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 acquainted, 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,” mentioned Mr. Byford, 56, a gregarious public transport evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, started his career as a tube-station supervisor in London, and has additionally run transit methods 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 title 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 mentioned.

Mr. Byford didn’t single-handedly flip across the project. 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 a further $1 billion from the federal government in late 2020 to forestall building from being halted, and he has been working the trains for months with out passengers to guarantee a glitch-free debut.

Showing reporters round final week, Mr. Byford and Mr. Wild burst with delight concerning 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 mentioned, “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 normal subways, arrive with scarcely a whisper.

Boring the tunnels required excavating three million tons of clay in an especially sophisticated subterranean surroundings. 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 individuals 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 concerning the distinction, chalking a lot of it up to the bureaucratic structure of Transport for London, which oversees nearly 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 tasks, Mr. Johnson takes credit score for securing the project’s early financing, which got here from the European Investment Bank.

In New York, Mr. Byford had to take care of 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 mentioned, Mr. Byford has been ready to position himself as a sort of sincere dealer between Mr. Khan and the nationwide authorities every time variations have flared.

Beyond personalities, there are merely extra monetary hurdles in New York to a project as gargantuan because the Elizabeth line. After Mr. Cuomo resigned final 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 section is opened within the fall, passengers will probably be ready to journey from Heathrow to the banks at Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; that’s a prime promoting level for a metropolis determined to maintain on to its standing as monetary mecca after Brexit. All instructed, the road has 10 fully new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crosses below the Thames thrice.

“We’re jealous, it’s fair to say,” mentioned 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 just isn’t with out its issues. It has shelved plans to build a north-south counterpart to the Elizabeth line, not to point out an extension to the Bakerloo tube line, due to a lack 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 be closely depending on ticket fares to cover 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 mentioned. “One way is to wean us away from dependence on fares.”

He is considerably imprecise about how to try this, and it’s clear that Transport for London will rely on further 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 highly effective case for public transportation at a time when persons 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 improve the capability of the system by 10 p.c. Its spacious coaches are nicely suited to world by which persons 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 anticipate ridership ever to return utterly, he thinks 90 p.c is attainable. If office buildings stay underpopulated, London may develop like Paris, with extra residential neighborhoods downtown. (The Elizabeth line bears a distinct 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 shut to a actual property agent’s patter. “These super-high-tech stations simply ooze quality,” he mentioned. But rising from Liverpool Street, with its spectacular, rippling, pinstriped ceiling, it’s arduous to argue along with his fundamental assertion: “This is a game changer.”

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