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

LONDON — When Andy Byford ran New York City’s dilapidated subway system, fed-up New Yorkers praised his crusade to make trains run with less delay and lamented his premature departure after clashes with then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He was a familiar and unfailingly cheerful presence on his often restless platforms. Straphangers even started calling him “Train Daddy”.

Nobody calls Byford Train Daddy in London, where he reappeared in May 2020 as a commissioner of the city’s transit authority, Transport for London. But on May 24, when the Elizabeth Line, the long-delayed $22 billion-plus high-speed train that runs from west and east under central London, opens, it could be worthy again. of a cheeky nickname.

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

The Elizabeth line has been under construction for 13 years, seven years before the British voted to leave the European Union. It was on the drawing board for decades before that, under the Crossrail name, so long that, in the minds of many Londoners, it was never going to be finished. Its empty, brightly lit stations, sealed behind fire doors, are portals to an unseen world. 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 turn the project around on his own. Much of the credit goes to the new managers, led by Mark Wild, who took over the Elizabeth line when it went into crisis in 2018 (engineers found 75,000 defects, many in its digital switching system). But Mr. Byford secured an extra $1bn from the government in late 2020 to prevent construction from halting, and has been running the trains for months without passengers to ensure a flawless debut.

Showcasing it to reporters last week, Byford and Wild were filled with pride in 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: “That’s a £19bn journey you’ve just experienced.”

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 spaces, like cathedrals, with platforms that seem to stretch on forever. Spacious and twice the length of regular subways, the trains arrive with barely a whisper.

Drilling the tunnels required excavating three million tons of clay in an extremely difficult underground environment. Workers excavating Liverpool Street Station found skeletons in a mass grave dating to 1569. A team of 100 archaeologists exhumed the remains of 3,300 people from the site at New Churchyard of Bethlam and reburied them on an island in the estuary of the Thames.

“It will be seen as a great engineering achievement,” predicted Mr. Travers. “It’s much more ambitious than New York’s Second Avenue Subway or the No. 7 line extension, which are small projects by comparison.”

Comparing London’s transit system to New York’s is unavoidable, given Byford’s work history. He diplomatically talks about the difference, attributing it in large part to the bureaucratic structure of Transport for London, which oversees virtually all means of transport in the capital. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a more limited scope and is controlled by the Governor of New York.

Politics is also different. For all its problems, the Elizabeth line has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, including from London’s Labor Mayor Sadiq Khan and Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was mayor when construction began. An enthusiast of public works projects on the scale of Robert Moses, Mr. Johnson takes credit for securing the initial financing for the project, which came from the European Investment Bank.

In New York, Byford had to contend with a strong-willed and practical governor, but without the help of the mayor at the time, Bill de Blasio, who had little to say about the subway system. In London, Travers said, Byford has been able to position himself as a kind of honest broker between Khan and the national government whenever differences have arisen.

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

Heathrow Airport has had a tube link for decades. When the next phase of the Elizabeth line opens in the fall, passengers will be able to travel from Heathrow to the banks at Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; that’s a main selling point for a city desperate to hold on to its status as a financial mecca after Brexit. In total, the line has 10 brand new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crossings under the Thames three times.

“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for the Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group in New York. “Imagining a new full-length underground line here is not something anyone is doing. The Second Avenue Subway that people have been talking 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, not to mention an extension to the Bakerloo tube line, due to lack of funds. Still reeling from a near-total loss of ridership during the pandemic shutdowns, the system faces many of the same financial problems as the New York subway.

Although passenger numbers have recovered from a 5 percent nadir, they are still at just 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. London transport also relies heavily on ticket fares to cover its costs, more so than the New York subway, which receives state subsidies as well as funding from bridge and tunnel tolls.

“My other obsession is fixing finances,” Byford said. “One way is to move away from reliance on tariffs.”

It is somewhat vague about how to do it, and it is clear that Transport for London will rely on additional government donations to get it back on solid financial footing. That’s why the opening of the Elizabeth line is so important to London: it makes a powerful case for public transport at a time when people wonder how many workers will ever return to their offices.

Mr. Byford makes the case with the practiced cadence of a campaign speech. The new line will increase the system’s capacity by 10 percent. Its spacious coaches are well suited to the world where people are used to social distancing. It will revitalize the economically blighted towns to the east of the city, while making central London accessible to people living in remote towns to the east and west.

While Mr. Byford doesn’t expect ridership to fully return, he believes 90 percent can be reached. If office buildings remain depopulated, London could develop like Paris, with more residential neighborhoods in the center. (The Elizabeth line bears a clear resemblance to the high-speed RER system in Paris.) The line, he says, is an insurance policy against the “siren songs of doom” over Brexit.

Sometimes Mr. Byford slips perilously close to a real estate agent’s chatter. “These super-high-tech stations just ooze quality,” he said. But emerging from Liverpool Street, with its spectacular, undulating, striped roof, it’s hard to argue with his basic statement: “This is a game changer.”

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