Andy Byford, the man asked to take up the duties of TTC head Gary Webster, says he will be giving frank advice on the controversial transit file, even after witnessing first-hand the very public dismissal of his boss by his political masters.
Mr. Byford, who arrived in Canada fewer than four months ago, spent Tuesday afternoon with Mr. Webster. For close to three hours the two men, first and second in command at the transit system, waited in TTC chair Karen Stintz's office for the nine councillors on the commission to decide their fate.
When the call finally came, it was news that Mr. Webster was done, dismissed without cause, and that Mr. Byford would take over while a search for a new leader takes place. The vote was close, with five commissioners loyal to Mayor Rob Ford calling for his departure and four, including Ms. Stintz, opposing it.
"I felt for Gary yesterday. He was an inspiration to me," said Mr. Byford, in an interview Wednesday morning between meetings at city hall. "At the end of the day, I'm always grateful to Gary because he brought me to the TTC. We had a private moment yesterday. He wished me luck. He wants me to carry on driving the TTC, taking it to the next level, and I appreciate his words of support."
As job introductions go, Mr. Byford acknowledges his is a novel one. "It was quite a dramatic day," he said. "I've never seen anything like that," he said when asked about the crush of reporters and cameras that greeted Mr. Webster when he arrived at city hall for the snap meeting called by the mayor's allies to discuss his dismissal.
The 23-year transit veteran said he long ago realized public attention comes with the job. "At the end of the day, everyone's got a view on transit," said Mr. Byford, who has worked for the London Underground and most recently as a top executive at Sydney's regional commuter rail line. "You accept that is part of the job. You are in the public eye. It is a public job."
Mr. Byford pledged Wednesday to rise above the politics and focus on the day-to-day operations of the country's largest transit system. But when the time comes, he said he will have no difficulty weighing in on the debate over subways and light rail lines.
"Clearly, I am going to be asked about the subway versus streetcar debate and I will contribute to that," he said. "But I'll contribute to that as a civil servant. I'll give my honest and frank opinion."
The decision to sack Mr. Webster comes just two weeks after he expressed his opinion. During a special council debate on the future of transit, Mr. Webster outlined the virtues of light rail lines over subways. The latter option is favoured by Mayor Ford.
Mr. Webster's dismissal has caused some critics of the mayor to question how any senior staff member can give honest advice without fear of a similar fate.
Mr. Byford, fresh from a morning get-to-know-you meeting with the mayor, said he does not share that concern. "I am confident I can give my advice," he said. "It will be objective and factually based. That is what I am here to do."