Women on right road when ‘I drive a bus’ is no longer a conversation stopper
Remember that adrenalin-fuelled blockbuster Speed, where heroine Sandra Bullock has to keep a bus full of terrified passengers travelling above 50mph or else it will explode?
Well, this was absolutely nothing like that.
Instead, think more along the lines of a leisurely 20mph cruise around an empty race track devoid of vengeful maniacs, missing bridges - or even traffic.
Still, I must admit to a frisson of excitement when I buckled up behind the wheel of a top-of-the-range Glider bus - currently being road-tested - ready to follow instructions from my very cool, calm and collected instructor George Weir (48).
"I drive a bus" used to be a conversation stopper when delivered by anyone other than a big burly bloke - but not any more.
More than 200 women turned up at Nutt's Corner Circuit in Crumlin this week to take part in Translink's Have a Go Days, aimed at encouraging more female drivers to take up the profession.
Bedecked in a high visibility jacket and armed only with enthusiasm, I listened intently to a rather serious looking George as he ran through the basics.
"It really isn't that difficult," says George, looking more than a little worried.
"Put your foot on the brake. No, that's the accelerator; the brake's on the left; THAT left; the inside pedal. There are only two pedals. That's right.
"Put your foot down sharply on that pedal and lift it again."
I look at him, laugh nervously at the left/right confusion and say: "So far, so good. This is fun!"
"Now," he replies, sternly.
"Press the button with the 'D' on it - look it's there on the dash in front of you on the right, the one above the two other buttons -'N' for neutral, and that one's 'R' for reverse.
"No, don't even look at those red buttons beneath the window yet, they don't concern you. Focus.
"Lift that lever on your right hand side. Pull it up and push it forward. That's your handbrake. Finally, hit the gas pedal to release the halt; that's a safety feature. Let's go."
Unfortunately our video expert Ben got left behind when I shut the doors too quickly and forgot to check the mirrors, but photographer Kevin was already in - and we were off.
Meandering around this winding track wasn't too difficult, with the only objectives being to keep the bus on the road and to avoid knocking down any of the plastic safety barriers... oh, and of course, you should avoid crashing into other buses.
George said he thought I "was a natural" - except, perhaps, for the part when I took a corner rather sharply, dragging the latter part of the vehicle off the concrete and across (thankfully) a wide open space. But never mind. After another attempt, this model pupil was positively whizzing around at speeds of at least 30mph and displaying such an aptitude for the task at hand (perhaps my new vocational calling?) that I was allowed to drive one of the Goldliner double decker buses too.
A couple of successful circuits later - and a relatively clean, crash-free slate - and I can now say I'm the proud owner of a Translink certificate confirming that I took part in one of their Have a Go Days.
Bus driver-turned-instructor George, who has been a Translink employee for 26 years, revealed that his wife Sandra (49) is also a bus driver. Perhaps fittingly, it's his job these days to show other women who find themselves at a career crossroads that this could be a new path worth considering.
Translink is currently recruiting for Metro, Glider and Ulsterbus drivers, aiming to increase the number of women applying and to raise awareness of the benefits bus driving can offer.
Accounts worker Denise McCaffrey (27), from Lisnaskea, was there to try her hand behind the wheel and she came away from the whole experience with the positive conviction of someone who knows what she's going to do next.
"My grandfather and my dad were both bus drivers and I suppose that's part of the reason I always wanted to give it a go," she said.
"I drove both an Ulsterbus and a Glider and I enjoyed them both. I really liked the Glider; it was really smooth."
With a starting wage of £381 a week for a full-time driver, increasing to £424 after six months, an average first year salary hits £24,500 when you add in overtime.
It certainly sounds like a job worth considering - and the good news is that Translink is "always on the look out for drivers".
Call centre worker Patricia Smith (55) said she applied for a job as a bus driver in February. "I'm so glad I had an opportunity to drive today, this has convinced me that I'm making the right decision."
Belfast woman Cathy McGeough (48), an employee of 15 years, has risen up the ranks from driver to inspector.
"It's a great job. I'd encourage anyone to consider it," she said.
"I was also one of the Northern Ireland drivers at the London Olympics. It was brilliant."
Group chief executive Chris Conway said Translink wants to reduce any misconceptions that being a bus driver is a male-only career.
He added: "We've over 150 female bus drivers and nearly 100 of them have been with the company for over 10 years."