LONDON — When Andy Byford ran New York City’s dilapidated subway system, fed up New Yorkers cheered his crusade to get the trains running with fewer delays and lamented his untimely departure after clashes with then-governor, Andrew M. Cuomo. He was a known, unfailingly cheerful presence on the often troubled platforms. Straphangers even called him “Train Daddy.”
no one calls mr. Byford Train Daddy in London, where he resurfaced in May 2020 as the commissioner of the city’s transport authority, Transport for London. But on May 24, when he opens the Elizabeth Line — the long-delayed, more than $22 billion high-speed line that unrolls west and east beneath central London — he might be worthy of another cheeky nickname.
“That was fun in New York,” says Mr. Byford, 56, a public transport social evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, began his career managing a London Underground station, as well as public transport in Toronto and Sydney, Australia. “But I really enjoy almost complete anonymity in London.”
The Elizabeth Line has been under construction for 13 years, seven years before the British voted to leave the European Union. It had been on the drawing board for decades before that, under the name Crossrail – so long that in the minds of many Londoners it would never come off. The empty, brightly lit stations, locked behind fire doors, are gateways to an invisible world. Byford described them as something out of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but “without HAL, the evil computer,” he said.
Mr Byford did not turn the project around on his own. Much of the credit goes to new managers, led by Mark Wild, who took over the Elizabeth line when it went into crisis in 2018 (engineers found 75,000 defects, many in the digital circuitry). But Mr Byford has been awarded another $1 billion from the government at the end of 2020 to prevent construction from halting, and he’s been running the trains without passengers for months to ensure a trouble-free debut.
Mr Byford and Mr Wild showed up to reporters last week and burst with pride at the system, which will open three and a half years late but just in time for the platinum anniversary of its namesake, Queen Elizabeth II. As he got off at Liverpool Street station, Mr Wild said: “That’s a £19 billion ride you’ve just been on.”
The Elizabeth line has, in the words of Tony Travers, an expert on urban affairs at the London School of Economics, a “wow” factor. The stations are huge, cathedral-like spaces, with platforms that seem to stretch to infinity. The trains, spacious and twice as long as regular subways, arrive barely in a whisper.
Drilling the tunnels required excavating three million tons of clay in an extremely complicated underground environment. Workers digging Liverpool Street station found skeletons in a mass grave dating back to 1569. A team of 100 archaeologists excavated the remains of 3,300 people from the site in Bethlam’s new churchyard and reburied them on an island at the mouth of the Thames.
The New York City State Subway
“It will be seen as an important technical achievement,” Mr Travers predicted. “It’s much more ambitious than New York’s Second Avenue subway or the extension of Line 7, which are small projects by comparison.”
Comparing London’s transit system to New York’s is inevitable, given Mr Byford’s employment history. He speaks diplomatically about the difference, attributing much of it to the bureaucratic structure of Transport for London, which oversees virtually every mode of transport in the capital. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has more limited jurisdiction and is overseen by the Governor of New York.
The politics is also different. For all its troubles, the Elizabeth line has gained steadfast support from two parties, including from London’s Labor mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was mayor when the ground was broken. A Robert Moses-scale public works enthusiast, Mr Johnson takes credit for securing early funding for the project, which came from the European Investment Bank.
In New York, Mr. Byford was dealing with a strong-willed, hands-on governor, but without the help of then-mayor Bill de Blasio, who had little say in the subway system. In London, Mr Travers said, Mr Byford has been able to position himself as a sort of honest broker between Mr Khan and the national government when disagreements flare up.
In addition to personalities, New York simply has more financial hurdles to a project as gigantic as the Elizabeth line. After Mr. Cuomo stepped down last year, his successor, Governor Kathy Hochul, shelved a proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain project at the LaGuardia airport. As a result, the newly renovated airport has no rail connection to Manhattan, much to the frustration of many New Yorkers.
Heathrow Airport has had a tube connection for decades. When the next phase of the Elizabeth Line opens in the fall, passengers can travel from Heathrow to the shores of Canary Wharf in east London in 40 minutes; that’s a major selling point for a city desperately clinging to its status as a post-Brexit financial mecca. All told, the line has 10 all-new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and three crossings under the Thames.
“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy director for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group based in New York. “Coming up with a new, full underground line here is not something anyone does. The Second Avenue subway, which people have been talking about for 100 years, has three stations.”
To be fair, Transport for London is not without its problems. It has shelved plans to build a north-south counterpart to the Elizabeth Line, not to mention an extension to the Bakerloo Pipeline, due to a lack of funding. Still reeling from an almost complete loss of riders during pandemic lockdowns, the system faces many of the same financial problems as the New York subway.
Although passenger numbers have recovered from a low of 5 percent, it is still only 70 percent of prepandemic levels. Transport to London also relies heavily on ticket prices to cover costs, even more so than the New York City Subway, which receives state subsidies, as well as money from bridge and tunnel tolls.
“My other obsession is managing the finances,” said Mr. Byford. “One way is to distract us from reliance on tariffs.”
He’s a little vague on how to do that, and it’s clear that Transport for London will depend on additional government funding to get back on a sound financial footing. That’s why the opening of the Elizabeth line is so important to London: it’s a strong case for public transport at a time when people are wondering how many workers will ever return to their offices.
mr. Byford explains the matter with the practiced cadence of a stump speech. The new line will increase the capacity of the system by 10 percent. The spacious coaches are very suitable for the world in which people are used to social distancing. It will revitalize economically devastated towns to the east of the city, while opening up central London to people living in far-flung towns to the east and west.
While Mr Byford doesn’t expect ridership to ever fully return, he thinks 90 percent is achievable. If office buildings remain underpopulated, London could develop like Paris, with more residential areas in the center. (The Elizabeth line bears a clear resemblance to the rapid RER system in Paris.) The line, he says, is an insurance policy against the “siren voices of doom” over Brexit.
Sometimes Mr. Byford slips dangerously close to a broker’s chatter. “These super-high-tech stations just breathe quality,” he said. But coming out of Liverpool Street, with its spectacular rippling, pinstripe ceiling, it’s hard to disprove his basic claim: “This is a game changer.”