A fare to remember For young Winnipegger and transit, it’s all about the ride, not the destination

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Justin Rombough doesn’t ride the bus like every Transit Tom, Dick and Harry. While most of us are content to sit and daydream until we reach our stop, Rombough is paying close attention to the sounds being created, as the wheels of the bus go round and round.

For starters, he’s trying to determine the precise make and model of the engine, by listening to what’s under the hood, he says, when asked what noises he’s tuning into, exactly, other than the ding-ding-ding that lets the driver know it’s his turn to get off.

“I also listen to the air brakes, and, if there’s snow on the ground, to the tires, trying to figure out if they’re balding or not, and are getting any traction,” he goes on, seated in a downtown food court, at which — surprise, surprise — he arrived by bus, from his home in the West End.

“When it comes to buses, I like to think I’m very intuitive.”

He can say that again. Besides studying the squeaks and hisses associated with his commute, Rombough takes pictures of Winnipeg’s public transit fleet in action on an almost daily basis, which he posts online under the banner Bus Photography of Manitoba Inc.

Perhaps you’ve heard of trainspotters, the term given to those drawn to railways and such? Rombough is what you might call a bus-spotter.

Rombough, 21, traces his fascination with buses to 2014, when he and his parents left Winnipeg for Vancouver. A few months after their arrival, they wound up in what he calls a vulnerable situation, owing to a variety of circumstances.

“Basically, we ended up homeless. And because there weren’t any family shelters we could be at together, a person at one of the adult shelters had this ‘great’ idea to split us apart,” he says, pausing to take a sip of his double-double. “My mom and dad, who ultimately split up, were in an adult shelter, while I was sent to a youth shelter, all by myself.”

His stay there coincided with a protracted strike by B.C. school teachers. Unable to attend class on a regular basis, he began investigating the city, thanks to bus tickets provided free of charge by the shelter. Some days, the then-13-year-old would go from the Phibbs Exchange, a major stop close to where he was living, to Capilano Mall, in North Vancouver. Other times, he’d catch a ride headed south, to visit the Metropolis at Metrotown, in Burnaby.

“You have to remember, TransLink, Vancouver’s transit system, is a lot different than Winnipeg’s. Besides buses, you’ve got the SkyTrain, the SeaBus… it’s fantastic,” he says, his eyes widening. “So, with lots of time on my hands, I started familiarizing myself with all these different routes and, to make a long story short, fell in love with buses, and what an essential service they provide.”

“You mean there are other people like me?” he caught himself thinking, as he spent hours perusing photographs of buses, trams, coaches and double-deckers from all over the world.

Rombough and his mother returned to Winnipeg in the fall of 2015. Following brief stays at Siloam Mission and Booth Centre, they moved into an apartment on Redwood Avenue, near McGregor Street. Within days he was riding buses from one end of the city to the other, taking note of landmarks he passed along the way; that was, when he wasn’t studying Winnipeg’s transit system as a whole, learning which routes went where, on a laptop his mother had bought him for school purposes.

It was around that same time when he came across multiple social media sites dedicated to all things buses, maintained by individuals who dubbed themselves, to list a few, Calgary Transit Fan, Transit Maniac Toronto and Autobus Italiani, the latter based in Venice, Italy. “You mean there are other people like me?” he caught himself thinking, as he spent hours perusing photographs of buses, trams, coaches and double-deckers from all over the world.

By November 2015 he had saved enough money to purchase an iPad Mini, which he used to take his first transit photo, a shot of a No. 14 Ellice-St. Mary’s bus, turning left onto Portage Avenue from Fort Street. He established his Instagram account a few months later and hasn’t looked back much since, except to see which bus is approaching, next.

Excuse us if this is a dumb question, but isn’t it a case of seen one bus, seen ’em all?

Not at all, he replies. The first thing he does most mornings is log onto wtlivewpg.com, a website managed by a Winnipeg teenager who shares his passion. Although the site isn’t affiliated with Winnipeg Transit in any manner, it lists the specific make and model of every single bus on the road on a particular day, along with the route it’s expected to cover.

That means if his aim is to capture an image of one of the city’s oldest buses — a handful date back to 1995 — or “a 60-footer,” one of those stretched-out, bendy buses, he has a good idea where to start looking.

“It can actually get a bit competitive, trying to be the first person to get a shot of something you don’t see every day,” he adds, turning his phone around to show off one of his most recent posts that, in addition to a photo, lists the year the bus-in-question was built (2018), its engine type (Cummins L9), fleet number (369 out of 627) and route (60 Pembina).

Do drivers ever shoot him a bemused look, as if to say, “Uh, why are you taking my picture?”

Occasionally, he says, but more often than not, they’ll wave, toot the horn or even seemingly slow down a touch, which enables him to get a perfectly framed shot to add to his collection.

About that; while the 2,000 or so images Rombough has amassed to date is an impressive amount, even he allows it’s nothing compared to some of what’s out there. For instance, Alan Keall, a 47-year-old bus enthusiast from Swansea, Wales, claimed to have close to two million photographs of buses stored on a series of hard drives, when he was asked about his hobby for a story in a British publication, a few years back.

In that same article, another person was quoted at length over what he and others find so compelling about such a common mode of transportation.

“Bus-spotting is so enjoyable… there’s always something to see, be it new vehicles, old vehicles or rare allocations,” the fellow said. “I (find) it fascinating how each vehicle is different from the next, whether it’s the livery, interior, sound of the engine, design or branding.”

“Even today, exploring a route I’ve never been on before, just to see where it takes me, is a great way to relieve stress.”–Justin Rombough

Rombough agrees with that statement wholeheartedly but in his case, there’s another reason. Things haven’t always been rosy for him, especially when he was living in B.C. During his darkest hours, buses provided “a bit of a safety net” from what he was dealing with. “Even today, exploring a route I’ve never been on before, just to see where it takes me, is a great way to relieve stress,” he says, mentioning he’s also proud of his ever-developing photography skills.

One more question before we let him go (after all, he has a bus to catch… a photo of): can we expect to see him behind the wheel of a city transit bus, one day?

Perhaps, he responds, though it would probably be a good idea to get his driver’s licence, first.

“I’m currently attending MITT (Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology) for my Grade 12, and come the fall of 2024, I’ll be studying to be a health-care aide, as part of my goal to eventually become a registered nurse,” he says, checking the time to see how long he has before his stated target — an 18-year-old, articulated bus bound for the University of Manitoba — is due to pass along the nearby Graham Avenue Transit Mall.

“But for sure, if health care doesn’t work out, driving a bus for a living is something that’s in the back of my mind.”


David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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