Half a century of good and bad times on buses

Trevor Dixon, long-serving Ulsterbus driver and former chief driving instructor, aboard a vintage Ulsterbus
Trevor Dixon, long-serving Ulsterbus driver and former chief driving instructor, aboard a vintage Ulsterbus

Half a century has passed since Ulsterbus took over from the Ulster Transport Authority and began a journey unlike that of any other transport company in the UK, if not the world.

Tasked with getting people from A to B during the most troubled period in Northern Ireland’s history, the stories of long-serving employees amaze in both their resilience amidst bloody conflict and simple love of the job.

An Ulsterbus fleet from the 1980s

An Ulsterbus fleet from the 1980s

Raymond Bell from Belfast is one such bus driver who was hijacked on five occasions, yet could think of no job in the world he would rather do.

The 61-year-old, who served the majority of his 44 years with Ulsterbus as a driver, said: “I was hijacked five times and assaulted twice. There were numerous other minor incidents regarding broken windows and kids throwing stones at the bus.

“You had to take it in your stride. If you dwelled on it too much you wouldn’t have come into work. So you had to put things behind you and start fresh the next day.”

He added: “One particular time when I was hijacked, there was a riot going on and they wanted to burn the bus. A lady who lived in a house nearby called me over, I was about to walk away out of there. She made me tea and ordered a taxi to bring me home.

One of the earliest Ulsterbuses from the 1960s

One of the earliest Ulsterbuses from the 1960s

“I met her again around 20 years later. She recognised me and we had a great chat about it.”

Another long-serving employee – Trevor Dixon from Waringstown – started out as a driver before becoming the company’s chief driving instructor.

An avid collector of model buses, the 63-year-old also had a couple of full-size versions in his collection.

He said: “I always liked buses from when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I’m not much bigger now.

Raymond Bell was hijacked five times during his long career with Ulsterbus

Raymond Bell was hijacked five times during his long career with Ulsterbus

“I always wanted to be a bus driver from when I was at school. It was in the blood. It’s my hobby as well.

“During my time within the company I was able to acquire a couple of buses for preservation. When I retired I passed them on.

“I also collect model buses. I’ve over 2,000. They’re all in behind glass, lit up in cabinets I got from a jewellers.”

Frank Clegg has dedicated 50 years of his life to public transport in NI. As general manager of bus services during the Troubles he had arguably one of the toughest jobs in the country.

When vehicles were destroyed – as they were on a regular basis – it was up to him to maintain the fleet.

The 66-year-old said: “Money was very tight and while there was a level of compensation for the vehicles destroyed it wasn’t possible to always replace with new vehicles. We got a lot of vehicles from London Transport who were selling off in the late 70s and early 80s.

“Every three four weeks I’d take a group of drivers over to London to pick up the buses and drive them home. We’d buy extra ones that weren’t fit for the roads and cannibalise them for spare parts.”

Of the advance in buses over the years he said: “Vehicles have come on massively in terms of their reliability, their structure, their bodywork, their comfort, the noise. Now you have highback seats, tinted windows, air conditioning in our Goldline vehicles.”

He added: “Timetables are online and available through an app on your phone so you know when a bus is coming. In the early days it was a case of just waiting until you saw a bus.”

All three men – Raymond, Trevor and Frank – although retired from full-time duties, still work tirelessly for the company on part-time and casual arrangements.

Raymond explained his love of buses: “My grandfather worked on trams and trolley buses in Belfast and then my father worked for the old Ulster Transport Authority and then Ulsterbus. It’s been the family line.

“I’m also interested in buses and transport. My job has been my hobby.

“I love meeting people, I like driving and there’s always a good bit of craic amongst bus drivers.”

He said congestion was his biggest headache as a bus driver but felt the new bus lanes in Belfast have helped “in a great way”.

“I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea and there have been a lot of negative comments about them but to be honest Belfast is a Victorian city with 21st century traffic problems and there’s only so much traffic you can fit into given streets and the bus lanes do help the buses with regard to journey times and encouraging people to use public transport.”

He said smart cards were his biggest ally as they mean he does not have to deal with large notes or lots of change.

Trevor said he preferred buses to cars “every day of the week”.

He commented: “I think it’s very easy to drive a bus. I can park a bus easier than I can park a car.

“Because you’re sitting high up you can read the road better and see what obstacles are up ahead.

“My favourite bus would be the Leyland Leopard. To me, they were like buses, the newer ones are all computerised and don’t sound like a bus.”

For Frank, Ulsterbus continues to run in the family as his son Jonathan has recently started his career with Translink.

A brief history of Ulsterbus

Ulsterbus began life on April 17, 1967 taking over responsiblity for buses in Northern Ireland from the Ulster Transport Authority.

In the mid-1990s Ulsterbus, Northern Ireland Railways and Citybus came together when Translink was launched offering customers more integrated bus and rail services.

The merger continues to allow for integration between the buses, coaches and trains as well as operating cross border and internationally.

The future promises a new state-of-the-art transport hub in Belfast.

The number of staff currently employed by Ulsterbus is 2,137.