With New York’s century-old subway system facing a crisis, transportation officials on Tuesday turned to a veteran transit leader, Andrew Byford, credited with turning around Toronto’s once beleaguered system to take over the city’s buses and subways.
Mr. Byford’s appointment as the president of New York City Transit comes on the heels of a series of changes in leadership at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway system, aimed at restoring accountability and changing a culture that for years has left the subway without adequate funding or support.
Even as the subway’s antiquated infrastructure, including its signal systems and tracks, was breaking down at an increasing rate, the money spent on maintenance has remained essentially the same, when adjusted for inflation, as it was 25 years ago, according to a recent investigation by The New York Times.
During a news conference in Toronto, Mr. Byford called his new posting “arguably the toughest job in transit right now.”
Mr. Byford will take control of an agency that has often proved intransigent and opaque and dominated by a political dynamic in which elected officials have often used the transportation authority to serve their political priorities at the expense of investing sufficiently on the nuts and bolts that could have averted the crisis that has engulfed the transit system.
Those decisions have helped create a situation in which just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their final destination on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s. Unlike the ’70s, when subways covered in graffiti became emblems of urban decay and the city faced a financial meltdown, the current problems are all the more galling to riders and advocates because they come at a time when the city is booming and flush with tax revenues.
Exacerbating the problem and making solutions harder to come by, City Hall and Albany remain divided over how to address both the short- and long-term financial needs of the subways — a dynamic that Mr. Byford will likely have to learn to navigate quickly in order to reverse the subway’s decline.
Mr. Byford is a British-born alumnus of both London and Sydney’s transit networks and this will not be his first time dealing with a system in turmoil. When he was named the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, known as TTC, it was facing widespread criticism for delays and overcrowding.
“There’s a recognition that the TTC, which was once an absolute jewel in the province’s crown, has lost its way through lack of investment and, I’d say, political influence over the last 30 years,” he said in an interview with Toronto Life in 2015.
Over the last several years, he has been credited with modernizing the system and paying more attention to addressing consumer need.
In 2017, the TTC was awarded the American Public Transportation Association award for Outstanding Transit System of the Year.
Toronto’s reputation as a livable city with good transit has helped it grow to more than 2.8 million people, on par with the population of Chicago
Still, the challenge he faces in New York will likely dwarf what he has faced in the past.
Toronto’s transit system — the third largest in North America — has about 1.7 million riders each weekday on its network of subways, streetcars and buses. New York City’s system serves nearly six million daily riders on the subway alone.
Veronique Hakim led New York City Transit from the end of 2015 until earlier this year, when she was elevated to the executive committee of the M.T.A. Since her departure, several leaders have been placed in charge of the organization on an interim basis, most recently Timothy Mulligan.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the transportation authority, declared a state of emergency in June to help speed measures to deal with the crumbling subway system and directed Joseph J. Lhota, the authority’s chairman, to oversee the plan.
Mr. Lhota announced an $836 million action plan to tackle the most urgent needs, including expanding rapid response teams to fix track problems; assigning emergency medical technicians at crucial stations to deal with passengers needing medical assistance; and directing riders to less crowded areas of a platform to make it easier for them to get on and off trains.
“Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely,’’ Mr. Lhota said in a news release. “In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”
But an ongoing dispute between Mr. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over financing threatens to undermine the emergency plan. The state has agreed to pay for half of the bill and has asked the city to pay for the other half. Mr. de Blasio has refused, saying the city already provides enough money for the subway.
Mr. Byford will oversee some 50,000 employees who are a part of NYC Transit and “the immediate and long-term modernization of one of the oldest and largest transit systems in the world,” according to the M.T.A.
“New York City’s public transit system has driven New York City to become the bustling, successful metropolis that it is, and it’s an honor to be trusted with the huge responsibility to modernize the system and bring it to the high levels of performance and customer service that New Yorkers truly deserve and rightfully expect,” Mr. Byford said in a statement.
One of the key innovations Mr. Byford oversaw in Toronto was the rollout of open “gangway” cars, which are separated by open accordionlike passageways rather than doors. New York City is embracing the car design as a way to create more room for subway riders and alleviate overcrowding.
Officials plan to order up to 750 of the cars to run on the subway’s lettered lines.
Mr. Byford began his transit career at the London Underground and spent over 14 years there, eventually overseeing three of London’s busiest subways: the Central, Bakerloo and Victoria Lines.
Later he became the chief operating officer of Australia’s largest transit system in Sydney. He has been in charge in Toronto for the past five years. Transportation officials said his international experience will give him an advantage in bringing new ideas to the agency when he assumes his role in January.
“Transit in a city as diverse as New York presents a unique set of challenges, and Andy’s global leadership experience make him well-suited for the task,” said Phil Eng, the chief operating officer of the M.T.A. “I welcome him aboard and look forward to working alongside him as we strengthen and grow the transit system.”