This week Translink is appealing for more women to consider bus driving as a career. Judith Cole talks to Avril Connor (35), among the first female drivers for the company, who is now one of its senior inspectors
When Avril Connor sent in an application to become a bus driver after spotting an advertisement in the paper, she never thought anything would come of it.
But now, 13 years later, having been a driver for five years and then an inspector, she says she would recommend the career to anyone. Avril previously worked in a residential home and when she saw the advertisement, she thought she'd give it a go — she had always loved driving, although she'd never been at the wheel of anything bigger than her Vauxhall Corsa.
"I was shocked to be invited to attend an interview, and then a driving test," she remembers.
"I was over the moon when I passed the bus driving test first time, and was accepted to driving school in July 1995, where you learn about driving and also how to take money and work the ticket machines. After road training I started on a bus in Newcastle that August."
Avril was the first female bus driver in the area — so it was a big step in more ways than one.
"It was a bit daunting being the first woman driver in Newcastle — when I started all the male drivers were senior and had lots of experience," she says.
"But one of the drivers used up his own time to take me out in his car and show me the routes which was such a nice thing to do.
"The passengers, too, seemed quite bemused at first to see a woman driver but some said they were glad to see me as I was a better driver, more careful perhaps, than the men!"
One of the best parts of the job for Avril was the chance to be her own boss.
"I was never really nervous about driving a bus, I just really enjoyed it from the start," she says. "Once you leave the yard you're in control of your own bus and are your own boss. You lift your passengers and aim to reach your destination."
As for the challenges, Avril says that the biggest one is pulling away from a bus stop — because the public are often reluctant to let buses out ahead of them.
"Also, trying to get to your destination and keeping within the time is a constant challenge," she says. "And like any customer-related job we deal with the public and many are very nice but there are those who complain — but you just take the rough with the smooth.
"It can be stressful when you're doing a run into Belfast and you have a full bus of people going to their work — you feel as if their eyes are on you wondering why you aren't going faster. But the bus lanes have been a great advantage in this regard."
Avril began by driving routes on the Busybus in Newcastle town centre and then covered school runs and town services. She also undertook yard duties which included refuelling buses and parking them in the depot yard.
"When you arrive at the depot from driving school you initially have a driver mentor to travel with you on various runs for a few days to get you used to issuing tickets and collecting money," she says.
"This really takes the pressure off. I didn't mind which duties I was in line to do — some drivers preferred service work to school runs because they thought the school kids were noisy.
"But I didn't mind, I just switched off and concentrated on getting them to their destination as quickly and safely as possible."
After being a full-time driver for five years, Avril successfully applied for an inspector's post and was appointed in July 2000.
Four years later she became a senior inspector. Based in Newcastle, she works shifts and is involved in the daily operations of the depot and its outlying posts in Ballynahinch and Kilkeel which altogether have 67 drivers.
"We have quite a few women drivers now and it's great to see," she says.
"I'd never have dreamt when I was at school that I'd be a bus driver, never mind an inspector and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
"I actually recommended it to a girl who subsequently got a job as a driver and loves it.
"I'd say to anyone that it's a great job and well worth going for. The salary of £9.60 per hour for a full-time bus driver after their probationary period is another incentive."
Avril fits her busy job in with a young family — she and husband Lee have two daughters, Leah (5) and Abbie (2). If she is working an early shift, which begins at 6.45am, she rises at 5am and leaves the girls at her mother's house by 6.30am.
"I have to be very organised," she says. "Both of my daughters know what I do. We recently got double decker buses at the depot and my two-year-old spots them a mile off. Both the girls have been on the buses a lot and when Leah sees one she says 'there's one of your buses, mummy'."
Sadly, bus drivers have to deal with more than just their job, with the increase in attacks against them and their vehicles.
Last month a driver was lucky to narrowly escape injury after he was doused in flammable liquid and set on fire in Portrush when he refused to hand over money. Avril says she has never been afraid while out driving and while she has never been attacked her bus has had windows broken.
"It's the same for services like ambulances and the Fire Brigade — a big vehicle is a sitting target," she says.
"I've had stones thrown at the bus and windows broken but it's been towards the back of the bus when there were no passengers. It's just blatant vandalism and causes more hassle than anything else because a bus which has had windows broken needs to be taken out of service for a couple of days to be fixed.
"A lot of the new buses coming in now have security screens which means that people can't reach into the cab if they are trying to steal money."
Here's how we drove our Judith crazy
The Ulsterbus Goldliner in front of me is 40ft long, 11ft high and more than 8ft wide — and I'm about to get into its driving seat. My own car is a Renault Clio — nippy, yes, but definitely not the biggest motor on the road, so I'm rather daunted at the prospect of piloting a bus.
I'm here because Translink is encouraging more women to apply for jobs as bus drivers, and it is hosting special Have A Go days from tomorrow until Thursday. Any interested women will be able to go to the event at Nutts Corner and try their hand at driving a bus to see if they'd like to pursue the career. Although a traditionally male dominated job, the numbers of women are increasing and it is believed there are about 100 now across Northern Ireland.
Today, I'm in the safe hands of Trevor Dixon, chief instructor at Translink, who explains that all buses now are automatic, which means you don't need to worry about changing gears. The neutral, drive and reverse gears are operated by buttons at the driver's right hand side.
Before we start, Trevor explains all the different controls on the dashboard ... and has a wise word of warning.
"Just go gently on the brake, or you and all your passengers will fly out the front window," he says. Certainly something to keep in mind. I set off, tentatively. Immediately, a roundabout looms ahead. Worse, it's a mini one, which means that steering a mammoth vehicle around it is extra challenging. The key is to keep tight to the left curb and then steer sharply to the right. Trevor reminds me to keep checking in the left and right-hand mirrors — the latter so that my back wheels don't drive over the centre of the roundabout. It's a success! Then, we're on a long stretch of straight road, and Trevor tells me to put my foot down a bit on the accelerator. But being in control of a bus is still rather nerve-wracking and I don't manage much speed. It feels immensely grand, however, to be in charge of such an impressive vehicle and looking down on all around me from my high vantage point.
Next, I attempt to reverse. I bring the bus to a halt—gently does it and, hurray, my passengers and I all remain in our seats — and put it into neutral gear.
Then, I press the reverse button and, as I slowly lift my foot from the brake the bus starts going backwards. There's a car parked somewhere behind me but I trust Trevor to help me avoid it. He tells me what to do with the steering wheel and, hey presto, suddenly we're parked alongside the car.
We do another reverse manoeuvre and then I bring the bus to a final stop. I leave the driving seat having thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have a great sense of achievement and an even greater admiration for bus drivers and the level of skill they have. It's clear that this would be an immensely satisfying career, and I'd recommend anyone with even a passing interest to book their place for the Have A Go days. As Paula Ludlow, personnel services and systems manager at Translink, explains: "Whether you want to return to work, take a career change or have been considering a role as a bus driver, you can take one of our buses for a test drive under expert instruction and sample what it would be like.
"You will also have the opportunity to take part in ticketing demonstrations, talk to some of our current female drivers about their experiences and allay any misconceptions or fears you may have when considering this rewarding and fulfiling career."
The Have a Go day takes place from tomorrow until Thursday at Nutts Corner, Co Antrim, 8.45am-4pm, and runs on a first come, first served basis. For reservations, tel: 9089 9400, ext 2295/2204. For further information visit www.translink.co.uk/recruitment