Transit boss Byford plays subway conductor for a day, hears gripes on hiring more cops

MTA Transit President Andy Byford took the helms of a southbound R train as a conductor Thursday morning as a sign of solidarity with his workforce, which has faced a recent spat of assaults in November. (AmNewYork / Vincent Barone)

MTA Transit President Andy Byford is pushing worker safety in his defense of the authority’s plans to hire 500 new police officers.

Byford took the helms as a conductor of a Brooklyn-bound R train Thursday morning in what he described as a show of solidarity with his workforce, which has faced a recent spate of assaults in November.

After making train announcements in a suit and safety goggles alongside an actual conductor, Byford said he empathized with conductors and the dangers they face on the job as a former staffer in the London Underground.

Byford’s ride-along came as the MTA awaits its transit workers’ vote on a new union contract.

“That was great for me,” Byford said, “because it just reminded me what a skilled job the conductors do…the reason I’m doing this today is because there has been this dreadful run of assaults on conductors. The fact that you are sticking your head out the window, which you obviously have to do to observe the platform, there is risk involved.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has directed the MTA to hire 500 new MTA police officers in order to improve worker safety; address quality of life issues, like homelessness and small crime; and deter fare evasion. But advocates and elected officials have called for the governor and MTA to cancel the hirings, citing fears of over-policing and racial profiling. They’ve argued the $249 million the authority has budgeted for MTA officers over the next four years could be better spent increasing service.

“I have no problem, by the way, having more cops in the subway. What I do have a problem with is if it comes at the expense of our transit services, at the expense of our trains, our buses,” said Bronx Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz at a Thursday morning rally in Manhattan against the hirings. “I don’t want to see this $249 million being taken away from services.”

Advocates and elected officials rallied against the hiring of new MTA police officers outside of Grand Central Terminal on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (AmNewYork / Vincent Barone)

Advocates at Riders Alliance argue that’s exactly what’s happening. The group released a report last week showing that the funds could instead bring a 15% increase in midday and weekend subway service. The MTA is expected to vote on whether to approve the police spending next week.

It’s new police “paid for out of transit funds that we do not need when our subways and buses are safe,” said Danny Pearlstein, spokesman for Riders Alliance.

Major crime has remained relatively flat over the past few years, according to police data. Crime, in general, has increased, according to a New York Post analysis.

Byford himself on Thursday noted that subway riders have statistically a “one-in-a-million” chance of being a victim of a serious crime in the subway system.

“The stats clearly show that the subway is safe. It’s remarkably safe,” Byford said.

“Having said that, we know there are challenges,” he continued. “There are quality of life issues on the subway. We’re working with the city and state agencies to address those. And what I would say is that there are far too many assaults on staff. Even one assault is one too many.”