Who is Andy Byford, London’s new transport commissioner?

Andy Byford on a visit to Staten Island in 2018. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

On Wednesday, Transport for London announced the name of its new commissioner. Andy Byford, who most recently served as president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), will take over as London’s top transport official on 29 June. 

So – who is Byford? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is Byford’s background?

Andy Byford, who was born in Kent in 1965 and grew up in Plymouth, has transport in his blood: his grandfather drove a London bus, and his father worked for London Transport. 

Byford himself joined the agency as a graduate trainee in 1989, and rose to be general manager of King’s Cross St Pancras, one of London’s busiest and most complicated tube stations. After leaving the agency, he spent three years apiece as operations director at two private rail operators serving London and its outskirts, South Eastern Trains and Southern Railway, before leaving the UK altogether in 2009.

What senior posts has he held?

Byford began his international career as COO of RailCorp, which runs Sydney’s commuter rail services. There, “he forged a reputation as a hands-on boss,” writes the Sydney Morning Herald, “spending time at stations and depots and often writing letters to the editor to apologise for late trains”.

He took a similar approach when he moved to Canada to head the Toronto Transit Commission in 2013, spending an entire day at Bloor-Yonge, the network’s busiest station, apologising to passengers for delays. His big intervention, though, was a five-year, system-wide plan to modernise the TTC’s culture, equipment and processes. It worked: in 2017, the agency was named Outstanding Transit System of the Year by the American Public Transportation Association (although one rather mean-spirited columnist compared this to winning the “most improved player” award on a school sports team).

And then came the big job.

What happened in New York?

In 2018, when Byford arrived as president of NYCTA, the city’s transport network was in trouble. Passenger numbers were falling, due to both the rise of ride-hailing apps as well as a 45% increase in hours lost to delays over just five years, a problem blamed on the city’s creaking, 1930s-era signalling systems.

NYCTA – which includes the Staten Island Railway and the buses, as well as the subway – was also beset by chronic under-funding, in large part thanks to a power struggle between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (the MTA, of which the NYCTA is a part, is officially a state agency) and the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio (who, unsurprisingly, wanted more authority over his city's transit system). In June 2017, after delays left passengers stranded underground for hours during a heatwave and two trains derailed, injuring dozens, Cuomo went so far as to declare a state of emergency.

Byford again took a hands-on approach, and was often seen chatting with passengers or even cleaning subway stations. His visibility won him an unlikely fanbase, as well as the nickname "Train Daddy".

He soon launched "Fast Forward", a long-term programme to upgrade those 80-year-old signalling systems, implement contactless fare gates, upgrade 50 stations to be wheelchair accessible, and redesign the bus network.

Much of this work is still ongoing. But Byford himself clashed with Cuomo and felt himself sidelined. He resigned last autumn, changed his mind, and then finally left in January. In a mark of the unusual celebrity he’d built up for himself, the Guardian reported his departure under the headline, “A huge loss for New York”.

What will his job at TfL be?

Byford’s experience in New York should hold him in good stead for the situation he faces back in London. The Elizabeth Line, the 73-mile east-west railway that was meant to begin opening in December 2018, is now running at least three years late and 20% over budget. What’s more, TfL has been plunged into the red by the collapse in fare revenues caused by the coronavirus crisis, and the £1.6bn bailout it received from national government is likely to run out by September. 

It needs a new financial settlement. Attempts to arrange one, however, are all but certain to involve a power struggle between the mayor of London (whose office has held primarily responsibility for the city’s transport in recent years), and national government (which wants more oversight and which, not coincidentally, is run by a different party from the mayoralty). 

Fixing all this won’t be easy for anyone. But if anyone can, it’s the guy who’s worked in both Toronto (a network with a farebox-led financial model similar to London’s) and New York (an aging system at the centre of a vicious power struggle). His earlier experience at regional rail operators may also come in handy if TfL gets its wish of taking over more of London’s overground rail services, too.

What happened to the previous commissioner, Mike Brown?

Brown, who has been commissioner since July 2015, is actually still in post: he won’t step down until 10 July, two weeks into Byford’s tenure, to help with the transition. 

But he’s not done with multi-billion pound public investment programmes with enormous potential for controversy just yet. As announced last October, Brown is moving to a new job as chair of the delivery authority in charge of restoring the Houses of Parliament.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


 

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL