Big thank you from

When the passengers complained trains were on time

The Rambler 31/01/2003

PRE-WAR, when the Belfast trams were overcrowded with shipyard commuters, the railways also had workmen clinging to the tail of guard vans.

As the green flag went up, and the whistle trilled, inevitably there were some tardy passengers abandoning their 'bone-shaker' bikes on the station platform and leaping aboard at the last minute.

At Moira Isaac McClure and his helper knew all their patrons by name, and good humouredly picked up the bikes and stowed them in the shed. No locks were needed in those days and even the checking of tickets was very perfunctory. Staff had a kind of intuition and they could have easily singled out a likely fraudster in the sort of family ethos which prevailed.

For that reason when a man from the GNR's office at Adelaide moved out of the city, at the time of the air raids in 1941, and took up residence near Carlisle's railway tavern, his carnapious behaviour soon rocked the boat at the local station.

If the guard allowed a minute's grace to a couple of late arrivals, 'yer man' (we will call him 'the Big Bug') shot out his neck and threatened to report the guard to Jim Howden, the general manager, for not getting the train out on time.

The second morning on which that happened led to an ugly flare up.

One of the regulars took a swipe at Big head and sent the brat's bowler hat spinning across the platform.

Of course, verbal threats of legal action for assault erupted but when 'the defence' numbers grew, Big Bug retreated and quickly took his seat in a first class compartment.

What he didn't anticipate was the counter action.

He regularly fell asleep on the late homeward journey, sometimes in a third class coach. As soon as he hit the seat his tonsils began to gurgle and he was dead to the world.

In wartime black-out days train lights were dim and unmanned halts at Damhead and Broomhedge were virtually black holes.

One night the regulars who had it in for Big Bug concocted a ruse.

At Damhead, when the train halted briefly, they jumped up yelling 'Moira, Moira' and leapt out -but only to jump aboard an adjoining coach.

As anticipated, Big Bug jumped out after them rubbing his eyes. The train, at around 11:30pm, pulled out, and yer man was left stranded on an empty halt several miles from Moira.

He was half-way home on foot before he managed to hitch a lift!

They say that he minded his own business thereafter, even if an early morning workmen's train was a few minutes late in pulling out.

Regular commuters included an elderly near-neighbour of mine Tom Johnson, who had travelled the same route on a bike for all his working life. He was a paragon of punctuality - never late and entirely unfazed by disputes about the guard's decisions.

As a rookie, I immediately recognized my neighbour's dependability and happily fell in alongside him any time I overtook him.

As a result, I got a heck of a shock one morning when I spied the train from the crest of Chestnut Hill, fast approaching the station.

I can assure readers it was a case of heads down and full speed ahead as 'wee Tommy' and I belted to the platform. Incredibly Tommy had been late! Not long after he was missing and we learnt that he had retired.

He had wrought for a lifetime as a tradesman with the GNR at Adelaide where the boy with the inflated opinion of self-importance had also worked in a white-collar capacity.

Two decades or so ago when I travelled on the Enterprise I had the pleasure of greeting an old classmate, Isaac McClure II, in his role of station master at Portadown.

He had followed in his Dad's footsteps, career-wise, but, unlike the old man he had had access to further education.

As well, he had had the example of an outstanding public servant whose popularity at Moira station had been unsurpassed.

I salute the memories of father and son.

Ulster Star