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In London, a long-awaited high-speed train is ready to roll


LONDON — When Andy Byford ran New York’s ramshackle subway system, weary New Yorkers hailed his crusade to get trains running with fewer delays and lamented his premature exit after clashes with the then governor, Andrew M. Cuomo. He was a familiar presence, always cheerful on his often restless platforms. Straphangers even started calling him “Train Daddy”.

Nobody calls Mr Byford Train Daddy in London, where he resurfaced in May 2020 as commissioner of the city’s public transport authority, Transport for London. But on May 24, when he opens the Elizabeth Line – the delayed over $22 billion high-speed railway that runs west and east under central London – he could find himself worthy of a cheeky nickname.

“It was fun in New York,” said Mr Byford, 56, a gregarious public transport evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, started his career as an Underground station manager in London and has also managed transit systems in Toronto and Sydney, Australia. “But I do enjoy almost complete anonymity in London.”

The Elizabeth Line has been under construction for 13 years, seven years before Britons voted to leave the European Union. It had been on the drawing board for decades before, as Crossrail – so long that in the minds of many Londoners it was never going to be finished. Its empty, brightly lit stations, isolated behind fire doors, are portals to an unseen world. Mr Byford described them as something out of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but “without HAL, the evil computer”, he said.

Mr. Byford did not, on his own, overthrow the project. Much of the credit goes to new managers, led by Mark Wild, who took over the Elizabeth line when it fell into crisis in 2018 (engineers found 75,000 faults, many in its digital switching system). But Mr Byford secured an extra $1 billion from the government at the end of 2020 to prevent construction from stopping, and he ran the trains for months without passengers to ensure a smooth start.

Showing to reporters last week, Mr Byford and Mr Wild burst into pride over the system, which will open three and a half years late, but just in time for the platinum jubilee of its namesake, Queen Elizabeth II . Getting off at Liverpool Street station, Mr Wild said: ‘It’s a £19billion journey you’ve just had.’

The Elizabeth line has, in the words of Tony Travers, an urban affairs expert at the London School of Economics, a “wow factor”. Stations are vast cathedral spaces, with platforms that seem to go on forever. The trains, spacious and twice as long as regular metros, arrive with barely a murmur.

The drilling of the tunnels required the excavation of three million tons of clay in an extremely complicated underground environment. Workers digging up Liverpool Street station have come across skeletons in a mass grave dating back to 1569. A team of 100 archaeologists unearthed the remains of 3,300 people from the site of Bethlam’s New Churchyard and reinterred them on an island in the Thames Estuary.

“It will be considered a major technical achievement,” predicted Mr. Travers. “It’s far more ambitious than New York’s Second Avenue subway or the No. 7 line extension, which are small projects by comparison.”

Comparison of London’s public transport system with that of New York is inevitable, given Mr Byford’s professional background. He speaks diplomatically about the difference, attributing much of it to the bureaucratic structure of Transport for London, which oversees virtually all modes of transport in the capital. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has more limited jurisdiction and is controlled by the Governor of New York.

The policy is also different. Despite all its troubles, the Elizabeth Row has enjoyed staunch bipartisan support, including Labor London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was mayor when ground was broken. Passionate about public works projects on the scale of Robert Moses, Mr Johnson takes credit for securing the initial funding for the project, which came from the European Investment Bank.

In New York, Mr. Byford had to contend with a strong-willed and active governor, but without help from then-mayor Bill de Blasio, who had little say in the subway system. In London, Mr Travers said, Mr Byford was able to position himself as a kind of honest broker between Mr Khan and the national government whenever disputes arose.

Beyond the personalities, there are simply more financial obstacles in New York to a project as gargantuan as the Elizabeth line. After Mr. Cuomo resigned last year, his successor, Governor Kathy Hochul, put a proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain project at LaGuardia Airport on hold. That leaves the newly renovated airport without a train connection to Manhattan, to the lingering frustration of many New Yorkers.

Heathrow Airport has been served by the underground for decades. When the next phase of the Elizabeth line opens in the autumn, passengers will be able to travel from Heathrow to the banks of Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; it’s a major selling point for a city desperate to retain its post-Brexit status as a financial mecca. In total, the line has 10 all-new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crosses under the Thames three times.

“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director of Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group in New York. “Imagining a complete new underground line here is not something everyone does. The Second Avenue subway, which has been talked about for 100 years, has three stations.

To be fair, Transport for London is not without its problems. It has shelved plans to build a north-south counterpart to the Elizabeth line, let alone an extension of the Bakerloo tube line, due to lack of funding. Still reeling from a near total loss of passengers during the pandemic shutdowns, the system faces many of the same financial issues as the New York City subway.

Although ridership has recovered from a nadir of 5%, it is still only 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Transport for London also relies heavily on ticket fares to cover its costs, more so than the New York Underground, which receives state subsidies, as well as funds from bridge and tunnel tolls.

“My other obsession is sorting out the finances,” Mr Byford said. “One way is to wean ourselves off of dependence on tariffs.”

It is somewhat vague on how to do this, and it is clear that Transport for London will depend on additional government grants to get back on a solid financial footing. This is why the opening of the Elizabeth Line is so important for London: it makes a strong case for public transport at a time when people wonder how many workers will ever return to their offices.

Mr. Byford sets out the case with the practiced cadence of a stump speech. The new line will increase system capacity by 10%. Its spacious coaches are well suited to the world in which people are used to social distancing. It will revitalize economically run-down towns to the east of the city, while making central London accessible to people who live in remote towns to the east and west.

While Byford doesn’t expect ridership to fully return, he thinks 90 per cent is achievable. If office buildings remain underpopulated, London could develop like Paris, with more residential areas in the city centre. (The Elizabeth Line bears a distinct resemblance to Paris’ high-speed RER system.) The line, he says, is an insurance policy against Brexit “siren voices”.

Sometimes Mr. Byford slips dangerously close to a real estate agent’s patter. “These super high-tech stations just exude quality,” he said. But emerging from Liverpool Street, with its dramatic, undulating, striped ceiling, it’s hard to argue with its basic claim: ‘This is a game-changer’.

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