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 hailed his campaign to make the trains run with fewer delays and lamented his untimely exit after clashes with the governor on the time, Andrew M. Cuomo. He was a well-known, unfailingly cheerful presence on its often-restive platforms. Straphangers even took to calling him “Train Daddy.”

Nobody calls Mr. Byford Train Daddy in London, the place he resurfaced in May 2020 because the commissioner of the town’s transit authority, Transport for London. But on May 24, when he opens the Elizabeth line — the long-delayed, $22 billion-plus high-speed railway that uncoils from west and east beneath central London — he would possibly discover himself once more worthy of a cheeky nickname.

“That was fun in New York,” stated Mr. Byford, 56, a gregarious public transport evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, started his profession as a tube-station supervisor in London, and has additionally run transit techniques in Toronto and Sydney, Australia. “But I’m really enjoying almost complete anonymity in London.”

The Elizabeth line has been below building for 13 years, seven years earlier than Britons voted to depart the European Union. It was on the drafting board for many years earlier than that, below the identify Crossrail — so lengthy that within the minds of many Londoners, it was by no means going to be completed. Its empty, brightly lit stations, sealed off behind fireplace doorways, are portals to an unseen world. Mr. Byford described them as one thing out of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” however “without HAL, the evil computer,” he stated.

Mr. Byford didn’t single-handedly flip across the undertaking. Much of the credit score goes to new managers, led by Mark Wild, who took over the Elizabeth line when it fell into disaster in 2018 (engineers discovered 75,000 defects, many in its digital switching system). But Mr. Byford secured an extra $1 billion from the federal government in late 2020 to stop building from being halted, and he has been working the trains for months with out passengers to make sure a glitch-free debut.

Showing reporters round final week, Mr. Byford and Mr. Wild burst with delight in regards to the system, which can open three and a half years late however simply in time for the Platinum Jubilee of its namesake, Queen Elizabeth II. Alighting at Liverpool Street station, Mr. Wild stated, “That’s a £19 billion ride you just experienced.”

The Elizabeth line does have, within the phrases of Tony Travers, an urban-affairs knowledgeable on the London School of Economics, a “wow factor.” The stations are huge, cathedral-like areas, with platforms that appear to stretch to infinity. The trains, roomy and twice the size of standard subways, arrive with scarcely a whisper.

Boring the tunnels required excavating three million tons of clay in a particularly sophisticated subterranean setting. Workers digging the Liverpool Street station got here throughout skeletons in a mass grave that dated to 1569. A workforce of 100 archaeologists exhumed the stays of three,300 folks from the location within the New Churchyard of Bethlam, and reinterred them in an island within the Thames estuary.

“It will be seen as a major engineering achievement,” Mr. Travers predicted. “It’s way more ambitious than New York’s Second Avenue subway or the extension of the No. 7 line, which are tiny projects by comparison.”

Comparing London’s transit system with New York’s is inevitable, given Mr. Byford’s job historical past. He speaks diplomatically in regards to the distinction, chalking a lot of it as much as the bureaucratic construction of Transport for London, which oversees just about each mode of transportation within the capital. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a extra restricted purview and is managed by New York’s governor.

The politics are additionally completely different. For all of its issues, the Elizabeth line has loved steadfast bipartisan assist, together with from London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, who was mayor when floor was damaged. An fanatic for Robert Moses-scale public-works initiatives, Mr. Johnson takes credit score for securing the undertaking’s early financing, which got here from the European Investment Bank.

In New York, Mr. Byford needed to cope with a strong-willed, hands-on governor, however with out the assistance of the mayor on the time, Bill de Blasio, who had little say over the subway system. In London, Mr. Travers stated, Mr. Byford has been in a position to place himself as a type of sincere dealer between Mr. Khan and the nationwide authorities at any time when variations have flared.

Beyond personalities, there are merely extra monetary hurdles in New York to a undertaking as gargantuan because the Elizabeth line. After Mr. Cuomo resigned last year, his successor, Gov. Kathy Hochul, put a proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain project to LaGuardia airport on ice. That leaves the newly renovated airport with out a rail hyperlink to Manhattan, to the enduring frustration of many New Yorkers.

Heathrow Airport has had a subway hyperlink for many years. When the Elizabeth line’s subsequent part is opened within the fall, passengers will be capable to journey from Heathrow to the banks at Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; that may be a prime promoting level for a metropolis determined to carry on to its standing as monetary mecca after Brexit. All instructed, the road has 10 solely new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crosses below the Thames thrice.

“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” stated Danny Pearlstein, the coverage director for 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, which people have been talking about for 100 years, has three stations.”

To be truthful, Transport for London is just not with out its issues. It has shelved plans to construct a north-south counterpart to the Elizabeth line, to not point out an extension to the Bakerloo tube line, due to a scarcity of funding. Still reeling from a near-total lack of riders throughout pandemic lockdowns, the system faces lots of the similar monetary woes as New York’s subway.

Though ridership has recovered from a nadir of 5 p.c, it’s nonetheless at solely 70 p.c of prepandemic ranges. Transport for London can also be closely depending on ticket fares to cowl its prices, extra so than the New York subway, which will get state subsidies, in addition to funds from bridge and tunnel tolls.

“My other obsession is sorting out the finances,” Mr. Byford stated. “One way is to wean us away from dependence on fares.”

He is considerably obscure about how to try this, and it’s clear that Transport for London will depend upon extra authorities handouts to get again on sound monetary footing. That is why the opening of the Elizabeth line is so essential to London: It makes a robust case for public transportation at a time when individuals are questioning what number of employees will ever return to their places of work.

Mr. Byford lays out the case with the practiced cadence of a stump speech. The new line will enhance the capability of the system by 10 p.c. Its spacious coaches are effectively suited to a world wherein individuals are used to social distancing. It will revitalize economically blighted cities east of the town, whereas making central London accessible to individuals who dwell in far-flung cities to the east and west.

While Mr. Byford doesn’t count on ridership ever to return utterly, he thinks 90 p.c is attainable. If workplace buildings stay underpopulated, London might develop like Paris, with extra residential neighborhoods downtown. (The Elizabeth line bears a definite resemblance to the high-speed RER system in Paris.) The line, he says, is an insurance coverage coverage towards the “siren voices of doom” about Brexit.

At occasions, Mr. Byford slips perilously near an actual property agent’s patter. “These super-high-tech stations simply ooze quality,” he stated. But rising from Liverpool Street, with its spectacular, rippling, pinstriped ceiling, it’s exhausting to argue along with his fundamental assertion: “This is a game changer.”

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