“There’s a great story to be told of British and London transport expertise, which is being sought out once again” Andy Byford, then-CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), mused when we last saw him at the UITP Global Public Transport Conference in Montréal in May 2017. Now he faces a larger challenge – New York.
CEO of the TTC since 2012, Byford led a renaissance of the underfunded and downtrodden transit system. Torontonians justifiably considered Byford one of their own, so his resignation in November came as a great civic shock. His reasons soon became clear – Byford was off to New York, leaving the third largest transit system in North America for the first.
An Englishman in New York
Byford has joined the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) as President of New York City (NYC) Transit, the agency responsible for the city’s subways, buses, paratransit services and the Staten Island Railway, effective on 1 January 2018. MTA Transit has nearly 50,000 employees operating 26 subway routes and 5,712 buses across the five boroughs.
New York and Toronto, the financial and media centres of their respective countries, have a lot in common. Peter Ustinov called Toronto “New York run by the Swiss” but the similarities extend beyond government and business to mindset, swagger and – most pertinently – failing subway infrastructure.
The New York Metro is creaking with age. Breakdowns are frequent. Meanwhile, the bus system is losing riders to rideshare companies. Residents and visitors alike are finding the entire network increasingly unreliable.
Many of these problems were caused by something with which London’s own network is painfully familiar – an investment holiday. One that, in New York’s case, has endured since the 2008 financial crisis. This was made worse by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and an ineffective and confusing management reorganisation which meant that only emergency repairs were funded.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a subway state of emergency on 29 June 2017, then unveiled an emergency plan to repair signals, track and train equipment. This will concentrate on signals that break down the most frequently, stem tunnel leaks that damage infrastructure and clean tracks to reduce fires.
Toronto’s crumbling system
The TTC had been a transit world leader in the 1970s, building integrated, barrier-free surface transit terminals at most of its subway stations. The city had also constructed a suburban subway extension to a large shopping centre on a major highway instead of building an urban expressway.
Since then however, the city had rested on its laurels. Practically and culturally, the TTC stagnated. Meanwhile, its politicians continued to tout the myth of the TTC’s world class operations, whilst also underfunding the system.
After a series of internally promoted Chief General Managers, the TTC realised in 2011 that an outsider would be necessary to bring new ideas and leadership to correct the system’s failing reliability and reputation. Fortunately, they had already hired Chris Upfold, a 10 year London Underground veteran, as their first Chief of Customer Service. He suggested Byford apply for the resulting Chief Operating Officer position. Carrying a similar Underground pedigree, he was hired.
London Underground Training
The grandson of a bus driver and the son of a London Transport employee, Byford began his own transit career at London Underground as a station foreman in 1989. Soon promoted to Station Manager of King’s Cross St Pancras Underground station, he presided over the tenth anniversary memorial of the disastrous 1987 fire that killed 31. Byford has claimed that this occasion solidified in his mind the absolute need for safety in transport.
From that position he was made General Manager of the Central, Bakerloo and Victoria lines, among the busiest in the system, overseeing a period in which customer satisfaction and operational performance both began to improve. This period saw him work under now-Transport Commissioner, Mike Brown. Some of the techniques Byford has used in his post-London career clearly have their origins in his training here. This includes his focus on quick wins like cleaning the system, improving signage and making delay announcements regular, turning around employees’ and riders’ perceptions, and identifying and fixing the root causes of reliability issues.
LU approach applied to Sydney
After serving as Operations Director at South Eastern Trains and then Southern Railway, Byford was recruited by Sydney, Australia to head operations of their Rail Corp agency (now Transport for New South Wales – TfNSW). This operates commuter and urban rail for Sydney under the CityRail banner (now called Sydney Trains), as well as intercity services under Country Link services (now called NSW TrainLink).
Sydney has a similar funding structure as Toronto – with separate regional (state / province) and city contributions. Correspondingly his responsibilities as Chief Operating Officer had a more political dimension than his posts in Britain.
Turning around Toronto
When Byford first arrived in Toronto in 2011 from Sydney, he was shocked to discover that the TTC had no Corporate or Strategic Plan. He also quickly noted the lack of attention to what he’d come to regard as the core basics – safety, punctuality, reliability, cleanliness and customer experience. Indeed soon after Byford took over, the TTC made headlines internationally when a photo of a subway collector asleep in his ticket booth went viral. Meanwhile, trains often broke down.
Public opinion of the Commission hit at an all-time low.
Byford advocated a policy of owning these problems, addressing them directly in a clear, honest fashion, often personally delivered.
To reverse the TTC’s poor image, he instigated a weekly full-page newspaper advert aimed at providing riders with updates on new infrastructure, routes, construction progress, key issues, and a TTC employee profile, to provide insight into the Commission’s workings. He also wrote his own column, which helped riders understand the progress and the problems that the Commission faced in providing transit service for over a million rides every day. This both improved communication and began to change public opinion of the Commission. Based upon his experience on the Underground, Byford also became a visible presence on the system, meeting employees and the public. Whenever a major incident occurred, he would often attend in person. This was rarely the case with previous General Managers.
Byford’s changes in Toronto extended beyond the cosmetic. In 2012 he was appointed CEO and his focus shifted to a top-to-bottom modernization of the TTC. This involved a comprehensive overhaul of its infrastructure, its processes and its culture. His vision was to return the Commission to being “A transit system that makes Toronto proud”.
Revealingly, what Byford has indicated he is most proud of during his time in Toronto is improving the prevailing culture at the TTC. Until his arrival this was largely dominated by a resistance to outside ideas and a ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome. Something Byford would no doubt have found highly reminiscent of his early years at the Underground – not least because it was partly responsible for the Kings Cross fire.
Byford is reminiscent of a sports coach, getting more out of his 15,000 strong team. But he hasn’t been afraid to wield an axe, firing two long standing TTC executives who did not buy in to his Five Year Plan. That plan saw Byford implemented a variety of changes, some clearly based on his London experience.
He created station manager positions, for front line customer service, operations, and technical response assistance, directly based on the TfL role. He also overhauled the decision making process, replacing a system which prioritised the opinions of transit managers with one that focused on analysis of performance and maintenance data. Indeed to support this, he initiated a complete modernisation of the TTC’s antiquated computer systems and processes, some still dating back to the system’s 1970s heyday.
His time in charge saw progress made on the progressive replacement of a 60-year-old signal system, track and mechanicals, which are becoming brittle. He also brought the troubled 8.5km, six station Line 1 subway extension back on track to open successfully. He also oversaw the introduction of Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on Line 1 in a phased rollout. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was led by engineers who had previously installed CBTC on London’s Victoria line.
Perhaps of most interest to New Yorkers is his record with the unions and smart ticketing. Byford successfully negotiated transit union buy-in to One Person Operation (OPO) for the latest T1 walkthrough subway cars on the short Line 4. He also implemented a smart fare card across the network to finally replace the archaic system of tokens, tickets and magnetic stripe passes then in place.
In all this, he was assisted by Upfold, who led on updating the obsolescent internal processes and supporting technology, as well as improving customer communications. Upfold himself will be the subject of a future article.
In his five years as CEO, the transit service substantially improved in Toronto. Subway delay minutes are down 21% year-on-year, delay incidents down 7%, track fires – a major cause of delay – down 42% and short turns, long the bane of bus and streetcar riders’ lives, down nearly 90%. In addition, the system is cleaner, information is clearer and, over the last five years, customer satisfaction has risen significantly.
These improvements resulted in the TTC being recognised by the American Public Transportation Association as its 2017 Outstanding Transit System of the Year.
Indeed Toronto riders, staff, and even politicians were incredibly disappointed to see him leave. Riders liked him because subway reliability improved, because he provided clear explanations and because they saw him on television during incidents as well as at stations eager to speak to them. Byford didn’t own a car in Toronto, practicing what he preached by taking the TTC to get around the city, and this did not go unnoticed. Indeed talking to Byford in public is an interesting experience, as people gravitate towards him to tell him of their complaints or commendations. Given the importance Byford has put on training his managers over the last five years, this is highly likely, and will be one of his Toronto legacies.
Staff, meanwhile, liked him because he was no-nonsense, passionate, provided clear goals and treated everyone fairly. Politicians liked him because he delivered on his promises and made them look capable (barring delays by suppliers like Bombardier, whose perpetually late streetcar deliveries are worthy of an article series of their own).
All in all, the TTC’s loss is almost certainly the MTA’s gain.
Welcome to Broadway
The move to New York sees Byford enter territory with which he is at least somewhat familiar, having served on the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission in 2014. He also served on the MTA’s 2017 Genius Transit Challenge panel, where he detailed the efforts taken to modernize and improve Toronto’s subway system.
Heading the MTA, Byford will be responsible for leading the deep rehabilitation of one of the largest transit systems in the world. This includes successfully implementing the Subway Action Plan launched this summer to modernize the delay-riddled system. These problems prompted the New York Times’ recent exhaustive investigative report which found an agency dragged down by political interference and ineptitude, byzantine management layers, and plagued by overpriced contractors and consultants.
The task is mammoth. 6,400 subway cars operate on 665 miles of track, using 13,000 signals and 1,600 switches. It is akin to the repair bill faced by London Underground in the 1970s and 1980s, which took two decades to complete.
Of the 82,000 delays recorded in June, more than a third were attributed to overcrowding. About 15,000 stemmed from planned work to repair the system’s failing signals and worn track. There were about 10,800 delays caused by signal and track problems and about 2,200 delays created by train equipment trouble.
The New York Times reported that just before the 20 June 2017 electrical system breakdown, more than $400 million from the MTA’s signal funding had instead been used to pay for station enhancements prioritised by Governor Cuomo.
The game plan for NYC
New York has many of the same system issues that Byford dealt with in Toronto – life expired signalling, relays and tripcocks, inadequate funding and political interference.
The MTA has already put a number of steps into action, all of which Byford will oversee. This includes modernising outdated equipment and signalling systems. To expedite this work, Byford is considering closing subway lines down on weekends or longer, as he has done in London and Toronto. In the city that never sleeps however, the 24 hour subway is viewed as a necessity and a right. This attitude is changing, as New York officials have already announced a 15-month shutdown of the L train to repair the Hurricane Sandy damaged tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Nonetheless, it will be a tough sell.
Byford will also need to take the Second Avenue Subway into detailed design of Phase 2 (which will be the subject of an upcoming LR article) and implement a new smart fare card system across the network, replacing the MetroCard and allowing fare capping. The new card also has its roots in London – the technology is supplied by Cubic and is based on London’s Oyster system. It will also be used on the region’s commuter railroads, providing intermodal convenience for the very first time.
The Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) LRT line is a city initiative, but there Byford will be working with former TTC Chair Adam Giambrone to maximise interconnections with MTA services.
And the East Side Access project will bring Long Island Rail Road commuter trains directly into Grand Central from 2022, adding thousands of passengers into the heart of the subway network every rush hour.
Parallel political structures
Many of these projects are similar to those that Byford has successfully carried out in London, Sydney and Toronto. The main wildcards, however, are the politicians.
Fortunately, Toronto’s tri-level government structure – federal, province of Ontario, and city – has provided Byford with experience working in a complex political situation. However, this won’t necessarily make the task easier. In both Toronto and New York, ruling governments dole out transit funding (or don’t) according to ideology and political need. As capital projects typically require funding from all three levels, reaching agreement across these levels is always difficult and fleeting.
Byford will need to manipulate New York’s infamous politics to obtain the funding and make the improvements that the system needs and he’ll need to hit the ground running, as he’ll be jumping straight into a battle between the New York Governor and Mayor over funding the subway repairs.
LT International: The Next Generation
Byford is one of an increasingly high-profile generation of former Underground and British Rail managers that have successfully exported themselves. In a way, it is reminiscent of the London Transport International consulting company, which contracted the organisation’s expertise to urban railways in 25 cities around the world from 1976 to the mid-1990s. As the best managers had been chosen for these contracts, however, LT’s own operations suffered. This and the urgent need to turn around London’s decaying transport system in the 1990s brought an end to the consulting business.
The aforementioned Upfold is another member of the diaspora. So is Howard Collins, who succeeded Byford at Sydney’s TfNSW and is now CEO. Another former British Rail and TfL director, Rob Mason, worked with them both at Rail Corp, and is now retired.
They are members of a modern British transport manager diaspora who mostly share one key experience – they spent their formative years in London Transport (or British Rail) during the post-Kings Cross resurgence. This saw London Underground – and later TfL – and British Rail undertake their own soul searching. They were forced to revamp their own stagnant structure and operations. Forward thinking and innovative management was necessary to wring the most from clapped out trains and buses and to move increasing numbers of passengers as quickly and safely as possible. Even some rail engineers and technical managers have joined the diaspora, ex-LU manager Mike Palmer and engineer Peter Tomlin brought their expertise installing CBTC for the Jubilee line, to do the same on the TTC’s Line 1.
As these bodies – and then the privatised train operating companies (TOCs) – refined their training regimes and honed the management expertise, transporting more passengers was possible with the same infrastructure, earning Britain’s transport managers a reputation for an ability to ‘sweat assets’ (and improve them) that has caught the eyes of many transit agencies overseas struggling with similar problems.
Sydney, Toronto and Boston are all cities who have benefited from that diaspora. Now New York joins this club.