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.