His overriding preoccupation is the trains under London, but Andy Byford’s passion could have led him on a quite different journey. “I thought long and hard about going in the navy when I was younger,” says London’s transport commissioner. “I like being at sea.”
Instead, the young Byford pulled on the uniform of London Underground, eventually coming full circle, via Australia, Canada and the US, to the top job at Transport for London – where a huge Royal Navy and Plymouth flag now adorns the wall of his Southwark office.
Few of his staff have seen it in real life, as Byford was installed last June with the pandemic in full cry. “It’s been surreal. I only met one of my execs in person, and my board members for the first time the other day. I’ve been running London’s transport system on Teams.”
While life for many is looking more normal, Byford’s outlook is not rosy. Unless investment is agreed with government, he warns, London is “staring into the abyss”, after the calamitous impact of Covid on fare revenue and finances. “Without wanting to be too grandiose, we are at a crossroads,” he says. “We can go one of two ways: an infrastructure-led recovery that creates jobs and decarbonises transport.”
Or, he says: “The negative route, the danger we face, is a managed decline. A sustained bleak future for London’s transport system, in which you can look forward to roads full of potholes, much wider gaps in train and bus services, and a complete grinding to a halt of the clean-air agenda.” Maintenance will suffer; plans to electrify buses will go, as will cycling routes. Without backing, London will see “a complete regression to the bad old days”.
Byford knows what that looks like: he started out as a station foreman, working shifts as a graduate trainee in the late 1980s, when the capital’s transport system was still at a nadir, its dirt and danger underscored by the King’s Cross fire that killed 37 people. He recently experienced again where underinvestment leads: “Having lived in New York and been president of New York transit, I don’t want to go there.”
He ran the city’s transport authority from 2017 before resigning last year after clashes with governor Andrew Cuomo. Byford was apparently a recognisable, popular figure in New York, dubbed “Train Daddy”, out and about on the system he was trying to overhaul. He rarely used the private driver that came with his job and took the subway instead, wearing his name badge.
London colleagues say he rarely walks past an employee, from cleaners to gate staff, without an introduction and question about what could work better – that he is affable but intensely focused.
In New York, his goal was modernising the subway, whose track, signalling and stations were in a “dreadful state of repair”, he says: “That’s what London has ahead of it. It’s very easy to stop investing and slash services – it’s a long road back to rectify it.”
Rishi Sunak’s spending review was “crushingly disappointing” for Transport for London, he says. “We have a looming, major hole in our capital budget.” Funding from central government expires on 11 December; the last emergency deal was agreed, he says, literally “at 14 minutes to midnight”. New discussions are yet to start but signs are there will be very limited support.
The government’s standoff with London appears to owe much to antipathy to the mayor, Sadiq Khan, with ministers questioning his financial management. Byford asserts: “I don’t get involved with the politics. I stick to stark facts. TfL was in a very strong position financially before the pandemic – that cash reserve kept us going.”
For someone who eschews politics, Byford has a slick, but earnest, pitch: “Don’t see us as a cost problem but a solution.”
He stresses he is “very grateful” for government support and backs “levelling up”, but adds: “London is the economic engine of the UK – it can only fire up and continue providing £38bn net to the exchequer by having a viable transport system.” Investment would allow London to buy electric buses from Ballymena, Piccadilly line trains made in Goole: “Let us partner and we can help.”
With Tube ridership plateauing at 60-70% of pre-pandemic levels, TfL wants another £1.7bn to help cover lost revenue and operating costs until March 2023, from when, “with very onerous cost-cutting, we will get back to financial sustainability – a massive task”.
Beyond the finances, Byford’s focus is Crossrail. Perception of the £19bn project turned swiftly in 2018, when its former executives’ proud boasts of delivering on time and on budget proved hollow.
Byford, though, has attuned himself unsparingly to the present reality, committing to not letting costs or the mid-2022 opening date slide further. He schedules an 8am meeting with the Crossrail chief executive, Mark Wild, and other top staff daily. “I literally have a call every single day, including weekends, bank holidays, when I’m on leave. The second face I see after my wife’s every morning is Mark Wild’s.”
Right now, Crossrail’s stations are almost all done, with trial running of trains under way and trial operations – “playing trains, practising scenarios such as mass evacuations, escalator failures, fires” – imminent. He is pushing his team and suppliers to beat the schedule, but won’t specify a date yet.
Above all, he says, “it’s got to be reliable. I do not want a Heathrow T5 scenario”, where the airport terminal’s systems failed on day one. “When it opens, it will be the envy of the world. People will be blown away. It’s quiet, smooth, fully accessible. It’s spectacular.”
London will owe him thanks if it opens soon – although Byford, who failed his driving test twice and has never owned a car, will want to ride regardless: “I like using public transport. It’s a badge of honour for me.”