from the pile-up with cuts, scrapes and bruises amid screams for help from others who witnessed the driverless tram ploughing through the rush-hour traffic on Thursday morning.
Slum-dwellers Dinesh Lal and Jaggu Kapadia were the saviours, catching up with the runaway train after a 100-metre sprint and fumbling with the controls for a while before finding a lever that brought tram No. 516 to a halt.
“The tram was being taken for repairs and had exited the Gariahat depot at 9.30am to take a U-turn and enter the premises again when the power cut occurred. The engine was apparently in first gear and so started moving the moment power supply was restored,” police said quoting an official of the Calcutta Tramways Company.
Tram driver Ram Sharan, who has been employed with the company for nearly three decades, was reported missing after the incident. Officers at Gariahat police station said he would be charged with negligence.
“The driver had stepped down to check if something was wrong with the resistance box. Since there was no driver inside, the tramcar moved past the junction from where it would have taken a loop to re-enter the depot. It went straight and rammed into the cars,” a senior CTC official said.
Nilanjan Shandilya, managing director of the CTC, said driver Ram Sharan had been suspended for stepping out of the tram without switching off the engine.
Kaushik Bhattacharya, a senior management consultant with KPMG, was headed for his office in Salt Lake’s Sector V when his eight-month-old Renault Scala got caught in the pile-up. “I was in the rear seat when I suddenly felt something resembling a whiplash at the back of my neck and fell forward. Before I could realise what was happening, my car had been bulldozed out of the way,” he recalled.
Bhattacharya walked back to his apartment adjacent to Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan after a crane towed away his Scala.
There were six cars between the silver sedan and the tram but such was the impact of the crash that both the rear and the bonnet were dented. “Something like this is simply unimaginable,” said Bhattacharya, who returned to Calcutta last September after 13 years in the US.
Moments before the incident, several cars and buses headed towards Ballygunge Phari from Gariahat had gone around the stranded tram blocking half the width of the busy road opposite the ITI Building on Swinhoe Street.
|The spot (circled) opposite The Dhaba where two young men got into the tram and brought the engine to a halt. Picture by Amit Datta
Most passengers said they paid little attention to the tram stranded in the middle of the road, this being a common sight in Calcutta.
The tram started moving on its own just when the traffic signal at Ballygunge Phari turned red, catching almost everyone unawares.
Many of those waiting at the signal had switched off their car engines when the tram rammed into the first vehicle on its path. Some of the cars in the pile-up were tossed aside like paper boats in the wind.
“My car had slowed down because of the bottleneck created by the tram. I felt irritated by the sight of an empty tram holding up rush-hour traffic, little knowing that the same one would come and hit my vehicle with such force seconds later,” recounted Rathin Sarkar, a company executive seated in a Tata Indigo.
Screams from onlookers and those in the other vehicles tore through the high-decibel crossing that is the convergence point of Gariahat Road, Hazra Road, Ballygunge Phari, Broad Street and Bondel Road. Two friends having breakfast near the crossing immediately dropped their plates and made a dash for the runaway tram.
Dinesh, 24, and Jaggu, 32, cut through the south-bound traffic to cross over and run after the tram.
“We made our way through people and cars and leapt inside the first compartment, only to realise that there was a wall with a window separating it from the driver’s cabin,” Dinesh said. “I squeezed in through the window and once inside the cabin, I started pulling and pressing all the buttons and levers in front of me. Finally, one of the levers I pulled brought the tram to a screeching halt.”
By the time the streetcar that could well have been named Disaster came to a stop, it had crossed The Dhaba, a landmark in Ballygunge.
“As we got off, some people thought we were the drivers who had left the tram unattended and came charging at us! Fortunately, some others knew we were not,” Jaggu said.
Thursday’s incident isn’t the first of its kind in cities where trams are part of public transport. In 2012, a tram in Novosibirsk, Russia, had travelled 4km on its own after its driver got off to inspect a mechanical fault.
Two years earlier, a tram in Prague, Czech Republic, had rolled out of a depot without anyone inside and went unmanned through busy city roads while its driver gave chase on a bike.
CARS THAT CAME IN THE WAY...