Andy Byford, New York’s ‘Train Daddy,’ Takes a Last Official Ride

It looked more like a reception for royalty than a farewell party for a bureaucrat.

Throngs of clambering fans fought to take selfies and screamed words of praise. Bagpipers serenaded the crowd. And a modest man in a sharp suit floated through a sea of fans.

This was the scene on Friday, as Andy Byford, New York City’s departing subway chief, left his office for the last time.

Mr. Byford announced his resignation four weeks ago, dismaying many workers, and riders, and ending a two-year tenure marked by repeated conflicts with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the subway and recruited Mr. Byford to New York.

“Is there any work being done at New York City Transit at the moment?” Mr. Byford said to the hundreds of workers who had filled the lobby at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway. He then listed the goals he had set during his 766 days in the job.

“I think we’ve done pretty well actually, what do you think?” he said.

The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

It was a strange scene: an outpouring of affection rarely bestowed on any government official in New York, much less one at an agency often disparaged by subway riders and even transit workers.

Mr. Byford had started the day in typical fashion, by doing the rounds at various subway stations.

Popping into the 23rd Street Station in Manhattan on the F line, he met with Germaine Jackson, one of the 22 so-called group station managers who are responsible for ensuring that stations are clean and that MetroCard machines and escalators are working.

Mr. Byford created the positions in 2018, and he had visited almost every manager since then. Ms. Jackson was the last on the list.

“He’s known for putting his people first,” she said. “We’re all very sad to see him go.”

Mr. Byford said in an interview on Friday that when he took the job, he had hoped to lead New York City Transit, the division that oversees the subway and buses, for five or even 10 years.

He inherited a system in crisis, crippled by constant delays that left riders feeling that they could not rely on the subway to get them where they needed to be on time. Things had grown so dismal that Mr. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and committed over $800 million to improvements.

Mr. Byford focused on basics like signal upgrades and train maintenance to help reverse the system’s steep decline. When he arrived in New York, only 58 percent of trains ran on time. Today, the rate is better than 80 percent.

Still, despite Mr. Byford’s accomplishments, the subway remains far from the kind of modern system vital to New York’s future. And Mr. Byford, despite winning over riders and workers, was unable to win over the man who hired him.

He and Mr. Cuomo never seemed to agree. They clashed over the high cost of Mr. Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan for overhauling the archaic system, which technology was best for upgrading signals and how to repair the L train, a key link between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Behind the disputes was a competition between two commanding personalities to fill the same role: the person New Yorkers would credit with fixing the subway.

On an F train on Friday, many New Yorkers made their choice known.

“Thank you!” some shouted to Mr. Byford. “We’ll miss you!” others yelled.

“You did the best job, and I’m a second generation New Yorker,” said Matt Rosenberg, 51, approaching Mr. Byford to shake his hand. “I still remember the tokens.”

As he left the Delancey Street Station in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Rosenberg expressed a worry shared by many who believe that Mr. Byford’s leadership had turned the system around.

“I don’t think service will degrade immediately,” he said, “but long term, I’m concerned about how the governor will keep what he’s done moving forward.”

Mr. Byford said the authority faces a major challenge in carrying out its ambitious $54 billion capital plan, the largest such initiative in the agency’s history. The authority must still raise all the money it needs to finance the plan.

He also said that focusing on basics and keeping morale high among workers would be crucial to continue improving the subway.

“Maintaining the upward trajectory that we are now on, we cannot regress, we cannot slip backwards,” he said.

Although Mr. Byford said he was uncertain about what he might do next — several would-be employers have contacted to him, he said — he plans to stay in New York.

On Friday, he devoted much of his time to transit workers, some of whom have expressed concern that his departure will take a heavy toll on morale at the agency.

He chatted with tollbooth clerks. He shared fist bumps with cleaners. He congratulated a worker at the Delancey Street signals tower who had worked for the agency for 34 years.

Mr. Byford, whose fans gave him the affectionate nickname “Train Daddy,” marveled at the man’s decades old switchboard and mused about putting it in his apartment one day.

“My wife would kill me,” he said. “She already says our apartment is turning into the transit museum.”

Taking one of his last glimpses behind the curtain and into the labyrinthine subway underworld, his attitude was equal parts transit nerd and charming riders’ ally.

“I’m proud to have run New York City Transit; it’s the pinnacle of any transit professionals career,” he said, before walking through layers of dust in an abandoned concourse beneath the East Broadway Station in Manhattan. “It was my life’s ambition.”