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MTC votes to ask Charlotte City Council to hire consultant to investigate CATS rail operations, maintenance procedures

CATS leadership says lack of maintenance and communication led to the train derailment.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), the policy board that reviews and recommends public transportation plans, voted unanimously Wednesday on a resolution to ask Charlotte City Council to hire a third-party consultant to investigate the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) bus and rail operations, its maintenance procedures, and safety requirements.

The current leader of CATS says leaders are putting action plans in place to make sure the LYNX Blue Line remains safe to ride amid scrutiny over a 2022 derailment incident that, up until recently, had not been publicly reported.

Interim CEO Brent Cagle shared details during Charlotte City Council's March 13, 2023 meeting about the derailment, which happened in May 2022. Cagle said the incident, which happened before his term began, was only reported to him weeks ago, and an internal investigation remains ongoing. 

CITY RECORDS: CATS COO recently placed on unpaid leave was also suspended in 2015

While no injuries were reported, Cagle said the derailment report found all 42 rail cars need to be overhauled due to lack of maintenance. Cagle said an axle seized and a wheel stopped turning, causing one rail car to jump the track. 

While it was a minor incident, Cagle said it should have been reported to him the day he took over in December 2022.

Ahead of the meeting Wednesday, Cagle sent the MTC a memo to reassure leaders CATS was taking the May 2022 incident seriously and had formulated a plan approved by NCDOT for corrective action.

RELATED: Charlotte named one of the worst cities to live without a car

Cagle said at the meeting CATS is now working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and Siemens, the rail car manufacturer, to get repairs done quickly and safely. While the cost to repair about half of the fleet is estimated to be about $12 million, Cagle at the time said it would be about double that cost for the entire fleet of 42 cars.

Additionally, at Wednesday night's meeting, MTC members learned that CATS bridge inspections didn't happen in 2021, meaning inspections are two years past due. The last time they were inspected was in 2019. 

The FTA and state DOT have already been informed. 

Cagle said employees are now coming forward with issues that were kept silent for years.

CATS said it has secured a contractor to begin inspections. They started Tuesday and hope to finish all inspections in two to three months.

What CATS' interim leader is saying 

Cagle's memo first offered a clearer idea of the cost of repairing all of the light rail cars: $30 million. Right now, CATS has contracted with Siemens to overhaul 20 cars so far to the tune of just under $13 million.

Cagle also discussed the May 2022 incident itself, saying while it was classified as a "catastrophic" incident that demanded reports to relevant federal and state authorities, the term "refers to a complete failure of a single component of a larger system, whereby upon the single component fails, other related system failures also occur". In this case, Cagle said a bearing's failure led to the axle seizing, and ultimately to the rail car in question leaving the track.

At the close of his memo, Cagle notes he demands transparency from the CATS management team, and that CATS agrees there is a need to hire a third-party, independent evaluator to fully review the system. 

Cagle said the review specifically should focus on bus and rail operations, safety and security, and asset maintenance.

Charlotte mayor discusses chain of accountability

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who also serves as chair of the MTC, shared a statement on Tuesday that acknowledges more work is needed to address issues still present in the transit system.

"The City Manager and his team, along with Mr. Cagle, face a critical challenge: to elevate CATS to meet the community's expectations for safety, reliability and service. While there will be difficult conversations and tough decisions, we are committed to moving forward. We have already taken steps in the right direction," part of Lyles' statement read.

Another issue CATS faces is confusion over exactly which entities system leaders answer to. 

Lyles cited a December 2022 review conducted by Management Partners (now part of Baker Tilly), which she said found that "one of the most significant challenges facing CATS is the governance and reporting structure in which CATS is a city department but serves a regional role and has two major policy bodies which leads 'to confusion about decision-making authority' and 'needs real change.'” 

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Lyles' statement further goes on to say "While this agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities of the MTC, the City of Charlotte and the Charlotte City Council, there is overlap and a lack of clarity. We’ve grown beyond our current county-wide effort, and perhaps it’s time to look at a regional authority with more direct responsibility."

Mecklenburg County commissioner shares disappointment

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman, who also sits on the MTC, shared her disappointment in an email shared with regional leaders on Monday. Altman, who shared her email with WCNC Charlotte on Tuesday, acknowledged that the May 2022 derailment happened before Cagle's tenure, but railed against CATS' lack of self-reporting on the incident.

"The failure to disclose the train derailment is inexcusable. Over the last ten months, CATS has presented to City Council, the MTC, and the citizen-led Transit Services Advisory Committee on multiple occasions, but CATS remained silent about this," part of Altman's email reads. "Of all CATS' recent problems, this is the most egregious because it goes to fundamental competence, safety, and transparency."

Citing an NCDOT letter only made public recently, Altman noted the department said delayed maintenance was a direct factor leading to the derailment. She demanded answers about shortcomings in maintenance and asked if anyone had raised an issue.

"Although the CEO who was in charge at the time is no longer with CATS, he was not the only person who had knowledge of the failure to adhere to these maintenance obligations," Altman said in her email. "Where were those people in raising their concerns to the City Manager or the public? Who in the city is charged with oversight over CATS' CEO to ensure that basic maintenance was occurring?"

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Timeline after the incident 

WCNC Charlotte reviewed a Feb. 6, 2023 letter that discusses the 2022 incident more fully. The NCDOT letter ordered CATS leadership to form a corrective plan for the rail cars and to restrict speeds on the Blue Line until the rail cars have been repaired.

TIMELINE: How CATS responded after LYNX Blue Line derailment

CATS responded on Feb. 15, but an NCDOT response letter dated two days after found initial corrective action was insufficient and unclear. On March 2, 2023, NCDOT responded more favorably to a set of updated corrective plans submitted by CATS. The third letter also provided a timeline of the 10 months between the May 2022  incident and the submission of revised corrective plans:

  • May 21, 2022 - the derailment happens, and NCDOT directs CATS to investigate what happened, submit a preliminary investigation report within 72 hours, and provide monthly investigation updates until the final accident report is submitted and approved by NCDOT
  • Jun 2022 through December 2022 - NCDOT reviews monthly investigation updates provided by CATS
  • December 7, 2022 - NCDOT tells CATS to email Siemens and get a status update on the axle analysis findings report, which CATS does
  • December 19, 2022 - During a monthly meeting between CATS and NCDOT, the department held a lengthy discussion about the root cause of the derailment and asked for an update on the email from the manufacturer. CATS shared they had two preliminary analysis reports and would include them in the final report, further indicating the locked axle seal allowed water into the bearing and caused grease to dissipate. This caused the axle to lock.
  • January 23, 2022 - During the next monthly meeting between CATS and NCDOT, the department again asked about the status of the final investigation report, and if CATS had reached out to other transit systems to see if anything similar happened with their rail cars.
  • January 25, 2023 - CATS submits the final report to NCDOT.
  • February 1, 2023 - NCDOT holds an on-site meeting at CATS per the department's request, which included DOT staff and contractors, along with CATS maintenance and safety staff. The meeting discussed maintenance crews' response to the incident, discuss maintenance plans, and conduct a shop walk-through and inspection of the rail cars' axles and trucks.
  • February 6, 2023 - NCDOT sends a comment tracking sheet tied to the incident report for CATS to complete with final revisions and resubmit. NCDOT also sends a letter detailing hazards discovered and requiring a corrective action plan.
  • February 13, 2023 - CATS holds a requested meeting with NCDOT to discuss the letter and department safety concerns.
  • February 15, 2023 - CATS submits the first response letter for the corrective action plans.
  • February 17, 2023 - CATS provides a response to the comment tracking sheet tied to the final accident investigation report. However, NCDOT also sends a rebuttal letter and directs CATS to restrict Blue Line rail speeds to 35 mph. CATS implements the restriction via a two-way radio announcement.
  • February 18, 2023 - CATS submits a "draft" revised final accident report to NCDOT for review and comment.
  • February 21, 2023 - CATS submits a speed restriction hazard analysis report to NCDOT for review and comment.
  • February 23, 2023 - CATS submits revised corrective action plans and assurance the Blue Line will continue to run at 35 mph
  • February 27, 2023 - during the monthly meeting with both CATS and NCDOT, CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle shared his team was traveling to the manufacturer's headquarters to discuss more possible actions that may be available to speed up the overhaul program.
  • February 28, 2023 - CATS submits second revised final accident investigation report to NCDOT for review and approval.

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What's next for CATS? 

Another issue Altman brought up was a "culture of silence" she said has grown at CATS, saying someone should have spoken up sooner and alerted Charlotte city leaders, the MTC, or the public.

"It thus appears there is a work environment whereby CATS staff felt unable to come forward with safety concerns not being handled properly by upper management. This is a serious problem of workplace culture which can and did jeopardize public safety. It needs to be addressed quickly," Altman's email states.

“I would like to have clarity about exactly where the breakdowns were, and we need that not only for accountability but so we can be sure where the breakdowns occurred, we repair them," Altman said. “I want to understand, and I think the public deserves to understand."

Meanwhile, Jarrett Hurms, a nonvoting MTC member said its shows a lack of transparency.

"This does break my heart and it definitely creates a hindrance of future plans, but tactfully we need to fix the public trust,” Hurms said. 

Another action item CATS discussed in a March 13, 2023 update after the Management Partners review obtained by WCNC Charlotte was the inclusion of a dedicated Asset Manager position in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget. That budget will also include an additional $3.5 million for a security contract, with an additional $3.5 million anticipated to be spent in Fiscal Year 2025.

Cagle said hiring an asset manager will be one of his top priorities for the upcoming fiscal year. Plus, he is working to change company culture by encouraging employees to speak up and hosting town halls.

On April 10, CATS will ask Charlotte City Council to approve a new contract of $30 million that will cover maintenance for all trains and speed up the work. The original timeline for fixing the trains was in 2025 but Cagle hopes to expedite that by buying more equipment that helps unload the trains.

In the meantime, operating trains are being monitored and the light rail's speed has been reduced. Cagle maintains it is safe to ride.

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