The last time Raymond and Belle Hobson travelled together by train from Portadown to Belfast was to buy their engagement rings. Soon, they will celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary!
“I suppose the car has been too handy at the front door,” said Raymond, one of the province’s 90,000 who qualified this week for his 60+ Smart Pass, which affords them free travel by road and rail anywhere in Northern Ireland. “The system is designed to get people off the roads, and we’re proof of that.”
Belle hasn’t yet entered the 60s, and isn’t letting on when her day will come for free travel. “I was a child bride!” she insists. “But with Raymond qualifying, you can rest assured, we’ll take full advantage. Raymond’s going down to Belfast for a medical appointment and it’ll be the train for us from now on. It’s great.”
They couldn’t be better positioned for the use of free travel, as they have a daughter in Bangor and a caravan in Portrush - both ideally positioned for rail travel.
Said Raymond: “Mind you, they still run the old crates of trains from Coleraine to Portrush on the final leg to ‘The Port’, unlike these spanking new ones. But we mustn’t grumble, seeing as the price is right.”
Elizabeth Gordon recalled the time that Portadown was truly ‘The Crewe of Ireland’ and rail passengers could take the direct train to Derry, via Dungannon, Omagh and Strabane, as well as going by rail to Newcastle, Enniskillen, Warrenpoint, Armagh and just about everywhere in Northern Ireland.
“The cuts of the 1950s and 1960s were a tragedy for rail travellers,” she said. “And it’s a pity the 60-64s can’t travel free to the South of Ireland where it only applies to the over-65s. Still, that day will come and maybe some of the lines in the north will also be restored. The new free travel cards are a real godsend. I’m retired from my job as a child care assistant and I’m looking forward to hitting the rails and the road.
“We went to Cork earlier this year, and it cost me over £50 to travel and my husband Victor didn’t have to pay a penny with his over-65 card which applies down there. He had a rare laugh at my expense.”
Wilma Heatley admitted she was like a child with a new toy with her new card, she hardly slept on Tuesday night and was up at 6am to catch an early train for a day’s shopping in Belfast.
“On a more practical side, I visit my mother - who hasn’t been too well - in Lambeg at least once a week, and this will be a real boon,” she added. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. My husband Errol retires next year and we’ll be able to travel free all over the province. I couldn’t be more pleased, especially with these superb new trains.”
Diane Finn, a retired stitcher, qualified a few weeks ago for the SmartPass and she and husband Henry were full of admiration for the new scheme.
“Henry’s a holder of the full 65-plus card,” said Diane. “He’s still working as a self-employed upholsterer and we’re planning to get out and about a bit more with this free travel. We’re visiting friends in Derriaghy today and it’s marvellous we can both travel free..”
At Great Victoria Street station, senior porter and ticket collector George Thompson was in a unique position to assess the success of the system as he chatted with Bangorian Maurice Rowan, a retired solicitor’s assistant who retired recently and also qualified for the card.
“The 60-plus people have been coming through in their hundreds,” said George. “It’s a fantastic success and they’re all smiles. It’s also been a fine sunny day and that has brought them out in their droves.”
George also let us in on a secret. Even though he, as an employee of Translink, qualifies for free travel through the company, he also holds the SmartCard, having applied for, and received, his precious piece of plastic.
“Why not?” he laughed. “I’m as entitled to it as the next man!”