Q&A: Andy Byford, the TTC’s top executive, staunchest defender and chief apology specialist

Q&A: Andy Byford, the TTC’s top executive, staunchest defender and chief apology specialist

(Image: Kayla Rocca)

Most Toronto transit riders have experienced at least one moment of hopelessness about the state of the TTC—but Andy Byford hasn’t. The TTC CEO, a British-born alumnus of both London and Sydney’s transit networks, has stared down seemingly endless setbacks: service cuts, political grandstanding, the massively delayed Spadina subway extension and the ever-present mysterious smoke at track level. And yet, he’s surprisingly optimistic. Between the TTC’s infamous subway shutdown in early June and its next major acid test—July’s Pan Am Games—we sat down with Byford to discuss three essentials for contending with transit struggles: apologies, bourbon and curse words.

I feel like, for every generation in every city, there’s a specific struggle that unites them. What would you say if I suggested Toronto’s was transit?
I’d agree. In many ways, that’s what makes this an especially interesting job for me to be doing right now. Transit is at the forefront of what everyone’s talking about: it was the hot topic in the municipal and provincial elections. And I suspect it’ll be a factor in the federal election. There’s a recognition that the TTC, which was once an absolute jewel in the province’s crown, has lost its way through lack of investment and, I’d say, political influence over the last 30 years. Congestion is ever worse, and there seems to be a lot of talk about transit expansion and not a lot of action.

Let’s flash back to the system-wide subway shutdown earlier this month. What was the first thing that ran through your mind—as a human being, not a CEO?
Transit control phoned me at around 6:20 a.m. Initially, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The controller said, “Andy, you’re not going to like this: We’ve lost train radio and we’re about to suspend the whole subway.” My background is in operations, so I understand that transit control had no choice. As someone said, it’s like trying to land planes at Pearson without radio. My heart sank because I knew this would cause such disruption for our customers, and I hate that. What made the situation even more alarming was that even the TTC email wasn’t working.

At the very least, I think something that people respect about you is that you’re willing to fall on your sword, so to speak.
It bugs me when people say, “He’s always apologizing.” Actually, if you look back, there’s only been three occasions in three-and-a-half years where I’ve formally apologized for something. I’m a stickler for the fact that if it’s not the TTC’s fault, we’re not going to apologize. I felt like when I got here, there was a mea culpa regime, and we were apologizing for everything. But what we absolutely owe our customers is an explanation. You can’t not give an explanation when you’ve buggered about 200,000 people.

Commenting on the shutdown, the mayor said, “These things are happening more often than they should in a sophisticated transit system in a big city.” Are you ever just like, “Okay, thanks John, but what’s the deal with SmartTrack?” There’s a lot of criticism being volleyed at you from city hall.
I take it with a dose of salt. It would be perverse if the mayor didn’t have a view of the disruption. He gets that we’re playing catch-up here, that we have streetcars that are 30 years old and held together with duct tape, and that we have a blacksmith at Hillcrest to make our own parts. The SRT is run by the most archaic 1984 Dell Computer. Our staff are miracle workers for keeping this thing going on the lowest operational subsidy in North America.

So what’s the good news?
The shutdown was infuriating for me because, the previous month, we introduced a new timetable on the subway. I’ve brought in a fresh pair of eyes to sort out the basics, and the subway has actually been running way better. The passenger alarms used to absolutely plague the TTC—I’ve never worked anywhere where there were so many activated passenger alarms. So we changed the nomenclature to “emergency alarm.” And the numbers have dropped right off. Don’t press it if you’ve missed your stop! If you’re feeling ill, the best thing you can do is to get off and get fresh air, right? So we’re working really hard to get the basics right.

For me, that four-line shutdown was a PR disaster, because people tend only to remember their last bad experience. What encourages me is that, going home that night on the subway, I had people coming up to me saying, “Andy, don’t give up. It’s getting better.”

You seem inexhaustibly optimistic—where does that come from?
A very, very thick skin. And I totally believe in TTC staff. In 14,000 people you’ll always get a few rotten apples, but most are good as gold. Even though I have dark moments when I sit here in this office—I do—with my head in my hands, after someone says, “This has just happened,” or, “Someone’s been photographed doing this,” you can’t let that show. You just get up and go at it again.

What about your personal life?
I have a very strong marriage. My wife is my best friend and my rock, and she keeps me sane. She gave me one very good piece of advice, which I occasionally ignore, but every time I do, I regret it. She said, “Whatever you do, don’t read the comments.”

Speaking of: let’s talk Pan-Am. People are worried.
I’m quietly confident. We cannot completely guarantee that nothing will happen, but years of planning have gone into this. We’ve got extensive contingency plans, and we’ve recruited volunteers—1,600 of us in our own time, the much-maligned TTC staff, will be out there helping customers. My dream is that, at the end of the games—and this is kind of naïve—I’d love it if the media would say, “Best Pan Am Games ever: TTC deserves gold medal.” If we do a good job, it’ll be: “Well you should have done that anyway.”

When was the last time you took an “Andy Day”—just tossed your phone into a drawer and said “I’m taking 24 hours. Seriously, though, nobody talk to me.”
To be honest, I don’t remember. I take my Blackberry with me when I go away. I’m not a control freak, and I’ve got a very capable deputy in Chris Upfold, but I even carry a pager, because it works underground. It’s the operator in me. I’m obsessed with the minutiae of what’s happening.

Hey, you’re turning 50 this year, right?
Yes, I am. The big half-century. I spent my 40th birthday on a 747 on my way to China. This year, I intend to go on a road trip with my brothers-in-law and my wife. We’re going to Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve had a lifelong ambition to visit every US state. I also love bourbon, so you know how people do whiskey trails in Scotland? I’m going around the bourbon trails. And the Smoky Mountains.

Are you going to turn off your Blackberry?
It will come with me. It goes without saying that if I’ve had a drink, I do not make phone calls. Having been the group station manager at King’s Cross eight years after the fire, I’m obsessed with safety management.

Last TTC-related question: what’s your favourite curse word?
Probably shit. Like, “We’re in the shit here.” That’s the English in me.