TTC CEO Andy Byford gets rough ride from subway passengers
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A woman who recognized him on the subway congratulated Andy Byford on his bravery in riding the TTC to the North York Civic Centre on Tuesday.
The transit CEO, who wears his TTC name tag pinned to the outside of his coat whenever he rides the system, has taken a pasting from riders during this most Canadian of winters.
Commuters, who were already annoyed at failing streetcars, have, in the past two weeks, suffered a full day without the Scarborough RT, a morning rush-hour without the Yonge subway and a half-hour outage Tuesday on the east end of the Danforth line.
Add to that the city auditor’s report of poor management of the TTC’s giant non-revenue fleet and city watchers could be forgiven for wondering if the British-born Byford is putting out feelers yet for his old job in sunny Sydney, Australia.
It’s a query he emphatically denies, although he is scheduled to speak at a transit conference there in the coming weeks.
Instead, Byford says he hopes Toronto and TTC riders will give him enough time to see out the final three years of his five-year TTC modernization plan.
He doesn’t deny that it’s been a harsh winter for the TTC — and more so for its customers. The audit was particularly discouraging: the same poor practices had been identified in two previous reviews. Even though the TTC had taken steps to correct its procedures and practices, the news broke as things appeared to be turning around on the customer service front with new electronic payments, cleaner stations and new vehicles on the horizon.
“We all know we slipped back in our customers’ eyes,” said Byford, who has never owned a car and uses the TTC as his own primary mode of transportation.
“We’re gutted by it because we know we’re trying to change things. We really are working hard and it will come good,” he promised on Tuesday.
Earlier that day he called his executives to a special “candid” meeting. Managers were instructed to triple-check that their groups are complying with procedures, “that there’s no activity going on that should not be going on and we are absolutely respectful of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Heat in the headlines is one thing. But on the chilly streets of the city Byford admits riders have been putting up with substandard service this winter as the TTC struggles with aging equipment and infrastructure prone to failure in the extreme cold.
“My message to customers would be I absolutely understand their frustration. I share the view that the service is not good enough at the moment. I just ask for their patience. It really does take time to change a very old-fashioned, traditionally run organization. We know what we need to do and we are making progress,” he said.
Since joining the TTC three years ago, Byford has introduced regular meet-the-manager events, leading his team to meet with riders at subway stations around town and talk about their concerns on their own territory. He frequently answers rider complaints in a personal email and has gone so far as to show up on their buses to check on the validity of their concerns.
The good news, he says, is that additional operating funds which the city is supplying this year will boost service, reduce crowding and let children 12 and younger ride free.
But that doesn’t mean commuters won’t continue to have their endurance tested. Even though the pneumatic systems on the streetcars, prone to freezing, were changed last summer to avoid a scenario like last winter, when up to 60 streetcars couldn’t make it out of the yards, up to 35 streetcars were still out of service on the worst days this year.
“People have said, ‘Is it going to be the same next winter?’ Probably, yes, if the winter is as harsh as this one,” Byford admitted.
The replacement Bombardier fleet is slow in arriving and even though the TTC is planning a rebuild of its aging streetcars, they will still be another year older.
“They are pretty worn out. The years of salt and crud that’s built up, it’s amazing they keep going,” said Byford, who takes pride in being scrupulously honest with riders.
When transit control called him about 4:15 a.m. Monday, he knew it would be bad news. But on the coldest day to that point in a frigid February, Byford confronted the catastrophic fact that the Yonge subway couldn’t operate for the morning rush-hour.
He immediately cancelled an executive meeting and headed to Yonge and Bloor to help direct riders to shuttle buses. Other TTC managers were similarly deployed. Byford says frozen TTC riders were stoic.
Initially, the TTC believed it was a hydro cable. Later, he said, it became clear that it was the TTC’s own cable that had malfunctioned following a flood in the substation.
“All I knew was I wanted to get the customers to work and get the service up and running again,” he said. The subway came back on line just as the rush-hour was dying down.
Less than a week earlier, the creaking SRT, which has grown increasingly unreliable, particularly in winter, broke down, forcing the TTC to evacuate a train stuck on the elevated guideway. There was a delay in determining the cause of the failure, and the fix took a full day.
“That system is completely worn out. In theory, not long ago, we’d have been shutting it down in another six months,” said Byford, referring to the original plan to replace the SRT with an LRT and put riders on buses for about four years while a new line was built.
That plan, has of course been supplanted by a subway extension, meaning the SRT will continue to operate for now.
Byford says he’s a willing target of riders’ and politicians’ complaints. He recognizes that, as harsh as the season has been for the TTC, it’s been harder on customers.
“I have thick skin,” he said. “If we weren’t changing and we didn’t have the right ultimate plan to address all aspects of what we’re doing, then I would be worried. But because I know we’re on the right course I’m riding the storm.”
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