Toronto has a new transit chief. Andy Byford confirmed on Monday night that he will succeed Gary Webster, who was fired as chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission after differing with Mayor Rob Ford in the subways-versus-LRT debate.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” said Mr. Byford, 46, a dynamic Englishman who has served with the London Underground and the Sydney commuter rail system. “My head is spinning a bit.” He has been serving as chief operating officer of the TTC since November, and was expected to succeed Mr. Webster in time, but last month’s abrupt firing left the TTC without a leader, and Mr. Byford quickly proved his bona fides.
When a water main broke at Union Station, halting transit service, he went to the scene to oversee the clean-up. When a masked man shot a ticket taker at Dupont station, he appeared quickly to give a press briefing on the crisis, speaking to a francophone reporter in crisp French (he studied languages at university and hoped to become a diplomat before detouring into transit).
He has been so impressive that the TTC decided to dispense with the usual executive search and appoint Mr. Byford forthwith. TTC chair Karen Stintz said Mr. Byford had been offered a contract, subject to approval by TTC commissioners. At his request, he will be called chief executive rather than the traditional chief general manager, a title he says most people found confusing.
Mr. Byford is determined to put some snap back in the TTC’s faded red banner. Since taking over the top job on an interim basis after allies of Mr. Ford sacked the veteran Mr. Webster, he has become whirling dervish of reform.
He has summoned managers to a weekly performance meeting. He has had report cards on reliability and other standards tacked up around TTC offices. He travels the system nearly every day to greet staff and check on problems, jotting down observations in a pocket notebook.
He snaps cellphone pictures of what he calls “howlers,” like the pile of rags left on a station floor to mop up a leak. Beside it stood a sign saying: “We care about our station’s appearance.” It is the sort of “absolute mediocrity I just can’t tolerate,” Mr. Byford said.
He carries an old-school pager to keep up with bulletins on service disruptions because his BlackBerry doesn’t work underground. Before he gets on the subway, he always makes note of the train number in case there is a problem and he has to report to transit control. That is the sort of detail he learned in years with the London Tube, where he ended up managing three of the system’s busiest lines: Bakerloo, Central and Victoria.
He wants to put a fresher, more open face on the TTC. “We’re seen as a very old-fashioned, introspective, almost secretive organization, and I want us to be completely transparent,” he said.
Turning around the underfunded TTC will be a huge challenge, but that, Mr. Byford says, is what attracted him. “To me this a top-to-bottom transformation. This isn’t just tinkering at the edges. I think within three to five years we can completely modernize the look and feel of the TTC.”
Out on a tour of the TTC last week, Mr. Byford took me to the streetcar platform at St. Clair West station to illustrate his approach. To Mr. Byford, it stands for both the promise and the challenge of North America’s third-biggest transit system.
On the positive side, it is an example of the seamless connectivity that makes the TTC such a great system. At St. Clair, you can jump off the subway, go up a floor and get on a streetcar or a bus without passing through any barrier or paying an extra fare. “You have this stunning interchange,” Mr. Byford said. “It’s beautiful.”
On the down side, St. Clair often has that neglected, down-at-heels air that typifies the TTC. On a previous visit, Mr. Byford found one wall “absolutely filthy” from coffee or some other liquid that yahoos had tossed against the concrete. It is the kind of thing that rots Mr. Byford’s socks. He travels the TTC with a plastic bag in his pocket so he can pick up litter as he goes. He ordered staff to power-wash the wall till it was clean.
He ordered a ceiling for the employee washroom, too. Drivers who rush in to use it on their short breaks found themselves staring up at the dirty underside of an escalator. “You wonder why staff are demoralized or not as friendly as they could be,” Mr. Byford said. “If we’re not even getting the most basic things right, like a washroom, how can we expect staff to perform?”
Mr. Byford wants to remind Torontonians of what they’ve got: an extensive, well-designed transit system with a dedicated staff. On the other hand, he knows that the TTC has to do better – much, much better – if it is to win back the support of frustrated riders.