Against a backdrop of COVID, London’s new Transport Commissioner discusses a difficult first few weeks at the helm.
… says London’s new Transport Commissioner ANDY BYFORD. Moving home from New York as lockdown started to bite, he had little idea just how big that challenge would be. He talks to PAUL CLIFTON about his hopes and fears - and how he wants to open Crossrail earlier than planned
Andy Byford once left a comfortable life as an executive on Southern Railway. A decade working in Australia, and then Canada and New York, has given him a reputation for turning around failing transport systems and injecting new vigour into them. The Americans nicknamed him ‘Train Daddy’.
Now he is back home. But Transport for London wasn’t exactly failing. It’s a worldleading operation, albeit one facing significant difficulties - not least a political battle over its finances.
In RAIL 918, Byford revealed how TfL’s latest six-month agreement with Government was signed with just 14 minutes to spare. The deal was signed at 2346 on the night the money ran out.
“That’s no way to run a £10 billion organisation,” he says.
“I understand the country is in dire straits and has a £ 2 trillion national debt. In the short term, we are reliant on Government funding. But Transport for London has to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem. We have to move to a longer-term footing.”
Byford ( 55) is an unusually clear communicator. It’s an essential skill in a role that is fundamentally political.
He speaks rapidly, with clarity and with obvious enthusiasm. No time is wasted on idle chit-chat. Even though he covers a lot of ground quickly in his conversation, he doesn’t flutter from one thought to the next, as so many people do when assembling a complex answer to a difficult question.
What’s more, he actually tries to answer a straight question with a straight answer. He finishes one idea, then starts the next - there is a sense that he has thought about everything he intended to say before the interview started. The only slight hesitancy comes when discussing his own motivation.
“I’m very comfortable with a hard bargain,” he says. “I’d love to have a five-year settlement… or ten. If we get it, I expect to be held accountable for the outputs. Leave the inputs to me.
“The nature of public transport is that things take at least that long to scope, plan and execute. To have ring-fenced funding that can’t be taken away when there’s a change of political wind is immensely beneficial. It gives more leverage and a better price, because the suppliers can factor in less risk.
“We have to settle minds, whether colleagues, contractors, customers or unions. We have to provide serenity, however stressed we are. We have worked crazily long hours and it has been gruelling, exhausting. My pitch is for a proper deal, not brinkmanship, that is predictable, affordable, sustainable and long-term.
“I definitely do not like the current model. We have 72% of our income from fares.
That can work in good times. But COVID has exposed that we had all our eggs in one basket, dangerously over-reliant on one source of funding that is subject to the whims of the economy… or viruses.
“No other major city funds its transport this way. In New York, fares were 38% of income. We need a sensible discussion with Government, and we need a trusting relationship with all levels of Government.
“Replacing train fleets, replacing signalling, wholesale major upgrades… that is billions of pounds.”
Inevitably, Byford comes up against northern politicians who have a ‘levelling up’ agenda, and who point out that Londoners receive
We have 72% of our income from fares. That can work in good times. But COVID has exposed that we had all our eggs in one basket, dangerously over-reliant on one source of funding that is subject to the whims of the economy… or viruses.
vastly more transport money per person than every other part of the country.
“Government wants an infrastructure-led recovery. We can do that,” he responds.
“Government wants a green recovery. With our push for the biggest electric bus fleet in the UK, we can lead on that.
“Levelling up doesn’t mean you have to stop spending in London. Of every £1 we spend at TfL, 55p is spent across the regions in our supply chain. London is the backbone of the UK economy. But it cannot function without a top-class transport system. We would be crazy to let it slip.
“I am clear about my role as a public servant. I advise. I speak truth to power. I provide frank and fearless advice, even when that advice is not welcome. I will tell politicians about road user charging, or further metro-isation (is that a word?) of the Overground network, bringing lines into TfL.
“But ultimately, we advise… and politicians decide. They are elected - that is their job. I entirely accept that they might not choose to follow the advice I give.”
Priorities… and Crossrail
With a limited budget and a timeframe that is far shorter than he would like, Byford has already been forced into tough choices.
Crossrail 2 has been kicked into the long grass. Network Rail Chairman Sir Peter
Hendy CBE, a previous holder of Byford’s post in London, has suggested that it could be off the books for ten to 15 years. A planned extension to the Bakerloo Line will also have to wait for sunnier days far in the future.
Byford explains: “My first task is to maintain a good state of repair. Attend to the basics. The unsexy stuff - the tracks, the drains, things that don’t involve a ribbon-cutting.
“Then we have to get the Elizabeth Line open, get the Bank new platform done, get the Northern Line extension finished, get Barking Riverside extension finished, buy new trains for the Docklands Light Railway, get new trains for the Piccadilly Line and get that resignalled (it would be crazy not to resignal), and electrify the bus fleet.
“Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo extension are certainly not dead. They are absolutely not cancelled. They are mothballed. They are being safeguarded. They will happen one day. There is a business case for those projects. But if it’s a choice with finite funding between those and more pressing issues, they must wait until the case is more compelling.”
Once finances are stabilised, getting Crossrail finished is Byford’s most obvious task. Late and over budget, it is causing unwanted headlines and friction between the London Mayor and the Department for Transport that both sides would rather live without.
“It was a showstopper for me in my job interview,” Byford explains.
“I majored on it, borne out of personal experience in Toronto. It had to transfer to my direct control almost from Day One.
“It’s about how to drive a big project across the line. I saw what had happened before - my predecessor, Mike Brown, was left woefully exposed by not having control or visibility of the project. Something he thought was opening in three months was suddenly
I have inherited a really good team. But in London we have to lead TfL through COVID, rebuild the customer base, rebuild the finances, rebuild the morale. And we have to deal with all the drama around
Crossrail. I like to be busy.
We have been using hospital-grade disinfectants. We have moved cleaning to be very high visibility, so customers can see us doing it. It is all about perception and trust.
heading three years into the distance. How can that happen?
“You need absolute clarity of governance, so Crossrail CEO Mark Wild now reports directly to me. He no longer has two masters - his board and TfL. It means he gets timely, clear direction, and he gets quick decisions.
“He was suffocated by the previous regime. He spent more time preparing for the next presentation to his masters than on delivering, so I am liberating him of that. I’ll deal with the committees and the politics, leaving Mark to go and deliver.
“I want that project done. I have an internal date in mind. But we are still working to the publicly declared target of no later than the first half of 2022 and no more than an additional £1.1bn.
“I want to bring that date forward. You only get one shot at this, and if I pluck a date from the air, you will judge me by it. So, until I am certain, I’m sticking with the previous date. But I am absolutely aiming to do better than that, both on schedule and on budget.
“We have completely rejuvenated the project. Everyone is galvanised. We will get it open - and open means open. It doesn’t mean a staggered phased opening. It doesn’t mean bypassing stations. The laggards are Bond Street and Whitechapel - the critical path includes station completion.
“We have just brought in the world’s expert at completing stations. He’s a guy I worked with in Toronto, Mike Dunham. We brought him out of retirement. He is awesome. He’s a slow-talking Texan, and he will blow people’s minds. And I am bringing in another guy from Toronto, Keith Sibley, to help co-ordinate the remaining complexities.”
“It has certainly been the most surreal introduction to any job that I have ever done. TfL was completely flipped on its head. Tube travel reduced by 95%, bus travel down 85%. Down to levels we had not seen for a hundred years. The place was a ghost town.
“The first job was to keep everyone safe.
That included halting all non safety-critical construction. We had to shelter staff. For that, we needed to shut a number of stations. We suspended the Waterloo & City Line so that we could keep the Central Line going with enough drivers. We suspended the Night
Tube, and that remains the case.
“But we are in a better place now. We demonstrated to key workers that we were there for them. We had to deal with the new business-as-usual. We had to deliver a clean, safe transit system that was a controlled environment.
“To provide social distancing we had to up the timetable. Controversial stuff, because with reduced capacity we had to provide minimal headways and as many trains as possible. The Tube is running at 95%, TfL
Rail at 100%, London Overground 96%, Docklands Light Railway 84%, trams 100%. And buses are 100%, now made exponentially more difficult by moving all the schoolchildren around.
We have just done a second wave of independent tests with Imperial College, and not a single trace of the virus was found anywhere. I am very proud of that.
“From a low point we reached ridership of 32% of normal, with buses on 55%. But into the second lockdown that is clearly softening.”
Byford says the aim was a network cleaner than it had ever been. TfL was the first to use the sanitiser Zoono, subsequently widely adopted across the rail network.
“We have been using hospital-grade disinfectants. We have moved cleaning to be very high visibility, so customers can see us doing it. It is all about perception and trust.
“We have added a thousand sanitiser distribution points. We trialled a new ultraviolet system that runs under the handrail of an escalator, killing the virus. We are rolling that out at more than 100 stations.
“We have sent out over 100 million customer emails. We have responded to half a million customer phone calls. We have a new journey planning app. Over 100,000 people without face coverings have been stopped, and with British Transport Police we have issued 500 penalty notices.
“We have just done a second wave of independent tests with Imperial College, and not a single trace of the virus was found anywhere. I am very proud of that.”
Transport for London has modelled different scenarios for recovering from the pandemic. They range from a rapid return to previously packed trains, to a future in which commuting is greatly reduced, with central offices only partly occupied and the economic heart of the city changing.
“I think an 80% return is achievable, but not in the short term,” Byford muses.
“I think that is at least two years away. Obviously, this is not an exact science. What will major employers do? Will they be passive and just hope employees come back? Or will they see an opportunity to cut their real estate costs and keep people at home?
“We are watching what retail and commercial places are doing. We need to understand what the effect on leisure traffic will be.”
Taking the job
Surely being Transport Commissioner for London is the job from hell? Caught between the Mayor and central Government, tasked with delivering the impossible on a shrinking budget, while somehow maintaining morale among 27,000 staff. Inheriting projects not of your own making, during the worst economic downturn in generations, caused by factors over which you have no control.
“I enjoy really big challenges. I’ve made it my niche to go into tough situations.
Toronto Transit Commission had real issues. Customer satisfaction was awful. At the time, the company was completely demoralised. There were all sorts of politics in it. My boss was removed in a coup three months after my arrival. I stood in and my learning curve went through the roof. Over five years, we went from being a laughing stock to winning awards.
“Then to New York. Again, a tough gig. The system was falling apart. But in two years we turned around subway performance and we got a vote for a $ 32bn improvement.
“This job isn’t a turnaround, and I have inherited a really good team. But in London we have to lead TfL through COVID, rebuild the customer base, rebuild the finances, rebuild the morale. And we have to deal with all the drama around Crossrail. I like to be busy.”
It’s a return to home turf for Byford. He joined London Underground as a graduate trainee in 1989, working his way up to general manager on the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria Lines before heading to director roles at South Eastern Trains and Southern.
“I am third-generation London Transport,” he says, although he actually grew up in Plymouth, has a Plymouth Argyle season ticket, and still keeps a flat there.
“My dad worked for LT and my grandad drove a bus for 40 years. After I got here, in the first lockdown, my mum suddenly passed. It was the week of my final interview with the Mayor. It is serendipity that I am here when my dad really needs me. I’ve been away for ten years in Australia, Canada and the US, but I am grateful to be here. I could see this being my last public service job.”
It’s a role that balances being a politician while still being a transport professional.
“In Toronto, the bias was towards being a transport manager. I spent most of my time doing that. In New York, I learned the dark arts of politics, and spent a lot of time doing that.
“Here, too, I spend a lot of time working with politicians - that is the role of the Commissioner. I am not a micro-manager, and I have top-class leaders. I manage the way I would like to be managed myself. Tell me the outputs and I will deal with the inputs. Leave me alone and let me get on with it - I trust my people.
“It’s a challenge when you give your best advice and then find it isn’t what politicians want. That can be frustrating. But I am pretty persuasive, and I’ve learned how elected officials think. I know how to press their buttons.
“I know what is important to Sadiq [Khan, London Mayor], and I know how to explain things to him in a way that maximises our chances of getting the right thing. If he chooses not to take my advice, that is absolutely his prerogative. But he gave me the job, and I intend to pay him back by delivering what he needs.”
Byford talks the talk, and he does it well.
But the nickname ‘Train Daddy’, which he acquired in New York, doesn’t translate smoothly to our culture on this side of the Atlantic. It’s not our style. Executives in suits don’t have endearing nicknames, and they certainly don’t feature on banners on trains.
“It came from someone I don’t know, in Brooklyn, who was sympathetic to the political pressures on me at the time. He started putting stickers of me on lamp posts - bizarrely, wearing lipstick. And then superimposing my face on the front of a train, saying: ‘Train Daddy loves you very much.’
“It really took off. People would literally come up to me in the street in New York saying: ‘Hey, Train Daddy, how’s it goin’?’
“I am quite enjoying the anonymity of London so far…”
Given the high-profile task ahead of him, that isn’t going to last for long.
My first task is to maintain a good state of repair. Attend to the basics. Then we have to get the Elizabeth Line open, the Bank new platform done, the Northern Line extension finished, Barking Riverside extension finished, buy new trains for the Docklands Light Railway, get new trains for the Piccadilly Line and get that resignalled, and electrify the bus fleet.