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Andy Byford, CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, participates in an editorial board meeting at The Globe and Mail on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Andy Byford, CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, participates in an editorial board meeting at The Globe and Mail on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Transit

Andy Byford gives TTC energy it desperately needed Add to ...

Listening to Andy Byford talk is like feeling the blast of air that hits you when a subway train comes into the station. Whoosh. Change is coming to the TTC. It’s about time.

Since taking over from the sacked Gary Webster as chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission in March, Mr. Byford has emerged as the most impressive public official in the city today – ambitious, articulate, frank and determined to bring change to the stodgy organization. On a visit to The Globe and Mail’s editorial board on Monday, he bubbled over with plans for the transit system that Torontonians depend on but love to complain about.

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His aim, he said, is to “transform the TTC from top to bottom.” The way he sees it, nothing less will do. The transit system, while sound in many ways, is “in desperate need of modernization,” viewed by many of its users as arrogant, inefficient and bureaucratic.

Too true. When he took over, the TTC had just been through what he calls an “annus horribilis.” Reports of dozing ticket takers and texting drivers brought to the surface the anger that many riders were feeling about the TTC’s often indifferent service.

Things have started looking up a little since. New subway cars have arrived on the Yonge line. New streetcars are on their way. A deal has been reached to bring in Presto payment cards for easier service. As a symbol of change, Mr. Byford has even done away with the antiquated overhead projector for management meetings. It’s all PowerPoint now.

But changing the TTC will require more than new equipment and vehicles, says Mr. Byford, a veteran of transit systems in London, England, and Sydney, Australia. It will require a vast cultural change. TTC employees have to start treating people as customers rather than just cargo. TTC managers have to start treating employees as people.

“We will have failed and we won’t have met that challenge of transformation and particularly transforming our reputation with customers and stakeholders if it doesn’t feel different to you as riders and customers,” he says. “What I don’t want is at the end of five years for customers to say ‘Yeah, fair enough, we’ve got shiny new vehicles, but the service is the same old surly service that we’ve always suffered.’”

To give riders at least a taste of the changes to come, Mr. Byford has refurbished rundown subway washrooms, stepped up subway-car cleaning and improved announcements about service disruptions. He insists that when streetcars make a short turn and force everyone off to wait for the next one, the drivers at least tell riders why.

He and his executive team have been taking some of their meetings on the road, away from the bunker-like TTC headquarters at Yonge and Davisville. He himself often rides the system to greet employees and sometimes spends a day doing one of their jobs to see what it’s like. “What we have to do first of all is change how we manage,” he says.

To that end, he has put out a new mission statement (“A transit system that makes Toronto proud”), introduced a daily customer-service report and drawn up 25 key performance indicators to keep score on everything from customer satisfaction to financial performance.

All of this change will be devilishly hard for an organization as big and as conservative as the TTC. “I think the next four years are going to be quite the rollercoaster ride. I’m going to be a busy man,” Mr. Byford says.

To add to the challenge, the TTC is in a financial fix. The city has frozen its subsidy, the province is tapped out and Mr. Byford doesn’t feel he can ask for a big fare hike until he starts to deliver on some of his promises. The TTC is requesting only a five-cent increase for next year.

Despite all this, he says he is confident that with its many, often-overlooked advantages – a “fantastic” work force, a comprehensive network that is the envy of many cities – the TTC can bounce back with a dose of new energy and leadership. He seems just the one to deliver it.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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