National News

On His First Day, Transit Chief Rode the Subway Into Work

Posted January 16, 2018 7:38 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Like countless others headed to work on Tuesday morning, Andy Byford stood wearing a backpack on a crowded subway platform at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan waiting for a No. 4 train to arrive. In a clear sign that he was not a native New Yorker, he politely stepped aside to allow passengers off the train before edging his way onto the crowded car.

Though he remained largely unrecognizable to the crush of passengers surrounding him, Byford was not just another harried commuter — he is the man who is now running, and tasked with fixing, New York City’s subway system.

It was Byford’s first day of what will undoubtedly be his most challenging transportation job yet: reviving a sprawling and aging subway system that has grown increasingly unreliable after years of political and financial neglect. Still, when he exited the train at the Bowling Green station in Lower Manhattan near his office, Byford, speaking in a distinct British accent, said, “I’m excited to be here.”

Byford, who most recently served as the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, has said he was considering aggressive steps to improve the subway, including shutting down lines for long periods of time to speed up repairs. He said he would review the way the subway spends money and consider overhauling management. He also said that congestion pricing — charging fees to drive into the most crowded parts of Manhattan as a way to raise money for transit — was worth considering.

Byford, whose official title is president of New York City Transit, made his way from the subway to his desk trailed by news cameras and introduced himself to transit workers who matched his smile with theirs before addressing reporters.

“This is a dream come true for me,” said Byford, who was wearing a Canada Goose parka, a suit and the same worn black leather shoes he used to traverse the Toronto transit system. “But I haven’t come here to be a tourist. I came here to get a job done.”

For 10 minutes, he outlined his priorities, including providing clean, punctual, reliable, friendly and safe service. His first priority, he said, was to ensure that the subways run more efficiently by maximizing the capability of the existing signaling system. Much of the improvements he intends to make have been underway as part of a subway action plan unveiled last year.

After attending to the demands of the New York media, Byford made his way into a towering glass office building and rode the elevator to the 30th floor, where he was greeted by his executive assistants who guided him into a large office overlooking New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

In one corner hung a framed map of the subway system. On his chestnut desk was a hand-held subway map, documents to review, a binder and a cup of black coffee. He plopped his backpack down onto the carpeted floor. Inside he said he had photos of him and his wife, friends and a placard he received after the Toronto Transit Commission was named the 2017 transit system of the year by the American Public Transportation Association.

Byford sat in his office for a moment and looked around. He was where he wanted to be. He arrived in New York Sunday evening and spent Monday riding the subway or conducting what he called a dry run, reading budgets and the latest news on the system. He lives within walking distance of Grand Central with his wife. He has never owned a car.

Before he left home on Tuesday, his wife offered some advice: Be yourself. “Do what you know is the right thing and what works for you,” he said.

He said they were useful words to remember. “I wouldn’t be sitting on this sofa right now had I not stuck to my guns,” he said.

His first day was a marathon of meetings, routine for most new senior officials. He first met with the former interim transit president, Phil Eng, who provided Byford details on the progress that has been made on the subway action plan and other areas needing improvement.

Later he walked into a boardroom where more than a dozen senior officials gathered around a large oval table to meet him, most for the first time. He asked each official to introduce themselves.

One official told him she was set to retire in two weeks, to which he remarked: “Are you sure you want to retire? It’s going to be a fun time.” In an hourlong meeting, he shared with them his priorities and his expectations.

“Everyone has a role to play in this,” Byford said. “I need everyone to be on their game. We can absolutely turn this around.”

He asked them for honesty and “absolute transparency” as most nodded their heads in agreement, some taking notes as he spoke. He told them, “We’re one team.”

In his candid fashion, he admitted that there would be a bit of a learning curve, but he was up to the challenge. Toward the end, one official told Byford that he was happy he was there.

While Byford met with his executive team on Tuesday, riders took to Twitter to decry morning delays on several subway lines caused by sick passengers and signal problems.

“Change is not easy for an organization as large as the MTA,” Eng said later, referring to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that includes the subway. “It’s important that the men and women of New York City Transit see that it’s a new era.”

Back in his office, Byford’s executive assistant discussed his schedule for the week, which included, not surprisingly, more meetings and briefings.

Later, he sat on a sofa in his office with his legs crossed and said, “The real work starts now, aye.”