Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Women on the move: Meet the team behind Radio Ulster's Traffic and Travel Desk

Elaine Sutherland and Anne Jordan talk to Stephanie Bell about the many challenges of monitoring Northern Ireland's busy transport networks and life away from the airwaves

Our journey to and from work wouldn't be the same without them. The team behind the traffic and travel reports on BBC Radio Ulster, who aim to ease our commute during the rush hour, have become an essential part of our daily lives without us even realising it.

They're determined to improve our travel arrangements, whether we're getting around by car, plane, boat or train - and their regular updates rely on a huge behind-the-scenes effort, as well as invaluable tip-offs from the public.

Elaine Sutherland and Anne Jordan are responsible for the bulletins, their voices remaining reassuringly calm on our airwaves, no matter how fraught the office has become as they react to updates to pull together the very latest information.

Their goal coming into work every day seems simple - if there is a major traffic hold-up, cancelled flight or issue on our railway or bus network anywhere in Northern Ireland, then they want to ensure their listeners know about it as soon as possible.

Elaine Sutherland (38) has delivered traffic and travel reports on Radio Ulster for the past 10 years.

Married to Neal (41), a postman and living in Donaghadee, Elaine grew up in Carnmoney where she had a love of radio, volunteering in her teens to work in Antrim Area Hospital radio. After school, she went on to study for a degree in journalism in Liverpool, hoping for a job in local radio.

A year after graduating, at the age of 22, she secured a job in the scheduling office in the BBC where she worked for a few months before a vacancy came up in the newsroom.

She says: "I started in the newsroom as a broadcast assistant setting up all the stories for Good Morning Ulster, Evening Extra and Talkback. I did that for a while and then a job came up for a broadcast journalist and I applied and got that.

"I was out and about reporting for radio news but I very quickly learnt that I enjoyed the studio side a lot more, being involved in the programmes day by day and the production side.

"I had never really wanted to be on TV or radio so when I was approached to stand in for the traffic and travel desk the thought about having to go on air made me a nervous wreck.

"I remember thinking 'I don't know if I can do this' but, as it turned out, I loved it and I still love the job. I did it on and off for a time and then 10 years ago it became permanent."

Elaine and Anne work a shift pattern covering all the traffic and travel bulletins together. They also cover Radio Foyle and their first report at 6am is aimed at the early morning commuters.

They continue to update listeners every 10-15 minutes during Good Morning Ulster and then provide further bulletins on the hour throughout the day until the 5pm Evening Extra news programme when they will again provide regular 15-minute updates. Their last report goes out around 11pm.

The women are based at the Traffic Control Centre on the Airport Road in Belfast where they have access to all the information coming in from Northern Ireland's 100-plus road cameras.

Listeners will also update the team, mostly via Twitter and text. Any information received has to be checked out with police before they can report it on air.

Elaine says: "The Traffic Control Centre is amazing. We are really lucky to have that resource available to us. There are big screens on the walls which allow us to see stuff as it is happening and it is very immediate.

"We are able to help them out too. If a listener tweets that there is a road closed off or a major incident we can let them know. That contact from the public is invaluable."

Elaine and Anne have access to 180 cameras dotted around our major roads which they can access at any time as well as a number of other cameras set up by the PSNI.

With just a couple of minutes of broadcast time in any single bulletin, one of the challenges is to prioritise what is reported. While they have time slots for their live reports, often news stories can run over so they have to be ready to go on air at the drop of a hat.

Elaine explains: "I love the fact that the job is so busy and there is a lot of pressure. We have headphones on all the time and we have to have one ear on the programme as it is going out as we could be on earlier or later depending on the news.

"If someone contacts us with an incident or a road closure we have to check it with the police first if we can't see it on camera.

"We have to prioritise depending on what is affecting the most people.

"During the heavy snow and floods we had so much information coming at us about major roads closed and you try to get out what you can as best you can.

"I love that part of the job and the independence of having to decide and prioritise what goes out."

The pair also liaise closely with the news desk as often stories of major accidents or road closures are also headline news.

It can be tough, however, when a tragedy occurs and there is a fatal accident or road closure due to a death.

Elaine says: "As well as fatal accidents, quite often the Foyle Bridge and the M2 bridges will lead to closures because there is a vulnerable person there. We have to treat it very seriously.

"People tend to tweet pictures of crashes and wonder why we aren't retweeting them but quite often we know if someone has passed away and we would be very sensitive about not reporting any details like that until it is confirmed by police.

"We do get a lot of praise and thanks from the public too. We have a lot of listeners and followers who are grateful for the job that we do and who send lovely tweets and messages."

When it comes to advising people about road closures or major hold-ups Elaine and Anne will try when possible to suggest alternative routes.

However, often these too can experience heavy traffic as people attempt to avoid the clogged-up main routes.

Despite all the pressures Elaine loves her job. "I do take a lot of pride in getting it right and getting the information out there. People really do look to us to get information out to them as quickly as possible and that is what we strive to do," she says.

"I really enjoy it. It keeps you on your toes and people say all rush hours are the same but I can honestly say no one day is the same.

"I'm lucky that I also have the opportunity to contribute in additional ways, for example, because of my degree in journalism, I enjoy being able to put together radio features, recording the interviews, writing the scripts and editing them together.

"The features are mostly traffic and travel related. For example I did a feature on Cultra railway station, but I also did a radio feature on the effect of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, 10 years after the storm."

Outside of work and perhaps unsurprisingly travel is one of Elaine's passions and she and Neal are looking forward to celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary this year in Sicily where they had their honeymoon.

Elaine says: "I swore I would never be the type of person to keep going back to one place but we've gone to New Orleans six times in the last six years after falling in love with the music, the city and its people.

"We mostly go in April for Jazz Fest, but last year we went for Mardi Gras in February because Mardi Gras fell on the same day as my husband's 40th so we dressed up and partied in the streets all day watching the parades and listening to the music.

"We had close friends fly in from New York, Barbados and beyond to help him celebrate, it was amazing."

And in both her work and home life, Elaine says she couldn't be happier. "I feel very lucky and very blessed in my work life, I love the job that I do and I genuinely look forward to going to work each day," she says. "But I also feel very lucky in my personal life. I have a husband who not only makes me laugh every day, but who also inspires me with his strength and tenacity and who encourages me in everything that I do.

"We're lucky to both have jobs that we love but also to have each other and to have the ability to travel."

The travelling public also has Anne to thank for helping them avoid major delays.

Anne, who is married to Alan, an astronomer, lives in Belfast and has been reporting our traffic and travel for 15 years.

Before that she worked as a photographer for 15 years, travelling all over Northern Ireland taking photographs in local schools for the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments.

Although she didn't realise it at the time, she was getting to know our roads in a way that has proved invaluable in her current job.

Anne, who is also a talented artist, gave up photography as a career when things went digital.

She says: "I would have processed my photographs myself and there was no Photoshop then, so what you saw is what you got.

"When cameras became digital everybody became a photographer overnight and I found I no longer had a passion for it."

She went back to university to study for a qualification to allow her to teach art and design with photography and also did media studies.

When the job of compiling and reporting the traffic and travel for BBC Radio Ulster was advertised in the Belfast Telegraph, Anne decided it would be a chance to do something different. She applied and was successful.

It is a job that she says does require certain skills and which because of the double shift pattern shared between the two women can make for an unconventional working week.

She says: "There are essential things you need for the job. You need a good speaking voice. You need to be able to speak clearly and slowly. We would get calls from a lot of older people who listen to Radio Ulster thanking us for making our reports clear.

"You also need to be able to write reports quickly, succinctly and accurately and you also need to be quite observant.

"We work odd shifts and the only downside is that is plays havoc with your sleep routine. We can be on two earlies and then two late shifts and we work alternative Saturdays.

"I am more of a night owl than a lark and when I have 5am starts I am usually sleep walking into work and don't worry about what I am wearing which is the bonus of radio."

Like her colleague, Anne is conscious of just how much help the public are when it comes to keeping them informed of what is happening on roads across Northern Ireland.

The BBC Traffic and Travel Twitter account is now followed by more than 30,000 people.

Anne says: "We do rely a lot on the public as they are out on the road and the police don't always want to give us information.

"Sometimes you do get people complaining if there is a minor road closed and we haven't mentioned it but we have to prioritise depending on the most people affected. Basically we stick to the big main road network across Northern Ireland."

One memorable incident on the M2 that sticks out in Anne's mind made headline news a couple of years. She recalls: "It was 7am and something unusual was happening on the M2.

"Usually the traffic is not too bad there at that time of the morning but we could see a big tailback.

"We turned the cameras around to try and see what was happening and there were three cows coming down the motorway towards the city. It was hilarious. Nobody could stop them and even the police didn't know what to do. It caused havoc."

Knowledge of the local road network is vital for the team and Anne is grateful that her former career as a photographer gave her a good grounding in many of our minor roads as well as the major routes.

She says: "I remember during the interview for the job I was asked if I could name three towns off the A26 and I was able to do that. Being a photographer I had to know the map so well and I knew all the A roads and now I know all the B roads as well.

"It sounds quite nerdy, but it's not a bad thing to know. Being a driver helps as well. The Traffic Control Centre refers to lanes 1, 2 and 3 on the motorways and most people don't know which lane they are referring to and it's easier to say the outside lane or the inside lane.

"For us it is about clarifying it and making it simple."

It is a job which Anne also is dedicated to and, like Elaine, outside of work she too loves to travel and has travelled extensively in Chile and North America.

She is also a keen artist, mostly painting landscapes.

She adds: "I find art so therapeutic and relaxing. I am shy when it comes to my art. I recently did a painting of the Dark Hedges and everyone wanted to buy it. I didn't realise it was that good and I was so proud of it.

"But I would say travelling is my most important thing to do - I love it and five years ago I was lucky to be able to take six months leave and spend it in Hawaii when my husband was working out there.

"You learn so much travelling. I think it is the best education."

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