Charles Wright: Is history repeating itself for Andy Byford?

Charles Wright: Is history repeating itself for Andy Byford?

Thinking about what London and New York’s transport systems might learn from each other after my recent trip across the pond, one similarity immediately stood out – both networks, London now, and New York between 2018 and early 2020, had Andy Byford in common.

Affectionately known in New York as “train daddy”, veteran transit chief Byford was credited with major service improvements and the launch of a $51 billion investment programme to upgrade and modernise the ailing subway system. 

But his tenure came to a sudden end – he resigned after just two years in the job, citing “intolerable” political interference by New York state governor Andrew Cuomo. 

“It got to a point where it was obvious I was not going to be allowed to get on with what needed to be done,” he said. “I had to make to my mind up, as a person with very strong principles, can I accept … a situation where I’m in a safety-critical role and the people are being given direction on operational matters behind my back. I needed to be left to run the system.”

Byford sounded happier in an interview a few months into his new job at TfL. “I am very much enjoying also the benefits of a professional board,” he said. “I have dealt with a number of political boards in my time and this is a board that is populated by extremely impressive professionals.”

He won a quick victory in London too. Having set getting the Elizabeth Line open as one of his two top priorities, he demanded, and got, complete control of the project, which had been previously “co-sponsored” by Whitehall.

The successful opening of the line earlier this year, complete with pictures of Byford “hanging out” with the Queen as the New York Post put it, prompted that paper to bemoan the fact that London was now benefiting, unlike New York, from someone who “takes transit seriously”.

Byford’s second priority, to lead TfL out of Covid to a financially sustainable position, is proving trickier to deliver. 

Remarkably, given the pandemic-induced catastrophic collapse in TfL finances, 70 per cent reliant on fare income, Byford has actually got the network within “touching distance” of breaking even without revenue support from Whitehall  by the government-imposed deadline of April 2023 

It has come at a significant long-term cost, unwelcome to many, in savings, service tweaks, inflation-busting fare increases, Council Tax hikes, new ultra-low emission zone charges, and a fracturing relationship with transport unions, underlining Byford’s principle that public servants should “speak truth to power”.

An interim four-month deal agreed in February this year after Byford had successfully knocked back “reckless and unachievable” Whitehall demands for a further £400 million-worth of cuts,  also, critically, included a pledge to discuss capital funding for up to three years, getting much-needed big-ticket improvements back on track.

“This is the big one, the Holy Grail,” Byford told the London Assembly in March. “Along with revenue support to the end of April, that will enable us to say we’ve sorted out TfL’s finances post-Covid.” It would be a “huge achievement,” he added.

But with TfL now effectively running on empty, staying afloat by drawing on dwindling reserves as negotiations with government on a final bailout drag on, is Byford’s New York experience in danger of being repeated?

The funding arrangement agreed in February, extended a couple of times since, expired last week, and Byford gave a downbeat assessment of the current state of play at an extraordinary TfL board meeting yesterday.

The government has proposed a “very complex” funding mechanism for a deal that would last just 20 months rather than the three-year settlement TfL had sought, he said. And it had not, to date, responded to TfL concerns. “It’s vital we get the quantum right, and the conditions must be fair,” he said.

Byford pointedly praised the “tireless work” of civil servants at the Department for Transport as well as his own staff in trying to reach agreement. Mayor Khan was conciliatory too, saying the outstanding issues were operational and matters of “principle” rather than “political”.

Others, including the Evening Standard, have been less charitable. The bailout process, the paper said, “raises old questions, not least how ministers expect TfL Commissioner Andy Byford to run a world-class transport network, with all the long-term planning and investments that requires, while essentially operating on a hand-to-mouth basis. 

“Sadly, the political theatre and brinkmanship are indicative of this Government’s attitude to the capital. Ultimately, a thriving London economy is a prerequisite for national recovery…To continually cripple our capacity through political posturing would represent an act of grievous self-harm.”

Business lobby group BusinessLDN, formerly London First, had a warning too: “The success of London and the success of the UK remain inextricably linked, and we need these negotiations to be resolved swiftly with a sustainable deal that delivers for both”.

With TfL funding “caught in the crossfire” of political wrangling, there is “still time before September for the outgoing regime to give Sadiq Khan one final kicking”, added Centre for London chief executive and former Khan adviser Nick Bowes – but also “still time to put the partisan fighting to one side”.

The ball seems firmly in the government’s court. Londoners can only hope it is listening.

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