CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The question on Charlotte transit leaders' minds about a service offered by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) has now largely been answered: what led to the LYNX Blue Line derailing in May 2022? The answer: deferred maintenance. Now, the city will be on the hook to ensure all Blue Line rail cars are safe for passengers, to the tune of $30 million.
Transit leaders met during the evening of March 22, 2023, to discuss why the derailment wasn't largely publicized before. From a "culture of silence" called out by one Mecklenburg County Commissioner to issues with transparency admitted by CATS' interim CEO, several factors were all on the table to be talked about.
To help better understand how Charlotte leaders got to this point, WCNC Charlotte has created a timeline detailing how CATS reacted in the wake of the derailment. While no passengers or operators were hurt, the system still needed to answer to the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) during an investigative process.
In a letter from NCDOT dated March 2, 2023, and shared with WCNC Charlotte, the department provided a clearer picture of the process. Here's the timeline:
- 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.
What happens now?
CATS is now in the process of overhauling the 40-plus Blue Line rail cars in partnership with Siemens, the company that manufactured them. While the overhaul project isn't expected to be finished until 2025, CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle - who assumed leadership after the derailment incident and has said he was never informed about it - is optimistic it can be done sooner.
Another thing slated to happen within CATS is a culture change. Cagle said during the March 22, 2023 meeting with transit leaders that employees are coming forward with more issues that need to be addressed. Chiefly, an inspection backlog for all CATS bridges and parking lots needs to be tackled. The last time any such inspection happened was in 2019.
During the meeting, the Metropolitan Transit Council - one of two authorities CATS answers to - voted unanimously on a resolution asking the Charlotte City Council to launch a third-party investigation into bus and rail operations, maintenance procedures, and safety requirements. Cagle supported this idea in a memo sent to the council ahead of the meeting.
As for the NCDOT investigation, that has been completed. CATS submitted its final accident investigation report to the department on February 28, 2022.