When former Gov. Andrew Cuomo tapped British-born transit wizard Andy Byford as president of New York City Transit in January 2018, the Big Apple’s subways were coming off their worst performance in recent history.
The 2017 “summer of hell,” as Cuomo dubbed it, saw an interminable string of derailments, trains stalled in tunnels, and delays that stranded straphangers on steaming platforms, waiting for trains that never came.
Byford was hired with a single charge: improve service fast or find another job. Little did he know one of his biggest roadblocks would be the governor himself.
There were long-term issues of subway maintenance and repair. But the soft-spoken Englishman, who had run transit systems in Australia and Toronto, instantly grasped the short-term need to improve on-time train performance, which had fallen to 59 percent compared with more than 80 percent in London and other major mass-transit cities.
Byford came up with an exquisitely simple solution, the kind that comes more readily to a sharp-eyed outsider than to set-in-their-ways bureaucrats. He reduced how long trains waited at platforms and re-adjusted “grade timers” which regulated speeds at certain points in the system.
By the time Byford resigned in January 2020 after just two years at the helm, he’d “raised punctuality,” as he put it, to 82 percent.
The film is framed as a tale of neglected US infrastructure. But its heartbeat is the clash of personalities, especially between Cuomo — a one-time self-proclaimed “car guy” before he decided to be the Hercules of the subways — and Byford, who never owned a car.
Byford’s goal of delivering a subway “renaissance” can seem like quaint history after the horrors of the pandemic. But the energy he brought to the system, and the changes he brought nearly overnight, should hold a lesson for Gov. Kathy Hochul and the MTA as the city struggles back to life.
A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, the New York City subways carried nearly twice as many riders as today. Service problems aside, crime was relatively low in early 2018. There was hope that an $800 million Subway Action Plan, drawn up by Cuomo’s team before Byford’s arrival, promised better times ahead.
Byford saw that the action plan to “tackle unreliable aspects of the system [and] infrastructure that needed to be better maintained” was meant to “stop bad incidents from happening,” he told The Post this week.
But he also didn’t think that was good enough.
“We wanted to improve things for customers [sooner], so we devised a program called Safe Save Seconds,” Byford, 56, added. “If we could save a few seconds at each station, ultimately the wait time at stations will be noticeably shorter.”
Train “dwell times” — how long they sat at a platform before moving to the next station — were unpredictable and maddening for riders.
“There was no discipline as to how long a train would stay at a station,” Byford recalled. “Sometimes they would sit there for 30 or 50 seconds,” even when operators had green lights to proceed.
He correctly reckoned that cutting the dwell time would have a ripple effect throughout the system.
Byford also decided to pick up projects that “people had talked about for years, but never did anything about,” he said. Specifically, grade timers, the devices that basically govern train speed limits at certain points. They had been slowed down after a fatal accident on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995, but the restriction remained in force long after it was needed.
“There were speed restrictions that were put in [place] in the dim, distant past, but whatever the reasons were [for them] had long since cleared,” Byford said.
He found that speeds could safely be raised from 15 to 30 mph at numerous points in the 691-mile, 472-station track network.
But first he had to deal with unsticking the bureaucratic roadblocks that had long prevented the timers from being recalibrated.
“There were some who queried whether speed and safety were compatible,” he recalled. “We did risk assessment and engaged the unions before we removed any restrictions.”
Suddenly, trains could go twice as fast.
“The cost was minimal — about $1 million. Customers gave us feedback that it was way better,” Byford explained. “And subway crews loved it because they were the ones who got yelled at by passengers when trains were late.”
“I’m not saying [Cuomo’s] Subway Action Plan didn’t have impact. It did,” he added. “But we needed both.”
Riders noticed the change right away. I recall a long schlep from Manhattan to meet friends in Brooklyn, expecting to be late, because of notorious F line delays. Miraculously, the train zipped along.
“Andy speeded them up,” my wife observed.
“Andy” was how most New Yorkers knew Byford. Typically suspicious of foreign-born “experts,” they trusted the plain-spoken Englishman who wore his love for his adopted city on his sleeve. If the B or the D lines had problems, he rode the rails himself and apologized to surprised straphangers, as shown in the film.
The obvious efficacy of Safe Save Seconds (he credits his former transit deputy Sally Librera as the plan’s “architect”) — and Byford’s growing presence as the face of the subways — clearly got under Cuomo’s notoriously thin skin.
Although some official MTA news releases cited Safe Save, they always first mentioned the Subway Action Plan, which played no part in making trains run faster. And Safe Save was rarely, if ever, mentioned in press conferences that included Byford.
Byford notes, however that Cuomo eventually brought in his own advisors on speed issues. “I took some satisfaction from the fact that the governor’s office was clearly so impressed with Safe Save Seconds that they brought in expensive consultants to come up with their own program to raise speeds in more ways,” he told The Post.
Irritated by Byford’s popularity with riders, the press and even the unions, Cuomo set out to undermine him. Among other tortures, he first demanded that Byford endorse the planned L train tunnel shutdown, which was in the cards before Byford’s arrival — only to declare that it wasn’t necessary after all.
That decision, which the governor didn’t have the courtesy to share with Byford beforehand, put “Subway Andy” in the untenable position of publicly contradicting everything he’d said before.
Cuomo’s bullying style is on ample display throughout “End of the Line.” His tirades at the MTA board prompted one disgusted board member to rage in the film, “We are not empty suits.” Although, to be honest, they mostly were — not because of incompetence, but due to the convoluted MTA structure which gave them limited authority.
Byford today has his hands full as head of London Transport, a vast system that includes roads and ferries as well as trains and buses.
He left New York City Transit on Feb. 23, just as COVID was gaining attention in the US.
“Had I known then what I know now, I’d have offered to stay. I wouldn’t knowingly leave my colleagues with what came later.”
By the end of summer 2020, 131 transit employees had died of the virus.
Byford could only watch helplessly as his former colleagues suffered. Daily subway ridership plunged from more than five million to 300,000, costing the agency $200 million a week in revenue. The system temporarily shut down nightly from 1-4 a.m. for the first time in its history.
Today, ridership has somewhat rallied to over 3 million despite a crime increase and continued uncertainty over the virus. Byford calls the comeback “a credit to my wonderful colleagues working in horrible circumstances.”
And he’ll always carry a torch for the Big Apple: “I lived in Midtown. I loved that place.”