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The infrastructure has barely been updated since 1904, delays have soared by 200 per cent since 2012, the rats are reaching bubonic levels, only one in five stations is wheelchair accessible and, after a spate of derailments, tunnel fires and breakdowns, New York's governor Andrew Cuomo has declared the system to be in a "state of emergency".
But Andy Byford, the former chief operating officer of Sydney's trains, reckons he's landed his dream gig.
"I'd certainly describe it as the toughest job in world transport right now," the new president of the New York City Transit said. "But I’ve always relished the big challenges."
Just a few months into the job of running New York's subway and bus system, Byford has spoken to the Herald, revealing the most important lessons he learnt in Sydney and which city he thinks has the right to complain more about public transport.
The convivial Brit, who catches the train to work every day and has never owned a car, has public transport in his blood. His father drove a London bus for 40 years and he met his wife (naturally) on a London train.
He worked for the London Underground for 14 years before joining what was then Railcorp in 2009, tasked with improving punctuality and customer service. He made decent progress on both fronts and forged a reputation as a hands-on boss, spending time at stations and depots and often writing letters to the editor to apologise for late trains.
For the last five years, he ran Toronto's bus and train system, which was named transit system of the year in 2017 by North America's main transport advocacy group.
Now, he'll have to fix a system seven times bigger and seemingly on the verge of meltdown.
Three days after his appointment, the New York Times ran a 15,000-word series detailing how decades of astonishing mismanagement and underfunding had left the system at breaking point.
The night before he spoke to the Herald, he attended a town hall meeting where two locals presented him with a mock trophy for the most terrible transit system in the world.
So which city really has it worse?
Passengers crowd the subway station on New York's Lexington Ave line, the most crowded subway line in the nation.
Photo: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times
"Most cities would give their right arm for a train system like New York's. And most cities would give their right arm and left arm for a bus system like ours," he said. "It is still a fabulous system, there is so much flexibility, it's a modern miracle that has stood the test of time."
Nevertheless, he says Sydneysiders are lucky to have a network that services vast suburban areas, from the inner city to the Illawarra and Central Coast, and has modern facilities.
Politics and battles for funding have been a constant in both jobs but working in Sydney prepared him for dealing with unions and management; in his first week at what was then Railcorp, he had to implement a station staff review that the Rail, Bus and Tram Union vehemently opposed.
Andy Byford, then chief operating officer of NSW Railcorp, with then Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian in 2011.
Photo: Marco Del GrandeThen, in 2011, several malfunctions across the network exploded into one of the worst days for Sydney trains, with delays of up to nine hours.
He fronted the public to apologise, part of what he describes his "signature policy" of spending time meeting every staff member and talking to commuters, like the day he rode the entire Toronto system in a wheelchair to understand accessibility.
If a workforce knows who you are and where you're coming from, change happens quickly, he said.
"Railcorp was very traditional and rigid in the way they went about things. Some of that had merits, you’ve got to have order and discipline," he said. "But, actually, most staff want to do a good job. I really saw that within Railcorp and in spite of relentless criticism and perception of that organisation by the city."
Andy Byford chats with subway workers on his first day as president of New York City Transit.
Photo: Hilary Swift/The New York TimesRunning a transit system can be a thankless job but, by the time he left Sydney in 2011 to take a job in his wife's home country, the head of the RBTU and the then Liberal Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian both spoke at his farewell.
Changing the culture of the MTA is his next big challenge and, in a comprehensive plan for fixing the subway released on Thursday, it is a key priority alongside rapidly modernising infrastructure, overhauling bus routes and aggressively increasing accessibility.
"The biggest challenge, which is not unique to here, I wouldn't say it's inertia but it's getting an organisation to turn," he said.
He's battling time, budgets, byzantine layers of bureaucracy and the notoriously debilitating rancour between New York's city and state governments. But, he added: "As Nathan Rees said, 'I’ll give it a red hot go'".
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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