Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sunday Long Read: Trains Of Thought

After success running transit authorities in London, Sydney and Toronto, Andy Byford has arrived in the toughest subway system on Earth:  New York City's public transit in the Trump Era.  Saving the subways will take nothing short of a miracle, but if there's anyone who can do it, it's this soft-spoken Brit who aims to get the NYCTA running on track again.

On a cold Tuesday morning in March, Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit Authority, was working the subway turnstiles—the gates, as he calls them—at the Chambers Street station, in Tribeca. Byford was seven weeks into the job, which had come with a seemingly impossible mission: to rebuild the city’s beleaguered public-transit system, after years of chaotic decline and stark dysfunction. He had vowed to visit every one of New York’s subway stations—there are four hundred and seventy-two—and to ride every bus route, in an effort that was part good-will tour, part reconnaissance mission.

“How was your trip?” he asked a commuter.

No reply. Waves of passengers rumbled past. He reminded himself to look for people who weren’t wearing earphones. Making eye contact was key.

“How was your trip?”

A young woman, not breaking stride, did a double take. “Uh, good,” she said.

Between customers, Byford straightened a pile of free newspapers. He had already introduced himself to the station agent, several platform cleaners, and the conductors on a couple of downtown trains. Each employee stared at the metal nametag pinned to his navy-blue suit. Yep, it was the president, the new guy. “Everything O.K.?” he asked. The employees seemed disarmed by his enthusiasm and his English accent. He shook hands and told people, “We’re one team.”

Byford was new to the city—new to the country—and was still perturbed by things that most locals accepted as inevitable. “That brown tiling,” he said, pointing at a rust-streaked wall. He took a photograph with his phone. Down on the platform, Byford regarded the track bed. It looked, as nature intended, like hell: filthy water, strewn garbage. “My customers shouldn’t have to look at that,” he said. “We’ve ordered three vacuum cars. They’ll suck up all of this.”

Byford, who is fifty-two, got his start in mass transit as a station foreman on the London Underground. The work ran in his family. His grandfather drove a bus for London Transport for forty years; his father worked there for twelve. Byford earned degrees in German and French, but after college he went to work for the Underground, learning car maintenance, operations, customer service, safety. He later worked on Britain’s main-line railways, and then ran mass transit in Sydney, Australia. His last stop before New York was Toronto, where, by nearly all accounts, he turned around a troubled transit system with spectacular results.

Toronto’s troubles, however, seem quaint compared with New York’s. With eight million passengers a day, the city has the largest public-transit system in North America, and, by every important metric—financial, operational, mechanical—it is in crisis. Some days, on a crosstown bus or a stalled train or a jam-packed platform, with your nose pressed into a stranger’s sweat-beaded neck and the appointed hour of your business lunch, your second date, your big job interview long past, it can feel like the system is in a death spiral. Train delays now occur roughly seventy thousand times a month, up from twenty-eight thousand in 2012. The system’s on-time rate, already among the nation’s worst, fell to fifty-eight per cent in January, down from ninety a decade ago. Bus ridership is in steep decline, caught in a negative-feedback loop with increasing car and truck traffic, slower buses, and less reliable service.

This is where Byford comes in. “New York is really lucky to have Andy,” Mike Brown, the transport commissioner of London, told me. “If anybody can take on the combination of the complex politics and the service challenge, it’s Andy Byford.” That’s not a small “if.” The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that hired Byford, is a huge and much maligned organization. The New York City Transit Authority—the M.T.A.’s largest division, with fifty thousand employees—handles subways, buses, and paratransit. Other divisions oversee commuter-rail services, tunnels, and bridges.

Physically, Byford is not imposing. He has the build of a distance runner, stands five-nine, shaves his head. If there were a contest for the palest man in the five boroughs, he would be a contender. He has blue eyes, a prominent nose, a sprightly step—he often takes stairs two at a time. A public-transportation purist, he has never owned a car. He and his wife, Alison, met while working for the Tube, and he proposed to her on a high-speed train. She’s a bank systems analyst, from Ottawa, and their vacations, he says, are nearly always “busman’s holidays—in every city, I have to check out the mass transit.” In our rambles together by subway and bus through the arteries and capillaries of what he calls, with a straight face, New York City’s “quite fabulous system,” I never saw him sit down. “The seats are for customers,” he says. More often than not, he’d start conducting customer-satisfaction surveys with randomly selected travellers, listening to their tales of riderly woe.

On the platform at Chambers Street, he studied a small group of workers, all in high-visibility orange vests, idling in a dim corner. “I wonder what they’re doing, or supposed to be doing,” he said. He decided against inquiring. “I’ve learned that it’s sometimes best not to just go steaming in.” But, when it comes to fixing the subways and buses, his approach will very much be to go steaming in. He wants to transform New York City’s mass transit—and had already committed himself to delivering a comprehensive plan within a hundred working days. “I don’t think they hired me to tweak things here and there,” he said. “This company needs a complete modernization.” 

America's penchant for kicking the can down the road when it comes to infrastructure is legendary.  It will take tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars to fix our roads, bridges, pipes, power lines, and mass transit in this country.

Oh, and Donald Trump personally hates the NYCTA and will do everything in his power to see the blue, non-Trump voting people of New York and New Jersey suffer without a dime of federal help more than Congress makes him give, and that's before Trump's policies start truly wrecking the economy that Obama left him.

Byford is, in short, completely doomed.  But he does have a plan, and it's pretty good, all things considered.

Good luck, man.

Second Verse, Same As The First

Donald Trump's "crowning diplomatic achievement" of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has now been revealed to be nothing more than an embarrassing sham as Pyongyang unceremoniously dumped Secretary of State Mike Pompeo off without actually meeting Kim.

North Korea accused the Trump administration on Saturday of pushing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” and called it “deeply regrettable,” hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his two days of talks in the North Korean capital were “productive.”

Despite the criticism, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, still wanted to build on the “friendly relationship and trust” forged with President Trump during their summit meeting in Singapore on June 12. The ministry said Mr. Kim had written a personal letter to Mr. Trump, reiterating that trust.

The two sides have a history of veering between harsh talk and conciliation. Mr. Trump briefly called off the Singapore summit meeting over what he called North Korea’s “open hostility,” only to declare it back on after receiving what he called a “very nice letter” from Mr. Kim.

On Saturday, Mr. Pompeo and his entourage offered no immediate evidence that they had come away with anything tangible to show that North Korea was willing to surrender its nuclear and missile weapons programs. He did not meet with Mr. Kim but held talks with Kim Yong-chol, a senior official who has been country’s point person in talks with the United States, South Korea and China.

“These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all of the central issues,” Mr. Pompeo said before boarding a plane for Tokyo. He called the meetings “productive.”

But the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s assessment was decidedly less upbeat.

“The attitude and demands from the U.S. side during the high-level talks were nothing short of deeply regrettable,” the ministry said, accusing American “working-level” officials of trying to destroy the agreement struck in Singapore.

Mr. Pompeo came to Pyongyang to try to get the North Koreans to match their vague commitment to denuclearization — signed by Kim Jong-un in the June meeting with President Trump — with some kind of action. Among the first priorities were a declaration of weapons sites, a timeline of deconstruction efforts and, perhaps, a written statement that the North’s definition of denuclearization matched Mr. Pompeo’s.

Asked if he had gotten any of those, Mr. Pompeo declined to divulge details.

Spoilers: Pompeo got exactly nothing, including no chance of a meeting with Kim himself.  After all, the North Koreans have already won this round, recognized by the most powerful country on Earth as a legitimate nuclear power.  Any further diplomacy on Pyongyang's stance will be bilateral deals, with Kim holding his brand-new nuclear cards.

Besides, Pompeo knows full well he has lost.

Privately, Mr. Pompeo has said that he doubts the North Korean leader will ever give up his nuclear weapons. And those doubts have been reinforced in recent days by intelligence showing that North Korea, far from dismantling its weapons facilities, has been expanding them and taking steps to conceal the efforts from the United States.

Mr. Trump has said his summit meeting with Mr. Kim was a success, and he has declared the North “no longer a nuclear threat.” Squaring Mr. Trump’s evaluation with what increasingly seems like a more troubling reality has become one of Mr. Pompeo’s greatest challenges as the United States’ chief diplomat.

It was Mr. Pompeo’s third trip to Pyongyang, but the first time he had spent the night. Even so, it appeared to have been his least productive visit.

There had been hopes that Mr. Pompeo would get the North to agree to release the remains of American war dead. But Mr. Pompeo said that another meeting had been set up for July 12 for further talks on repatriating the remains, a dialogue that will be led by the Defense Department.

No such talks will happen.  North Korea now knows it can bring the world to the table by rattling its nuclear saber and that it can get away with making increasingly bellicose demands.  I'm not sure how the world will deal with a nuclear North Korean going forward, but I do know that the Trump regime is the least prepared and most ill-equipped American administration possible in being able to deal with it.

Trump's failures with Pyongyang this year will go down as one of the greatest international blunders in history.  He's likely to only eclipse that dubious honor as his term grinds on.
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