London’s transport commissioner has unexpectedly in a massive blow to mayor Sadiq Khan.
Andy Byford, a popular, charismatic figure who had been at the helm of Transport for London for just over two years, will leave the crisis-hit organisation at the end of October, it was announced on Thursday morning.
He will return to the US with his Canadian-born wife, calling time on a 33-year career in the public sector that began as a graduate trainee on London Underground in 1989.
His decision to quit the £355,000-a-year post leaves Mr Khan searching for his third commissioner at a time TfL’s post-pandemic finances remain precarious, with one in four weekday passengers yet to return to the Tube.
Only on Wednesday, Mr Khan announced that City Hall would provide up to £500m of Londoners’ cash to help TfL to balance its books over the next 18 months.
Mr Byford led TfL through the “dark days” of the pandemic, which he described as the “toughest period in its history”.
He told the Standard he became “exhausted but never worn down” by the relentless battle to secure Government bailouts - there were five short-term deals and nine funding extensions as the Department for Transport stalled on awarding TfL a long-term solution to the “catastrophic” collapse in passenger numbers.
Mr Byford also became disheartened at the “brain drain” of key colleagues, and told the mayor publicly: “Almost every week I get told someone else is leaving for more money, less stress and more security of tenure.”
There was a row over his decision to start re-awarding bonuses in a bid to retain staff, should TfL break even by next March - though Mr Byford said he would refuse to take one himself.
TfL is also facing further Tube strikes over the axing of up to 600 station posts and the need to cut £100m from the cost of its staff pension scheme on Government orders. In addition, bus strikes have been called next month in a dispute over pay.
Mr Byford, known by insiders as Train Daddy, a nickname from his time as boss of the New York Subway, first told the mayor on May 31 of his plans to leave TfL.
In a two-page handwritten letter to Mr Khan, he thanked him for his “friendship, guidance and support” and said: “It truly has been an amazing two-and-a-half years and I shall always be grateful for the opportunity to finish my transport journey on such a high.”
Mr Byford had been hired by the mayor, from a field of more than 100 candidates, after leaving his post as president of New York City Transit after two years, after he fell out with the then New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
Mr Byford said he was leaving having achieved his objectives of getting the long-delayed £20bn Elizabeth line open and securing TfL’s long-term funding.
At the time of his arrival, Crossrail had been due to open in the summer of 2021. It eventually opened in May this year. When the first train set off on time, Mr Byford received a bear hug from the mayor.
Mr Byford also suggested, on taking the TfL job, that opening Crossrail and restoring TfL’s finances were only the first part of a “five-year vision”.
He said today: “When I came to TfL I set two clear priorities – to get the Elizabeth line open without further delay and to lead TfL out of the pandemic and into a financially sustainable future.
“The opening of the Elizabeth line was, without doubt, the highlight of my career – made truly poignant as it was one of the last major events attended by Her Majesty the Queen.
“With a longer-term financial settlement with Government now in place I can now leave with TfL set fair to move positively into the future.”
Mr Khan said: “Andy Byford deserves huge thanks for his hard work and dedication, leading Transport for London through an exceptional time in its history.
“From keeping the city moving during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the historic opening of the Elizabeth line this year, Andy has provided Londoners with an exceptional service.”
But there were concerns at City Hall. Siân Berry, chair of the London Assembly transport committee, said: “Despite suggestions that this was a planned departure, we are surprised and shocked at this announcement.
“Our main concern now, is that this unexpected change will not derail the recovery of London’s public transport network.”
Nick Rogers, GLA Conservatives transport spokesperson, claimed Mr Khan’s mayoralty was “in chaos”. He said: “Last month, evidence of his poor conduct towards the former Met Police commissioner came to light.
“Now he has lost his TfL commissioner, who was forced to spend two years navigating the Mayor’s needless political games over the TfL deal. His departure is the city’s loss.”
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union, said: “We are sorry to see Andy go. We may have not always seen eye to eye, but his commitment to public service and in particular, public transport in London, has been great.
“We really hope that Andy’s departure doesn’t signal further cuts to Transport for London as the Tories’ long-term funding deal has already left huge holes in its finances.”
Andy Lord, TfL’s deputy commissioner and a former head of the London Underground, will become interim commissioner. The search for a new commissioner will begin shortly.