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“Holidays Are Bad For You!”

Memories of York Road Booking Office


"Holidays are bad for you!" That was according to JVC Boston, the Chief Clerk in the Booking Office at Belfast York Road during the early 1970s. Jimmy originally came from Great Northern territory and had moved through the Control Office to take over the running of the grey-bricked, large windowed office, which lay beyond the buffer stops of platforms 1 and 2, and the carriage road sandwiched between. It didn't really matter if your holiday was a Rest Day, a Lieu Day, Annual Leave, or even just a Sunday - absence from work was, according to Jimmy, likely to cause you to make a mistake and The Balance for the day would be wrong.

Mind you I was on holiday! As an undergraduate at Queen's University at that time I was free from the end of examinations in May until almost the first of October - provided that resit exams in August could be avoided! Jimmy was a Whiteabbey neighbour at the time and, probably more importantly, his brother-in-law was a colleague of my Dad's in Davidson's Sirocco Works! Thus I secured a job as a relief clerk in York Road, a position I enjoyed for four successive summers, while the other members of the office in turn took their Free Passes and disappeared off on holiday - well, there were six clerks in the booking office at the time!

Of course, there was a solution to the unbalanced Balance. Hidden in one of the office desks was a little tin. If we were just a few pence over, the money went into the tin. If the Balance was few pence short, then the tin could be used to ensure the outcome of the calculations was exactly on target. If by the end of the week there was a little too much in the tin, then the Friday afternoon tea break might be augmented by buns from Whittaker's Bakery at the bottom of the Limestone Road. However, if the discrepancy was large, Jimmy would have to write a crawling letter to the Accountant's Department at Head Office with an explanation as to why we had erred. (Initially this office was located at 1 York Road, but later moved to Central Station.)

The daily Balance was a complicated affair to me, at least to begin with. In those days almost all local NIR journeys were ticketed using Almex machines. The appropriately coloured ticket was first inserted in the big machine. Singles were a buff colour, with separate styles for adults and children; Day Returns were yellow; Weekend/2-Day Returns were pink. There was also a Bike/Pram/Dog ticket, which was orange; a white First Class ticket for stations on the NCC Main Line (not that we ever sold many of those); and for Special Returns, including Nurses (who knew why?), there was a green ticket. The destination station was shown by a code number, followed by the ticket code, e.g. S for Single, or D for Day Return, etc., and then the price. All was recorded on the audit roll inside the machine, and at the end of the day it was possible to work out how much had been clocked up in pennies, ten pences and pounds. That bit of the Balance calculation was relatively easy - but not impossible to derail. One day another fresh relief clerk decided to see what would happen if he rang up the maximum possible - £9.99 - on the machine and pushed the handle. It clocked up £9.99 on the audit roll of course. What he hadn't done was to insert any kind of ticket, so the calculation was out by £9.99, and Jimmy had to write one of his begging letters to the Auditor! Had he put in any kind of ticket, it would have been possible to fill out a TIR (Ticket Irregularity Report), explaining what had happened and therefore explaining why the Balance had not worked out correctly.

In addition to the big Almex machines at each of the front windows, there was also a small machine at the back window. This was similar to those carried by guards, when their role was first expanded to include the sale of tickets. While tickets sold by the guard on the train were white, those sold from station booking offices came off a pink roll. The coding again included the fare and ticket type but also had a capital I (for In - or Up, i.e. towards Belfast) or O (for Out - or Down, i.e. away from the city). Consequently any passenger arriving at York Road who had not for whatever reason managed to purchase a ticket could obtain one before passing through the barrier. One evening a group of Asian travellers arrived off the Larne Boat Train. We didn't get too many foreign visitors to Belfast in the 1970s! They claimed to have come from Edinburgh; nobody had carried out a ticket inspection in all that journey, so they could not see the need for tickets at the barrier at Belfast! Having none of it, Robbie Lindsey, the Ticket Collector, pointed them to the back window of the Booking Office and I collected fares for each of them from Larne Harbour to Belfast at least!

Friday evenings and Monday mornings were always busy occasions. In addition to regular passengers, there were those heading home for the weekend or purchasing season tickets for the following week or month. Weekly tickets were still traditional Edmondson cards in those days. These had been the standard for railway journeys since 1842, coming into general use with the creation of the Railway Clearing House. The tickets were printed on card cut to 1732 by 2¼ inches (31.0 by 57.2 mm), with a nominal thickness of 132 inch (0.79 mm).

In a large ticket rack, we held individually-numbered adult (green), young person's (pink) and child (purple) cards from Belfast to each station, or occasionally to groups of stations close to one another, such as Clipperstown and Carrickfergus. There were naturally some stations which were used much more frequently than others. The trick here was to have the next ticket to be issued protruding a little from the rack so that the number was just showing. If that ticket was sold, the next one fell into place but its number was not visible. Therefore, any stick without a protruding number must have had at least one sale that day and had to be recorded for inclusion on the Balance sheet. Sticks which still clearly showed the ticket number had no sales and could be quickly omitted. The ticket was not only dated in the normal way in an Edmondson card stamp machine, but was also overprinted with two large numbers. These were changed every week according to a random plan from head office, and this made it much easier for the ticket collectors to check passengers were using an in-date weekly as they sped through the barrier on their way to work.

There were similar colours of monthly tickets. These were larger and were printed on more flimsy cards, suitable to be slipped into a wallet. Several of the less frequently used destination stations were missing and passengers travelling to those points had to be issued with a ‘Belfast to ______’ ticket. These came out of a little book with carbon copies, so a hand-written record was held of the destination station and the cost of the ticket.

Another large rack held the cross-channel tickets. To a rail enthusiast, these were by far the most interesting tickets in the office. Once again there were printed tickets to all the most frequently used destinations. Naturally most were in Scotland - Belfast to Stranraer Harbour, Girvan, Ayr, Paisley Gilmour Street, Glasgow Central or Edinburgh Waverley. Then there were a few English stations - Carlisle, Newcastle upon Tyne and London Euston. The most popular ones had Adult, Child and even Privilege versions of both single and return tickets. Some destinations had alternative routes and, therefore, two tickets. For example, Belfast to London Euston was dearer if the passenger travelled via Glasgow rather than on the direct train via Mauchline. This was apparently just a junction and signal box on the Glasgow & South Western Railway's route from Glasgow to Dumfries. It sprung to fame when the overnight Boat Train from Euston - 'The Northern Irishman' - was rerouted this way, following the closure of the direct line from Dumfries to Stranraer via Castle Douglas.

If a station had a printed adult ticket but no child version, it was possible to create one. A special cutter took a tiny piece - shaped like a D lying on its flat side - out of the bottom of the card. In minute writing we then had to record on this piece all the ticket details and stick it into a book, as this was the only proof that the ticket had been sold at a price below its face value. There were one or two occasions when such tiny pieces went astray - at least temporarily - and caused great consternation in the office! Should two children be travelling on the same day it was also permissible to divide the adult ticket with a diagonal cut from about one third along the top to two-thirds along the bottom. Thus it was not just an adult ticket of which the outward or return portion had been used.

Then there were ‘Belfast to ______’ cards for all the other stations. Fares could be calculated using the British Railways' Selective Prices Manual, a huge book rather like an old-style telephone directory. Once again, the tickets issued and fares charged had to be logged in a book to be totalled daily with the Office Balance. Some destinations were mentioned specifically; others required a calculation to be carried out. For example, for any passenger travelling to East Kilbride the Selective Price Manual might have stated "Use Glasgow fare plus £1". On occasions members of the armed services would appear with warrants for travel back to their base on the mainland. For example, an airman might need his warrant exchanged for a ticket from Belfast to Leuchars, so he could return to his RAF Squadron, or a sailor would be travelling to Portsmouth to board his warship. On either occasion we would have to use the Selective Prices Manual to calculate the appropriate fare, which the MoD would have to pay NIR/BR for the trip.

One summer BR and NIR created a special ‘Belfast to Glasgow Return’, which I think was priced at £10.15. There were no appropriate pre-printed tickets, so it was agreed we would use the ‘Belfast to _____’ tickets and write in the new low fare, recording each in the ‘Belfast to _____’ Book. Not long after, two adults and a child came to the booking office, and Yours Truly sold ‘two and a half’ to Glasgow at £10.15. The only problem was that I calculated the total as £15.38 rather than £25.38. Nobody noticed until the ‘Period End’. That came every four weeks, when all returns from the Booking Office had to be checked and cross-checked. When the error was finally tracked down, Jimmy had to write another of his letters of explanation to Head Office and, let's just say, I was not in his good books! I seem to remember buying the Friday afternoon buns out of my pay that week!

Having been a staff member for a month, and on BR pay like all other NIR staff at the time, I was entitled to a Privilege Card. This gave me return travel for half the single fare, effectively one quarter rate. One summer I used my pass to get as far as Aberdeen for a meeting of Boys' Brigade Officers. The following year the Brigade Council Meeting was in Manchester, so once again my privilege card came in handy. I was even able to write out the tickets for myself on ‘Belfast to _____’ cards!

The final stocks of tickets I remember were the paper tickets. These were basically carbon copy books printed with spaces to allow issue of tickets from anywhere to anywhere at any price. Some were technically Excess Fare Books, which we tended to use for Groups of 10 or more travelling together. The carbon copy ensured there was a record of the sale and that the appropriate fare could be added to that day's Balance sheet.

There were advantages of being in the right place at the right time. One day a bomb scare forced the evacuation of the station. The Booking Office staff all migrated to the far end of platform 2/3. After a time somebody suggested we could do with a seat - so we all took up residence in York Road's signal box until the scare was lifted and trains could start running again. On another occasion I heard that delivery of one of the then new Class 80 power cars was due and was able to photograph the unit coming off its lorry onto the tarmac/rail area at the back of platform 5.

Initially my tasks were limited to answering enquiries and then booking passengers to local stations. As my experience increased I was given more and more responsibility, finally being trusted to run the office on my own during the early or late shift. The early man started at 06.30 in time to book travellers on the 06.45 Boat Train. One morning, with my brain scarcely in gear, I was asked for a single for a man and his dog to Arbroath!

The late turn officially ended at 20.30 after the 20.25 to Larne Harbour had gone. With a little help from the barrier man and guard it was possible to book any passengers, lock the office up and catch the 20.25 train home to Whiteabbey. By that stage we had moved to the tiny station which York Road had become in its final incarnation.

The Deputy Chief Clerk was Stanley McCormick. Stanley was a veteran of the Swiss Chalet Booking Office just inside the Whitla Street entrance to the station. I remember this as a small boy when my parents bought tickets to Whiteabbey, though I never worked there. Stanley's catch phrase after a long conversation on some subject totally divorced from Booking Office routine was, "We must get on!" And that would seem an appropriate point to conclude this reminiscing. Throughout my four summer holidays I enjoyed great rapport with the staff both in the office and throughout the railway as a whole. To my knowledge only Raymond Gaw, then a junior member of the parcels office staff, and now himself a booking clerk at Belfast Central, remains as an NIR employee.

As Jimmy Boston would have said, "You'll complete your education here!" He wasn't far wrong.


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Revised: February 15, 2018 .