LONDON — When Andy Byford ran New York City’s dilapidated subway system, fed-up New Yorkers hailed his crusade to make the trains run with fewer delays and lamented his premature exit after clashes with the governor at the time, Andrew Cuomo. He was a familiar, unfailingly cheerful presence on its often-restive platforms. Straphangers even took to calling him “Train Daddy.”
Nobody calls Byford Train Daddy in London, where he resurfaced in May 2020 as the commissioner of the city’s transit authority, Transport for London. But May 24, when he opens the Elizabeth line — the long-delayed, $22 billion-plus high-speed railway that uncoils from west and east underneath central London — he might find himself again worthy of a cheeky nickname.
“That was fun in New York,” said Byford, 56, a gregarious public transport evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, began his career as a tube-station manager in London, and has also run transit systems in Toronto and Sydney, Australia. “But I’m really enjoying almost complete anonymity in London.”
The Elizabeth line has been under construction for 13 years, seven years before Britons voted to leave the European Union. It was on the drawing board for decades before that, under the name Crossrail — so long that in the minds of many Londoners, it was never going to be finished. Its empty, brightly lit stations, sealed off behind fire doors, are portals to an unseen world. Byford described them as something out of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but “without HAL, the evil computer,” he said.
Byford did not single-handedly turn around the project. Much of the credit goes to new managers, led by Mark Wild, who took over the Elizabeth line when it fell into crisis in 2018 (engineers found 75,000 defects, many in its digital switching system). But Byford secured an additional $1 billion from the government in late 2020 to prevent construction from being halted, and he has been running the trains for months without passengers to ensure a glitch-free debut.
Showing reporters around last week, Byford and Wild burst with pride about the system, which will open 3 1/2 years late but just in time for the Platinum Jubilee of its namesake, Queen Elizabeth II. Alighting at Liverpool Street station, Wild said, “That’s a 19 billion pound ride you just experienced.”
The Elizabeth line does have, in the words of Tony Travers, an urban-affairs expert at the London School of Economics, a “wow factor.” The stations are vast, cathedral-like spaces, with platforms that seem to stretch to infinity. The trains, roomy and twice the length of regular subways, arrive with scarcely a whisper.
Boring the tunnels required excavating 3 million tons of clay in an extremely complicated subterranean environment. Workers digging the Liverpool Street station came across skeletons in a mass grave that dated to 1569. A team of 100 archaeologists exhumed the remains of 3,300 people from the site in the New Churchyard of Bethlam, and reinterred them in an island in the Thames estuary.
“It will be seen as a major engineering achievement,” Travers predicted. “It’s way more ambitious than New York’s Second Avenue subway or the extension of the No. 7 line, which are tiny projects by comparison.”
Comparing London’s transit system with New York’s is inevitable, given Byford’s job history. He speaks diplomatically about the difference, chalking much of it up to the bureaucratic structure of Transport for London, which oversees virtually every mode of transportation in the capital. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a more limited purview and is controlled by New York’s governor.
The politics are also different. For all of its problems, the Elizabeth line has enjoyed steadfast bipartisan support, including from London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, who was mayor when ground was broken. An enthusiast for Robert Moses-scale public-works projects, Johnson takes credit for securing the project’s early financing, which came from the European Investment Bank.
In New York, Byford had to deal with a strong-willed, hands-on governor, but without the help of the mayor at the time, Bill de Blasio, who had little say over the subway system. In London, Travers said, Byford has been able to position himself as a kind of honest broker between Khan and the national government whenever differences have flared.
Beyond personalities, there are simply more financial hurdles in New York to a project as gargantuan as the Elizabeth line. After Cuomo resigned last year, his successor, Gov. Kathy Hochul, put a proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain project to LaGuardia airport on ice. That leaves the newly renovated airport without a rail link to Manhattan, to the enduring frustration of many New Yorkers.
Heathrow Airport has had a subway link for decades. When the Elizabeth line’s next phase is opened in the fall, passengers will be able to travel from Heathrow to the banks at Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; that is a prime selling point for a city desperate to hold on to its status as a financial mecca after Brexit. All told, the line has 10 entirely new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crosses under the Thames three times.
“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy director for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group in New York. “Imagining a new, full-length underground line here is not something anyone is doing. 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 tube line, because of a lack of funding. Still reeling from a near-total loss of riders during pandemic lockdowns, the system faces many of the same financial woes as New York’s subway.
Although ridership has recovered from a nadir of 5%, it is still at only 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Transport for London is also heavily dependent on ticket fares to cover its costs, more so than the New York subway, which gets state subsidies, as well as funds from bridge and tunnel tolls.
“My other obsession is sorting out the finances,” Byford said. “One way is to wean us away from dependence on fares.”
He is somewhat vague about how to do that, and it is clear that Transport for London will depend on additional government handouts to get back on sound financial footing. That is why the opening of the Elizabeth line is so important to London: It makes a powerful case for public transportation at a time when people are questioning how many workers will ever return to their offices.
Byford lays out the case with the practiced cadence of a stump speech. The new line will increase the capacity of the system by 10%. Its spacious coaches are well suited to a world in which people are used to social distancing. It will revitalize economically blighted towns east of the city, while making central London accessible to people who live in far-flung towns to the east and west.
While Byford does not expect ridership ever to return completely, he thinks 90% is attainable. If office buildings remain underpopulated, London could develop like Paris, with more residential neighborhoods downtown. (The Elizabeth line bears a distinct resemblance to the high-speed RER system in Paris.) The line, he says, is an insurance policy against the “siren voices of doom” about Brexit.
At times, Byford slips perilously close to a real estate agent’s patter. “These super-high-tech stations simply ooze quality,” he said. But emerging from Liverpool Street, with its spectacular, rippling, pinstriped ceiling, it is hard to argue with his basic assertion: “This is a game changer.”