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Meet the Brit in charge of fixing NYC’s subway

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Media captionNew York commuters tell Andy Byford how to fix the subway

He made a name for himself running transport systems in London, Sydney and Toronto. Now Briton Andy Byford is in charge of turning around New York's aging, failing subway system. What did he get himself into?

About 400,000 people pass through the Bloor-Yonge subway station every day in Toronto, Canada's largest city.

And on a summer's day in 2013, the city's transport chief Andy Byford tried to apologise to every one of them.

Earlier in the day, water damage had caused a signal failure, delaying trains from rush hour that morning until early afternoon.

Walking up and down the platform, Byford tried to apologise in person to harried commuters while a recording of him formally apologising played on a loop on the station's loudspeaker.

"Sorry about this morning," Byford said in his clipped British accent to anyone willing to engage.

"Ultimately, I am responsible and I apologise without reservation."

Image caption Byford started his career as a uniformed station foreman for London Underground

Five years later, Byford is bringing this penchant for apologies to New York where he has taken on the top job at the New York City Transit Authority.

He issued his first mea culpa after just a month on the job, when signal problems caused a five-hour delay on six lines in Queens.

"Days like this morning drive me crazy," he told reporters.

The next day, when the cameras were off, he made the trek to Queens to meet some of the commuters personally affected by the delays.

"To be honest, I expected to get a lot of flak but people were very appreciative that I was there," he says, from his corner office at NYC Transit headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Around his desk are memorabilia from his previous jobs in Toronto, Sydney and London.

At first glance, Byford may seem like an odd choice for the leader of the largest subway system (by number of stations) in the world.

New Yorkers are not known for their patience or their tact, and his quiet earnestness can come across as naiveté.

Image caption Byford's office is decked out in memorabilia from the many places he's worked over the years

But within five minutes of talking to him about his favourite subject, public transport, you soon realise that beneath the buttoned-up exterior is the soul of a zealot.

Perhaps this job was his destiny. His grandfather drove a bus for London Transport for 40 years, and his father also worked there before moving to Plymouth, where Byford was raised.

He studied German and French at the University of Leicester, but made a beeline for the London Underground at a jobs fair.

Starting his career as a uniformed station foreman, he climbed the ranks to become general manager for Kings Cross Tube Station. From there, he worked in transport around the UK before heading to Sydney, Australia in 2009, where he was the chief operating officer for RailCorp, which at the time ran the city's commuter rails.

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In 2012, he moved to his wife's home country of Canada (they met, naturally, on the London Tube) where he was appointed the head of the Toronto Transit Commission.

Three months ago, he announced he was leaving Toronto for the Big Apple.

Now on the subway each morning (he has never owned a car), Byford takes in the labyrinthian network of tunnels that connect the subway to Grand Central Station with the wide-eyed wonder of a pilgrim arriving at Mecca.

"Sometimes I could pinch myself because the system is so iconic," he says.

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Image caption Delays have increased while ridership is down on New York's "iconic" subway

This enthusiasm will be put to the test, however, as Byford is facing one of New York City Transit's darkest hours.

Last June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency after a series of paralysing delays and a train derailment injured dozens. The signalling system – the technology that tells subway cars to move from one station to another – has not been updated since the 1930s.

Overcrowding, aging equipment and signal failures mean the average number of hours lost due to delays increased by 45% in just five years.

Cuomo has pledged $1bn towards improvements but experts say the city needs billions more.

Meanwhile, competitors like Uber and other ride-sharing services have chipped away at average ridership for two years in a row.

Howard Roberts, who held the job of NYC Transit chief from 2007 to 2009, says the system has long been held hostage by the whims of politicians.

"Incompetent politicians are a big problem for anybody that's trying to run the Transit Authority," he says.

Public transport is currently in the crosshairs in the power struggle between NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo.

The two have been butting heads for years and the rapid deterioration of the subway has given them ample opportunities to spar in the press.

The mayor wants to have more input into how state money should be spent in his city and more funding in general. The governor, perhaps not surprisingly, disagrees.

Byford will find himself sitting in many meetings where board members are split by allegiances to the city or state, and one of his greatest challenges as a public servant will be to stay out of it.

Being in the middle of a political dogfight is a situation he is all too familiar with. When he took on the job in Toronto in 2012, his predecessor had just been fired by then-mayor Rob Ford for opposing the mayor's proposal for a subway extension in the neighbourhood of Scarborough, on the outskirts of the city.

When Byford submitted a briefing note in favour of the subway to Ford's successor, it rankled many who instead favoured light rail. Just weeks before his last day in Toronto, he got into a heated showdown with a city councillor who accused him of kowtowing to political pressure.

Byford describes that debacle as a "hard lesson" and vows he will "do the right thing, say the right thing, stand my ground and not allow myself to be politically influenced" in New York.

"I have tried to do that (in Toronto) but you can do something in good faith and it can rebound on you," he says.

Toronto also provided a testing ground for some of the challenges he will face in New York, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Image caption A map of some of Byford's plans for reorganising New York City Transit Authority

Like in New York, a mid-century signalling system also meant frequent delays. Employees were demoralised from frequent leadership changes and bureaucratic red tape. Ridership had grown by about 20% over a decade, yet the operating budget had remained basically the same.

Under Byford's watch delays had been cut by almost 20%, while customer satisfaction increased. More night buses were added, and a long-overdue new signalling system was installed.

Toronto won the American Public Transportation Association award for "most outstanding public transit system of the year" among large metropolitan areas in North America.

The news was not met with universal enthusiasm because there was still plenty travellers complained about – the new automatic fare system, Presto Card, was frequently out of service and less than half of the new streetcars had been delivered.

"I mean, there are awards I could see giving the TTC. As a kid, I won a hockey award for "most improved player" on my team that I (and all my teammates, I think) understood to mean I was not very good at the sport at all, but was obviously putting in a lot of effort and practice to get less bad at it. Something like that," quipped Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan.

But criticism is just part of the job, says Byford, with a shrug of his shoulders. "We knew there would be some scoffing, which there was."

Although he agrees the system is "far from perfect", Byford believes his time in Toronto will prepare him for the hard job ahead in New York, where he is in charge of about 50,000 workers, many of them unionised, and the daily commute of 5.6 million people.

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Image caption Byford met his wife on the Tube, where he also once worked

Some of his first priorities, he says, will be to fix the bus service, which he says is sorely neglected. That's welcome news to Jaqi Cohen, who works for a commuter-advocacy group called the Straphangers Campaign.

"We were very happy to see him call attention not just to subway service, which is in dire need of repair and modernisation, but to these other sometimes lesser-prioritised transit concerns," she says.

Another idea was less well received. Byford has suggested ending 24/7 service on some lines during certain hours to help speed repairs. It has caused quite a stir in the city that never sleeps.

"I think New York is a 24-hour city," Cohen says. "I don't think riders will like that."

Along with the scale and scope of NYC transport, he faces an archaic bureaucratic culture which he intends to reform. One of the organisation's oldest quirks is that everybody – from the janitor to senior management – is expected to clock in.

After coming and going freely for a few weeks, he realised that his secretary was discreetly keeping track of his hours.

"It's ridiculous, I'm the president of the company," he says. "I said, 'Don't bother doing that, I've more than worked my hours'."

His grandest schemes for reorganising the company are hidden away in his "war room" – a spare office turned into a three-dimensional flow chart, with four walls covered in white boards so that Byford can sketch out his ideas.

At its centre is the word "customer" encircled by the directives "plan, focus, do, review".

This mantra, he says, will help reorganise the ranks of the transport authority around customer service, although he is keeping mum for now on his ultimate designs.

It's those customers – the millions of harried New Yorkers who rely on public transit – who will decide if Byford is up to the job.

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Leslie Cheung: Asia’s gay icon lives on 15 years after his death

Image copyright REX/Shutterstock
Image caption Leslie Cheung was one of the most popular male singers and actors of the mid-1980s

For the past 15 years fans of tormented superstar Leslie Cheung, one of the first celebrities to come out as gay in Asia, have gathered at Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel to mourn the day he took his own life.

It's a poignant sign of why the daring and troubled star is still important today.

One of Hong Kong's most popular male singers and actors of the mid-1980s, Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing was not afraid of provoking controversy with his overt sexuality and provocative performances during a more socially conservative era.

And 15 years after his death, Cheung is still attracting new fans, including teenagers and millennials.

Lam, a 15-year-old who attended 1 April's vigil, was only a few months old when Cheung died. She told BBC Chinese she had "discovered him on YouTube".

"He was charismatic; especially when he went androgynous…it's gorgeous," she said.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Wu travelled from Hunan province on mainland China with his boyfriend to mourn the icon.

Wu told BBC Chinese he drew strength from Cheung's "spirit of being true to oneself".

"He showed the [Chinese-speaking] world that gay people can be positive, bright and worthy of respect."

Image copyright BBC Chinese
Image caption Cinematographer Christopher Doyle says Leslie was "not only a great singer or actor, but a rarely-seen true star"

Born in 1962, Leslie Cheung was one of Hong Kong's most famous stars during the golden era of Cantopop in the 1980s.

He was dashing, stylish and fitted the public idea of a perfect heterosexual male lover. But in reality, he was in a long-term relationship with his childhood friend, Daffy Tong.

It was not an easy time to be gay. At that time, homosexuality was still viewed by many as an illness and abnormality in Hong Kong, especially after the emergence of the first local case of Aids in 1984. It was not until 1991 that adult gay sex was decriminalised in the territory.

"The LGBT movement in Hong Kong took off in the 1990s, when the community finally became visible to the public," Travis Kong, an associate professor of sociology researching gay culture at The University of Hong Kong, told BBC Chinese.

And it was at this point that Cheung became more daring in his work.

Image copyright Tomson (HK) Films Co., Ltd.
Image caption Cheung as an androgynous Peking Opera star in Farewell My Concubine

He first came to international attention with his portrayal of Cheng Dieyi, the androgynous Peking Opera star, for the film Farewell My Concubine, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1993.

He went on to star in Happy Together directed by Wong Kar Wai – a gay cinema classic about a couple who struggle to find a peaceful co-existence.

"Happy Together is different. It is a stereotypical heterosexual romance, but played by two men," said Kit Hung, a Hong Kong director.

Meanwhile, Christopher Doyle, the renowned cinematographer who worked with Cheung on various Wong Kar Wai films, told BBC Chinese: "He was so beautiful. We both wanted to convey through my lens the most beautiful, sincerest side of him.

"He enters our imagination audaciously… always showing us better possibilities."

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Image caption Leslie Cheung is remembered both for his films and music performances – and even has his own waxwork at Madame Tussauds

On stage, Cheung unleashed a sexually fluid charm. His defining queer performance came in a 1997 concert where he danced intimately with a male dancer to his song Red. He wore a black suit with a pair of sparkling crimson high-heels.

At that concert he dedicated a classic love song to the two "loves of his life", his mother and his partner Daffy Tong. This is seen as the moment he came out of the closet. Cheung did not proclaim his sexuality as such, but confessed his love for a man.

"In the 1990s, at times a gay man was still called 'Aids man' and 'pervert'," says Mr Kong. "In a society so oppressive to the LGBT community, the coming out of such a renowned superstar had a huge effect on the general public."

Despite his success across Asia, there were many who did not appreciate this side of Cheung.

At the 1998 Hong Kong Film Awards, Happy Together was mocked by comedians, who described it as a film that would make the audience vomit. A music video he directed, featuring him topless with a male ballet dancer, was also censored by major local TV channel TVB.

Image copyright PAN LEI
Image caption Cheung's versatile images on stage ignited controversies

In 2000 Leslie became the first Asian star to wear a tailor-made costume by French fashion master Jean-Paul Gaultier in a concert. With waist-length hair, clearly visible stubble and a muscular build, Cheung also wore tight transparent trousers and a short skirt.

He ended the concert with his self-revealing ballad I. "The theme of my performance is this: The most important thing in life, apart from love, is to appreciate your own self," he explained.

"I won't hide, I will live my life the way I like under the bright light" he sang. "I am what I am, firelight of a different colour."

But he was dismissed as a "transvestite", "perverted" or "haunted by a female ghost" in local media. He would dismiss that criticism as superficial and short-sighted.

He remains such an iconic figure in Hong Kong's awakening to LGBT issues that the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is even the first stop of a walking tour on the city's LGBT history.

Image copyright BBC Chinese
Image caption Crowds at Mandarin Oriental on the 15th anniversary of Cheung's death
Image copyright BBC Chinese
Image caption Fans recreated Cheung's signature crimson high heels in Roses

It was from here that he jumped to his death on 1 April 2003 after a long struggle with depression. It was a shocking moment for the city, and a devastating moment for fans.

Tens of thousands turned out to bid him farewell and at the funeral, his partner Daffy Tong assumed the role traditionally preserved for the surviving spouse, a profound, public recognition of their relationship.

Never legally married, Mr Tong's was the first name listed on the family's announcement of Cheung's death, credited "Love of His Life".

Same-sex marriage or civil unions are still not legal in Hong Kong, but in the city's collective memory, Cheung and Tong are fondly remembered as an iconic, loving couple.

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Image caption Daffy Tong beside a waxwork of Leslie Cheung at Madame Tussauds in Hong Kong

Hong Kong still lacks anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT communities but queer identity and sexual fluidity are no longer so taboo and are part of the social landscape.

Last year a museum in Hong Kong held an exhibition "Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture". The first exhibit visitors encountered upon entering the venue was a pair of sparkling crimson high-heels – the pair Cheung wore performing Red in 1997.

"The highest achievement for a performer is to embody both genders at the same time," Cheung once proclaimed: "For art itself is genderless."

If you are feeling emotionally distressed and would like details of organisations which offer advice and support, click here. In the UK you can call for free, at any time, to hear recorded information on 0800 066 066. In Hong Kong you can get help here.

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American Patrick Reed wins his first major title with a one-shot win at the Masters, ahead of compatriot Rickie Fowler, with Rory McIlroy falling to joint fifth.

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Meet the ‘fearless’ drag queens of Beirut

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N Korea-US talks: Pyongyang ‘ready to discuss denuclearisation’

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Image caption Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are due to meet in May, though North Korea has not publically confirmed this

North Korea has promised the US it is ready to discuss the future of its nuclear arsenal when the two nations' leaders meet, US officials say.

Preparations for the summit have included secret, direct talks with North Korea, Trump administration sources told CNN.

US and North Korean intelligence officials are said to have spoken many times, and met in a third country.

The unprecedented summit is slated to happen in May.

It will be the first time a sitting US president has met the leader of North Korea.

North Korea has already told South Korea it was prepared to address denuclearisation, but this is the first time assurances have been given to Washington directly.

Details of the leaders' summit, including the location, remain unclear. CNN's sources said that the North Koreans are pushing to have the meeting in their capital, Pyongyang, with Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar another option.

Promises, but no guarantees

News of the talks between the US and North Korea surprised many when it broke in March

It followed a year of threats, personal insults and nuclear brinkmanship between their respective leaders.

It is not clear if Pyongyang accepts Washington's definition of denuclearisation, which for the White House means the end of its nuclear weapons programme.

The North has previously halted missile and nuclear tests during past talks, only to resume them when it lost patience or felt its demands were not being met.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption South Korea says the North is prepared to discuss getting rid of its nuclear arsenal if its own safety can be guaranteed

As yet, North Korea has not broken its public silence to confirm the US summit is happening.

However, a series of meetings with overseas leaders suggest that preparations are indeed under way.

In late March, Mr Kim made his first known foreign trip since taking office in 2011 – to Beijing.

The visit, confirmed by China and North Korea, involved "successful talks" with President Xi Jinping, China's Xinhua news agency reported.

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Media captionChinese TV showed footage of the two leaders with their wives

China is North Korea's main economic ally, and it was thought highly likely that Pyongyang would consult Beijing before holding summits with South Korea and the US.

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Mr Kim is now expected to meet South Korea's President Moon Jae-in late April, on the heavily fortified Korean border.

South Korea has played a key role in brokering the proposed talks between the US and its northern neighbour.

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Prostate cancer: Four in 10 cases diagnosed late, charity says

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Four in 10 prostate cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed late, a study suggests.

The report by charity Orchid found a "worrying trend" of late diagnosis with 37% of prostate cancer cases diagnosed at stages three and four.

The report found one in four cases of prostate cancer was diagnosed in A&E.

In February figures showed the number of men dying from prostate cancer had overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time in the UK.

With an aging population, the charity has called for urgent action to prevent a "ticking time bomb in terms of prostate cancer provision".

Orchid chief executive Rebecca Porta said: "With prostate cancer due to be the most prevalent cancer in the UK within the next 12 years, we are facing a potential crisis in terms of diagnostics, treatment and patient care. Urgent action needs to be taken now."

The report canvassed the opinion of the UK's leading prostate cancer experts and looked at previously published data to get a picture of the prostate cancer care across the UK.

The data came from organisations such as NHS England, charities and the National Prostate Cancer Audit.

The report says that 42% of prostate cancer patients saw their GP with symptoms twice or more before they were referred, with 6% seen five or more times prior to referral.

Greater awareness

Prof Frank Chinegwundoh, a urological surgeon at Bart's Health NHS Trust said: "25% of prostate cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed at an advanced stage.

"This compares to just 8% in the US where there is greater public awareness of prostate cancer and greater screening," he added.

He said while there was controversy over the effectiveness of the standard PSA test used to detect the cancer, "it is still vital that patients are diagnosed early to assess if they need treatment or not as advanced prostate cancer is incurable".

The report also said there needed to be renewed efforts to develop better testing methods.

Prostate cancer symptoms

  • prostate cancer is diagnosed by using the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, biopsies and physical examinations
  • there can be few symptoms of prostate cancer in the early stages, and because of its location most symptoms are linked to urination
  • needing to urinate more often, especially at night
  • needing to run to the toilet
  • difficulty in starting to urinate
  • weak urine flow or taking a long time while urinating
  • feeling your bladder has not emptied fully
  • men with prostate cancer can also live for decades without symptoms or needing treatment because the disease often progresses very slowly

The PSA test is available free to any man aged 50 or over who requests it, but the report said this can "create inequity" with tests being taken up by "more highly educated men in more affluent areas".

Prof Anne Mackie, director of programmes for the UK National Screening Committee, said the test was not offered universally because it was not very good at predicting which men have cancer.

"It will miss some cancers and often those cancers that are picked up when using the PSA test are not harmful," she explained.

"Treatment for prostate cancer can cause nasty side effects so we need to be sure we are treating the right men and the right cancers.

"There is a lot of research into screening and treatment for prostate cancer and the committee, along with NICE and the NHS, is keeping a close eye on the evidence as it develops," she added.

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