Photo: Jem Bartholomew

TfL commissioner Andy Byford: ‘Our job is to make the political masters look good’

The former New York subway chief on trying to please both a Labour mayor and a Conservative government
May 12, 2022

Andy Byford is standing on the southbound Bakerloo line platform at Baker Street station. There’s a purple Elizabeth Line logo badge pinned to his lapel and he’s talking about the old days. “I remember physically ‘lamping out’ the last trains”—shining a green lamp at the driver to depart—he tells Edmund Murphy, who is retiring today after a 44-year career with Transport for London. Byford, TfL’s commissioner, has come to say farewell.

Since starting as a station foreman in 1989,  Byford, an energetic 56-year-old, has worked around the world: he became chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission in 2012, then president of the New York City Transit Authority in 2018—tasked with dragging the city’s decaying subway system into the 21st century.

In the US, Byford’s modernisation plan was popular. He cut wait times. He ordered vacuum cars to suck up track garbage. He was nicknamed “Train Daddy” by an adoring public. “Train Daddy loves you very much,” read stickers plastered around Brooklyn, with Byford’s grinning, lipsticked face on the front of a New York subway car. “I was bemused,” he tells me, after we duck into a station control room. “My wife found it funny. One of the stickers is on our fridge.” But after clashing with New York’s now disgraced former state governor, Andrew Cuomo, Byford resigned in February 2020.

Byford came full circle to become TfL commissioner in June 2020. Now he’s the man responsible for making sure that millions of people every day arrive on time. He takes pride in not being an MBA grad parachuted in from the private sector; his grandfather, father, uncle and cousin were all transit workers. “We bleed TfL red,” he says. TfL hired Byford with a simple remit: help the network recover after Covid, open the Elizabeth Line from Paddington to Abbey Wood without further delay and secure a long-term funding solution.

The pandemic has wrecked TfL’s finances. Ridership slumped from over 10m tube and bus journeys on 7th February 2020 to just 200,000 journeys two months later. Compounding the problem is that London’s subway system is a western anomaly. It’s one of the few to rely almost entirely on riders—72 per cent of operating income comes from fares (it’s 38 per cent in Paris)—instead of government funding. In 2015, chancellor George Osborne abolished TfL’s yearly £700m grant. 

Byford negotiates with ministers to secure financing. TfL must balance its budget, so without a sustainable deal lines could be shut, trains mothballed or staff laid off, with the service entering what Byford calls “managed decline.” He’s seeking £900m in immediate funding this financial year. In meetings with ministers, Byford brings up the decrepit New York subway before he arrived: “it was Dickensian,” he says. This is the fate that could await Britain’s capital without long-term investment. 

In London, Byford must navigate a treacherous political situation—sandwiched between a Labour mayor who is his boss and a Conservative government that has the money—echoing his time caught between warring NYC mayor Bill de Blasio and state governor Cuomo. He shoulders all the risk with little reward; succeed, and politicians take credit. Fail, and he’s the fall guy. Why do it? “I believe in public service,” Byford says. “Our job is to make the political masters look good.” Without a sustainable funding package, however, the threat of potential redundancies and cuts loom, which has provoked a wave of strikes in recent months. Byford has work to do.

As we walk through the station, Byford stops a cleaner sweeping the floor and says, “thank you for making the place look so clean.” She smiles.