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Belfast man charts a nostalgic course through city’s ever-changing transport system

Belfast writer Mike Maybin never achieved his boyhood ambition to be a bus driver, but his new book is a love-letter to the city’s public transport

Past and present: some of the images of Belfast transport featured in the new book by Mike Maybin
Past and present: some of the images of Belfast transport featured in the new book by Mike Maybin
Past and present: some of the images of Belfast transport featured in the new book by Mike Maybin
Past and present: some of the images of Belfast transport featured in the new book by Mike Maybin
Werner Heubeck, the renowned German-born former managing director of Ulsterbus
Mike Maybin with his new book on Belfast’s public transport
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Writer Mike Maybin is taking people in Belfast for a ride. In the nicest possible way. For, in a new book, the retired Finaghy man is steering his readers on a nostalgic journey through the past, chronicling the city’s ever-changing transport system along the way.

On his tour, Mike guides his “passengers” from the days of horse buses and trams in the 1860s to the very different horsepower of today in ultra-modern Metro monsters and the planned Rapid Transit System.

And, while the buses in the book’s impressive array of photographs may have changed dramatically through the years, the streets in many of them are instantly recognisable — even in black and white.

Compiling the 144-page publication, Belfast Transport: From Horse Tram to Metro, has been a labour of love for Mike, who was a wannabe bus driver in his youth, but never quite got to be what he wanted to be.

Instead, Mike became a social worker, before running a shop and then finding employment in the Prison Service.

But, all the while, the magic of the buses never lost its lustre for Mike, who’s now 72.

“I’ve always been fascinated by public transport,” he says. “I can still remember seeing trams at a very early age as they were going up and down the Ormeau Road close to where I lived and I was always excited by them. My mother used to take me to the Ardoyne depot and I was in my element.

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“Like so many other boys, I wanted to be a bus driver when I grew up, but it never happened.

“However, much later in life, I did get to drive a prison bus taking people back and forward to courts, so that was something.”

The always busy Mike has previously penned five books about different aspects of transport in Belfast, including 30 years of the old trolleybuses, which eventually disappeared in 1968.

At one point, 245 of the double-deckers were operating over 17 routes and Mike’s book wasn’t the only homage to them.

For a young John Laird — now Lord Laird — turned his old schoolboy cinecamera footage of them into a DVD.

But like the buses themselves, another Maybin book is always coming along.

Mike’s latest work is a veritable charabanc of colourful stories and many equally colourful pictures of buses from bygone eras — photos that are sure to evoke memories for thousands of people.

“I have aimed the book at the nostalgia market. It’s not a definitive and academic history of transport in Belfast, but that is the next project I am working on,” says Mike, whose reflections in the new publication are mainly about pleasant times and progress.

But one section is devoted to the darker days during the Troubles, when buses were the easiest of targets for terrorists and rioters.

For technical reasons, Mike hasn’t been able to include pictures of the burnt-out buses. But he does set out the shocking statistics of the attacks on them, which cost millions of pounds.

He says that, between 1969 and 2005, a total of 1,512 buses from the Belfast Corporation/Citybus and Ulster Transport Authority (UTA)/Ulsterbus fleets were destroyed.

Many were used as barricades, or to transport bombs, and the situation was so grim that teams of employees used to go to England on a regular basis to drive secondhand vehicles back to Northern Ireland as replacements and to build up a reserve fleet.

As the terrorists stepped up their offensive to drive the buses off the streets, it was matched by a steely resolve within the transport sector to keep the service going. Mike says: “The buses brought over from Britain used to come in all shapes, sizes and colours, but they did the job. There wasn’t even time to clean some of them before they were in situ and one of them famously still had a London ticket box on it.”

Tragically, upwards of 12 bus drivers were killed during the Troubles and the Oxford Street depot in Belfast was the scene of a horrific IRA bombing on Bloody Friday in 1972.

Mention buses and bombs in the same sentence, of course, and one man springs to mind.

That’s German-born Werner Heubeck, the executive who risked his life to thwart the terrorists and to save lives — and his buses.

Mr Heubeck earned himself a headline-grabbing reputation as a courageous hero, who often carried bombs off his buses.

It was also decided to paint a yellow line on the side of buses to indicate to the Army where the interior floor level was, so that bomb teams would have a rough idea where to aim if they were trying to shoot at a suspect device on the vehicle.

Mike’s book also reveals, however, that Mr Heubeck rescued the bus companies he took over at a time of crisis.

Mr Heubeck had no experience of transport, but he still landed the job of managing director of the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA), which had been making serious losses.

In 1967, Heubeck launched a major revamp of the organisation, which he rebranded as Ulsterbus. He also cut staffing and controversially phased out conductors.

Eventually, Mr Heubeck turned the fortunes of Ulsterbus and Citybus around and his contribution is acknowledged by Mike, who sourced many of his pictures from the collections of established photographers like Alexander Hogg and Robert Welch, whose work was used in commercial postcards. A number of the other photos were taken by bus and tram enthusiasts.

“Some of them are also my own — especially the ones of model buses,” says Mike. “But many of them also came from a friend of mine, Raymond Bell, who is not only an enthusiast, but also an Ulsterbus driver.”

Some years ago, Mike and a number of fellow transport aficionados were in the driving seat, so to speak, of a campaign to persuade the Government to introduce a Rapid Transit System in Belfast, like the ultra-successful Luas in Dublin.

“Sadly, we never got it,” says Mike. “But what we are going to see in Belfast is a bus rapid transport system in September of this year.”

Its new ‘glider’ vehicles, which are part of a £90m investment plan, were unveiled late last year and they look like trams on wheels.

But Mike says: “They’re basically buses, in the sense they have diesel engines and rubber wheels. It’s a sort of a compromise between the current Metro and the Luas and will link east and west Belfast and the Titanic Quarter via the city centre.”

Mike clearly rues the failure to bring in a full tram service as a missed opportunity for Belfast.

“Most major continental cities have extensive tramway systems. And a lot of places in Germany which have them are smaller than Belfast,” he says. “Seven English cities, like Nottingham and Manchester, have opened second-generation tram systems, which have proved very popular. But I think it’s highly unlikely now that we will ever have anything like that here.”

Mike says he’s intrigued with more than just how the look of transport in Belfast has evolved down the decades.

“A lot of people are only interested in the vehicles, but I have always had a broader fascination with not only what happened, but why it happened,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to know what the politics were behind the development of transport in Belfast and what the economic pressures were.”

As for the future, Mike says he remain s hopeful.

“What’s nice is that the Metro service is undergoing a slow growth after many years of decline and stagnation. And the growth is also evident in Northern Ireland Railways and I know that senior people in the transport business have a very clear vision for expansion,” he says.

Holidays for Mike frequently centre on European cities which have up-to-date transport systems.

And when he went to visit his daughter in New Zealand recently he arranged his itinerary to ensure his outbound and homebound travel included San Francisco, Toronto, Melbourne and Hong Kong.

The common denominator? All the cities have trams.

Belfast Transport: From Horse Tram to  Metro by Mike Maybin is published by Fonthill Media, priced £14.99

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