During the first MTA Board meeting of the post-Andy Byford Era, Sally Librera, the senior vice president of subways, shared some positive news about subway speeds. As the chart shows, subway run times have decreased, year-over-year, on every subway line, and in turn, train speeds are getting faster.
“Peak run times on nearly every line are continuing to improve,” Librera told the Board’s Transit Committee. “Every single line in the system got faster, which is an incredibly encouraging result.” Librera credited a number of initiatives, including the CBTC-based bump in 7 train performance, but in focusing on the A Division — the numbered lines — which showed the most improvement, she praised Transit’s SPEED Unit. These improvements, she noted, “track with the number of civil speed changes.”
In a way, the SPEED Unit was Andy Byford’s crowning achievement and, according to most reports and my own sources, the straw that broke the governor’s back, and the chart Librera presented to a Byford-less room on Monday was a testament to what was and what could have been. Andy Byford arrived in New York amidst a crisis; he listened to a lot of people ask a lot of smart questions concerning slow trains that had gotten slower in recent years, faulty signal timers that were miscalibrated and speed restrictions that were unnecessary. He established a team that carefully and systematically studied signals throughout the subway system and fixed them so that trains could run faster and operators could have faith that they wouldn’t trip a red by going the posted speed. He worked with the union to reduce the onerous penalties train operators would incur by tripping those fault signals, and he produced a subway system that is saving millions of New Yorkers hours per year in unnecessarily slow trips.
What did this effort earn him? Scorn from Albany and a one-way ticket out of the job atop Transit. The signals effort wasn’t the only point of conflict between Gov. Cuomo and his hand-picked Transit president, but as I explored last month in the aftermath of Byford’s departure, it was front and center amidst the conflict. As Byford’s SPEED Unit picked up steam, Cuomo wanted something more — faster returns or more credit.
While Byford was focused on doing the job slowly and carefully while maintaining safety, Cuomo wanting everything faster, faster, faster. It was the same approach he took to completing the Second Ave. Subway, a decision that cost the MTA millions and arguably led to the 2017 declines in subway performance. The governor commissioned his own signals report, which was released at around 5 p.m. on New Years Eve and became a political football in the dispute between the two men. Byford claimed it reinforced the Save Safe Seconds campaign while Cuomo and his allies pushed for a more aggressive approach to speeding up trains, improving dispatching practices and reducing dwell times. It wasn’t quite a bombshell, but it exacerbated already-high tensions between Byford and Cuomo.
As the MTA’s transformation plan picked up steam, Byford and his team were essentially sidelined from the signals process, and that was one area where Byford felt he was in the right and knew he was making the right difference. The governor knew that too as Byford had routinely communicated he desire to remain in charge of signals to the Chamber, but when push came to shove, this was not arrangement Albany wanted to support.
Will Sally Librera’s slide — one last victory lap for the beloved Train Daddy — be the MTA’s high-water mark on improving speeds and fixing fault signals? I hope not, but as with much within the MTA these days, we can’t be sure. In the week since Byford has left, the conversation has shifted from fixing things to eliminating things, a move Cuomo apparently had hoped Byford would implement two years ago. But when Byford dug into the bones of the MTA, he found a staff that needed guidance rather than elimination.
Now, though, jobs are on the line, as you can see from this letter Chief Transformation Officer Anthony McCord (the not-a-hatchet-man hatchet man) sent out late on Thursday afternoon. The MTA will soon be radically overhauled, but in a way that doesn’t make sense or attack the agency’s root causes. While some back-office rationalization is necessary, morale within the agency is at a low as workers fear for their jobs, and a bunch of hand-picked Cuomo appointees have come to cut an agency that needs anything but cuts these days. We’ve turned a swift corner, and I don’t like where things are heading. But for now, we’ll have those faster trains, a testament to what can happen when someone with a true vision, dedication and belief in his job is allowed to make positive change. Better things are possible.