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In London, a Long-Awaited High-Speed Train Is Ready to Roll

LONDON — When Andy Byford ran New York Metropolis’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 well-known, unfailingly cheerful presence on its often-restive platforms. Straphangers even took to calling him “Prepare Daddy.”

No person calls Mr. Byford Prepare Daddy in London, the place he resurfaced in Might 2020 because the commissioner of town’s transit authority, Transport for London. However on Might 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 may discover himself once more worthy of a cheeky nickname.

“That was enjoyable in New York,” mentioned Mr. Byford, 56, a gregarious public transport evangelist who grew up in Plymouth, England, started his profession as a tube-station supervisor in London, and has additionally run transit methods in Toronto and Sydney, Australia. “However I’m actually having fun with virtually full anonymity in London.”

The Elizabeth line has been underneath 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, underneath the identify 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 hearth doorways, are portals to an unseen world. Mr. Byford described them as one thing out of the movie “2001: A Area Odyssey,” however “with out HAL, the evil pc,” he mentioned.

Mr. Byford didn’t single-handedly flip across the venture. A lot 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). However Mr. Byford secured an extra $1 billion from the federal government in late 2020 to forestall building from being halted, and he has been operating the trains for months with out passengers to make sure a glitch-free debut.

Exhibiting reporters round final week, Mr. Byford and Mr. Wild burst with delight in regards to 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 Avenue station, Mr. Wild mentioned, “That’s a £19 billion trip you simply skilled.”

The Elizabeth line does have, within the phrases of Tony Travers, an urban-affairs skilled on the London College of Economics, a “wow issue.” 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 setting. Staff digging the Liverpool Avenue station got here throughout skeletons in a mass grave that dated to 1569. A workforce of 100 archaeologists exhumed the stays of three,300 folks from the location within the New Churchyard of Bethlam, and reinterred them in an island within the Thames estuary.

“It is going to be seen as a serious engineering achievement,” Mr. Travers predicted. “It’s far more formidable than New York’s Second Avenue subway or the extension of the No. 7 line, that are tiny initiatives by comparability.”

Evaluating London’s transit system with New York’s is inevitable, given Mr. Byford’s job historical past. He speaks diplomatically in regards to the distinction, chalking a lot of it as much as the bureaucratic construction 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 totally 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 initiatives, Mr. Johnson takes credit score for securing the venture’s early financing, which got here from the European Funding Financial institution.

In New York, Mr. Byford needed to take care of a strong-willed, hands-on governor, however with out the assistance of the mayor on the time, Invoice de Blasio, who had little say over the subway system. In London, Mr. Travers mentioned, Mr. Byford has been in a position to place himself as a sort of trustworthy dealer between Mr. Khan and the nationwide authorities at any time when variations have flared.

Past personalities, there are merely extra monetary hurdles in New York to a venture as gargantuan because the Elizabeth line. After Mr. Cuomo resigned final 12 months, his successor, Gov. Kathy Hochul, put a proposed $2.1 billion AirTrain venture 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 be capable to journey from Heathrow to the banks at Canary Wharf in East London in 40 minutes; that may be a prime promoting level for a metropolis determined to carry on to its standing as monetary mecca after Brexit. All informed, the road has 10 solely new stations, 42 miles of tunnels and crosses underneath the Thames 3 times.

“We’re jealous, it’s truthful to say,” mentioned Danny Pearlstein, the coverage director for Riders Alliance, a transportation advocacy group in New York. “Imagining a brand new, full-length underground line right here isn’t one thing anybody is doing. The Second Avenue subway, which individuals have been speaking about for 100 years, has three stations.”

To be truthful, Transport for London isn’t with out its issues. It has shelved plans to construct a north-south counterpart to the Elizabeth line, to not point out an extension to the Bakerloo tube line, due to a scarcity of funding. Nonetheless reeling from a near-total lack of riders throughout pandemic lockdowns, the system faces most of the identical monetary woes as New York’s subway.

Although ridership has recovered from a nadir of 5 %, it’s nonetheless at solely 70 % of prepandemic ranges. Transport for London can be closely depending on ticket fares to cowl its prices, extra so than the New York subway, which will get state subsidies, in addition to funds from bridge and tunnel tolls.

“My different obsession is finding out the funds,” Mr. Byford mentioned. “A technique is to wean us away from dependence on fares.”

He’s considerably imprecise about how to do this, and it’s clear that Transport for London will rely on extra authorities handouts to get again on sound monetary footing. That’s the reason the opening of the Elizabeth line is so essential to London: It makes a strong case for public transportation at a time when individuals are questioning what number of employees will ever return to their workplaces.

Mr. Byford lays out the case with the practiced cadence of a stump speech. The brand new line will improve the capability of the system by 10 %. Its spacious coaches are effectively suited to world by which individuals are used to social distancing. It can revitalize economically blighted cities east of town, whereas making central London accessible to individuals who dwell in far-flung cities to the east and west.

Whereas Mr. Byford doesn’t anticipate ridership ever to return fully, he thinks 90 % is attainable. If workplace buildings stay underpopulated, London might develop like Paris, with extra residential neighborhoods downtown. (The Elizabeth line bears a definite resemblance to the high-speed RER system in Paris.) The road, he says, is an insurance coverage coverage towards the “siren voices of doom” about Brexit.

At occasions, Mr. Byford slips perilously near an actual property agent’s patter. “These super-high-tech stations merely ooze high quality,” he mentioned. However rising from Liverpool Avenue, with its spectacular, rippling, pinstriped ceiling, it’s laborious to argue along with his fundamental assertion: “This can be a sport changer.”

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