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Dion’s Bus Service celebrates century of caring for customers

In late 2023, Dion’s Bus Service raised the bat for 100 years operating buses in the Wollongong region. Its story starts with a unique family business that survived hardships to become a beloved community name

When the Great Depression wreaked havoc on Australians in the late 1920s, there weren’t many places to turn. Many lost their jobs and were forced to eat ‘cocky’s joy’ – a mixture of bread and golden syrup. Businesses quickly closed their doors and loyal workers lost their jobs. Farmers and families struggled alike. In the midst of one of the nation’s most tumultuous times, a Wollongong-based family bus company was known for its motto in some trying circumstances.

‘No one left behind’.

The phrase became synonymous with Dion’s Bus Service generosity. In a period where many people in New South Wales’ Illawarra region couldn’t afford to pay for bus fares, Dion’s was known for letting people hop onboard and not be left to walk to their destination if they couldn’t afford the fare.

“The business has always looked after the community around it,” Dion’s Bus Service managing director Les Dion Jnr told ABC.

“I don’t think you’ll see that spirit anywhere else again – they would always give people a ride where they couldn’t afford to pay.”

Throughout this period of free rides and customer care, Dion’s Bus Service was no shining beacon of wealth itself. In the early ‘30s, the operator and its buses had to be bailed out in a miracle repossession deal.

Now, a century after Les Jnr’s grandfather Thomas Dion responded to the loss of his father Thomas Snr by starting a bus company alongside his 12 siblings, the Wollongong institution has reached a special milestone.

The history of 100 years of Dion’s dedication to the Illawarra began 40 years before the operator’s foundations in 1923 when Thomas Dion Snr decided to emigrate from South China to Australia for a shot at the Gold Rush.

He arrived in Adelaide, where he could avoid paying the ‘10 pound tax’ that was imposed under the Victorian Act of 1855. Under the Act, every Chinese person who arrived on Australian shores had to pay 10 pounds, with only one person for every 10 tonnes of goods allowed on each vessel. By landing in Adelaide, he could avoid the tax. It came at a cost – Thomas Dion Snr, known as Thomas Chong at that stage, had to walk from Adelaide to Bendigo in the hopes of finding a goldfield to work at.

From Bendigo, Thomas moved to Nerrigundah, NSW (just outside of Moruya) and in 1884 opened a general store retailing groceries, drapery, ironmongery, boots, shoes, tinware, confectionery and furniture.

For more than two decades, Thomas and his wife Annie ran the store. Despite quickly becoming part of Nerrigundah’s future, the family was destined to settle elsewhere.

In 1907, Thomas, Annie and their five children moved to Wollongong, buying a market garden in Fairy Meadow where they began growing and selling vegetables to the local community.

Despite settling in Fairy Meadow with their market garden, the Dion’s were soon disrupted when Thomas Snr passed in 1923. As a means to provide for the family, Thomas Jnr, one of the 13 Dion children, applied to the North Illawarra Council to start a Wollongong to Balgownie bus service. When it was approved and first began in December that year, the legend of Dion’s Bus Service began.

Image: Dion’s Bus Service

“When you look back to the initial days of the business and my family history, it shows that they did all of the heavy lifting,” Les Jnr says.

“They survived World Wars and Depressions among other challenges, so I take my hat off to them. My elders worked as a community in their own family unit.”

The initial Balgownie and Bellambi bus services from Dion’s were run by a T-model Ford with a body built of wood, no windows and canvas blinds. Within a few years, the Dion siblings became more enterprising, starting a novel service linking Port Kembla and Wollongong to Sydney via a luxury parlour coach.

The service became a hit around town, allowing local citizens to head up and back to Sydney in a day with more regularity and reliability than the train network. Yet as the Great Depression set in and the ‘30s arrived, the cancellation of the Sydney service started a dark period for Dion’s.

Despite Thomas Jnr’s siblings beginning to join the fold, with the brothers graduating to drivers and workshop employees while the sisters worked in the new mixed business where they would retail produce from their market garden as well as in administration for the bus operator, Thomas Jnr was struggling to meet the lease terms on two new buses he had recently bought. With the main means of income during the Depression coming from hotly contested theatre runs in Wollongong, Dion’s was fading fast with its new vehicles set for repossession. Coupled with its habit of helping those in the local community who were in need and foregoing payment, Dion’s was set to follow many other businesses in that time in shutting doors. It took a magical intervention to keep the family bus operator in service.

The 11th hour saviour came courtesy of local man Albert ‘Brooky’ Ball. The Dion family had never heard of him when he offered to buy the two vehicles and rent them back to Thomas Jnr. His offer to keep Dion’s Bus Services afloat boiled down to his adoration of the operator – he didn’t think it was right for the business to go under.

This would prove to be a turning point for Dion’s, as it allowed the operator to survive the Great Depression and then flourish. By WWII, the operator was well prepared, dabbling in alternative fuels such as charcoal gas to overcome shortages. Les can’t help but be proud of the family’s “mind-boggling” charitable nature in such trying times.

“You normally don’t get a second chance in business, but they did and they made good of it,” Les Jnr says.

“I love how they embraced the community – it became such a large part of their business because they looked after people so much.”

In 1945, the Dion Bros Bus Partnership, including Tom Jnr and his siblings Rose, Ted, Barney, Ernie and Les Snr, were at the helm of the operation as it ran routes to and from Austinmer and Kiama. With a fleet comprising new and second-hand Leyland and Bedford models, Dion’s became a notorious operator for driving slowly and running late.

Known as ‘the slow boat to China’, the Dion brothers made a habit of being careful on underdeveloped roads, dropping off patrons where they wanted away from stops and continuing to help any passengers in need.

Despite this reputation in the local area, Dion’s was able to settle into a healthy rhythm in the back end of the 20th century. By the time the ‘80s came around, Dion’s had 13 vehicles of mixed heritage operating seven days a week, with the first generation continuing to run the business.

It all changed in 1988.

Image: Dion’s Bus Service

Following a testimonial dinner for the family recognising 65 years since the first Dion’s run, the second generation of Dion family members formed a new company to run the business. The older model buses were also retired, with the first new buses in 40 years being delivered the year after in the form of two 55-seat Hinos featuring air-conditioning and a new-look livery.

This change wasn’t out of the blue – throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Dion’s faced increasing competition from newly formed operators for key runs in the Illawarra region, including the Wollongong to Kiama route. A decline in bus transport patronage meant reinvigoration was needed.

These new Hinos, alongside Leyland Leopard buses, formed the first step in the journey to shaking older ways of running bus services. This allowed the business to develop into the 2000s, where Dion’s Bus Service was at the forefront of innovation yet again when it acquired new Volvo models in 2003 that featured Wollongong’s first wheelchair accessible low-floor route buses.

A year later, the family business was officially purchased by Les Jnr, heralding a new era.

“I started with the business more than 40 years ago in the office and then began driving the old blue buses some 36 years ago,” he says.

“When I look at the company now and compare it to its history, they’re two totally different operations.

“Our buses now have modern technology with two-way communications and CCTV, Opal ticketing through the Public Transport Information and Priority System (PTIPS) and telematics, giving us fleet tracking and driver management capabilities. Back in the day, my uncle Tom would simply look out the window to assess patronage onboard a service.”

Les Jnr’s purchase of the business signalled a major moment in its history. On August 20, 2005, Les Dion Snr retired at the age of 85. He was the last of the first generation to retire, following his brothers Tom, Ted and Barney in hanging up the keys after years of loyal service.

Having spent 68 years driving buses since first helping the family business at the age of 17, Les Dion Snr’s key memory of the operator was its famous generosity in its formative years.

“Nobody ever walked – if they had no money, they still got a ride,” he said.

Fast forward to 2015 and the landscape looks different for Dion’s. No longer is it fiercely competing with local operators for prized runs. Back in the mid-1900s, Dion’s drivers would try to arrive minutes earlier than other bus runs to snag more passengers and reap the rewards. Now, Les Jnr’s focus has been on operating the bus service under an Outer Metro Contract regime.

Les Jnr’s team now includes 40 drivers, mechanics and administration staff, all of whom are outside of the Dion family. The Illawarra operator runs the Outer Sydney Metropolitan Bus Service Region 12 contract, with four routes in Wollongong.

He says this formalised landscape means he can’t replicate his elders in veering off course or handing out free rides to those in need.

“There are so many rules we need to abide by now, so within these rules we still try to look after customers as best as we can,” he says.

“Our drivers, much like in the past, have a good and close connection with passengers – we may not have the freedom that my family did back in the day, but we do impress upon our drivers to look after the customers first and foremost.”

Les Jnr is no stranger to celebrating his family business. For Dion’s 80th anniversary, the business held a community sausage sizzle, while its 90th year was celebrated with a day of free rides for passengers along the network. For the century, celebrations stepped up, with many questions about the family business remaining unanswered.

With a documentary and a book now having been made about the family business, Les Jnr is excited to share and learn more about the intriguing tale of Dion’s Bus Service, from its humble beginnings to its current evolution as a beloved Wollongong business.

“Telling our story on our 100th anniversary has given many people, including myself, depth and understanding on what the first generation of Dion’s did for the local community,” he says.

“It’s been a little slow sinking in that we have reached 100 years, and I’ve learnt more about my family this year than in my 57 years on the planet, but we love celebrating what my family has done. We’re all so proud of them and where we are now.”

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