CATS didn’t inspect bridges, interim CEO reveals before vote for outside investigation

Charlotte’s transit agency skipped inspections on light rail bridges and parking garages in 2021 despite a federal requirement to complete them.

Interim Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Brent Cagle revealed the missed inspection dates at a Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting Wednesday night where members voted to seek a third party investigation into issues that include a May 2022 light rail derailment. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman made the motion.

“At this point, we don’t know anything for a fact,” Altman said. “I won’t feel comfortable that these trains are safe until I hear that from the DOT.”

Last week, Cagle revealed to the Charlotte City Council a Blue Line train derailed in May 2022 due to a faulty axle bearing. To fix the issue, Cagle said CATS is working with rail company Siemens Mobility to expedite repairs on each train, which is still expected to take several years. The city will foot the $30 million bill because the parts are no longer covered under a warranty.

Cagle said “we should expect that there will be other things” as the organization encourages employees to speak out on culture.

“Culture doesn’t change overnight but it will change quickly,” Cagle said. “Because with a culture of silence there’s a lot of people who have been waiting for this.”

CATS serves Mecklenburg County transit riders and the MTC is an advisory board that includes elected officials, citizens and a regional representative from the state transportation board.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman speaks Wednesday during a Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting that focused on questions arising from a May 2022 Blue Line derailment. To Altman’s right are Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman speaks Wednesday during a Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting that focused on questions arising from a May 2022 Blue Line derailment. To Altman’s right are Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle.

Inspections on 37 bridges, six parking garages missed in 2021

An employee informed CATS management about the failure to complete federally required inspections in 2021 on all 37 of the city’s light rail elevated bridges, Cagle said.

When management learned about the missed inspection this month, Cagle said they sprung into action to find a contractor to conduct them as soon as possible. Inspections began Tuesday, he said, and will take up to three months to complete.

“While (inspection crews are) going they will be reporting to us anything that they find so that we can immediately start to address those things as they’re going and not wait for a final report,” Cagle said.

When the bridges were last inspected in 2019, they were deemed “good and fair.”

Six CATS parking decks are also due for inspection, he said, and the transit agency has contacted a consultant to inspect each of them immediately.

Altman’s list of concerns

In an email to her fellow Metropolitan Transit Committee members and Charlotte City Council, Altman laid out her motion.

Her concerns included:

The failure to disclose the derailment

Delayed maintenance causing the derailment

Failure to fix the issue

Failure to slow trains down immediately after they were recommended to by the North Carolina Department of Transportation

“A culture of silence” at CATS

Ongoing safety risks of the trains still in operation

Broken public trust

“We must also understand organizationally how it is even possible a systemic failure of this scope could occur in the first place,” Altman said in the email. “Without understanding how mismanagement at this level was possible, we will have not taken the necessary steps to protect the public from future failures.”

During the meeting, Altman grilled Cagle with specific questions about the light rail and the CATS’ response to the derailment.

“We need an entity that is familiar with the transit regulatory framework and best practices for transit organizations to give us context, or any actual conclusions upon which we can all finally rely,” Altman said before making the motion for an external investigation into the agency.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said revelations about CATS’ structural and operating mishaps make it a perfect time to begin considering what a regional transportation authority would look like. Altman said she’s meeting with regional mayors Friday to discuss that, but a lack of a regional transit authority didn’t cause the issue of delayed maintenance on the city’s only light rail line.

What we know about the May 2022 derailment

CATS spokesman Brandon Hunter said the derailment occurred after a northbound Blue Line train stopped at the Woodlawn station on its usual route on May 21. With 24 passengers on board, the train was on its way to the Scaleybark station when a wheel on a middle car came off of the tracks. The train traveled 1,206 feet before stopping.

A wheel on a Blue Line train came off the light rail on May 21, 2022, while 24 passengers were on board.
A wheel on a Blue Line train came off the light rail on May 21, 2022, while 24 passengers were on board.

The train car remained on the tracks even as one of its wheels hung off. All passengers got off safely, and one passenger requested a medical evaluation on the scene. No passengers or employees were injured or transported from the train.

Prior to the derailment, Cagle said an operator of the same vehicle noticed an issue with it. They “did not know exactly what the issue was with the rail car but they knew it was not operating as they would expect ... But that did not lead them to immediately request that the rail car be taken out of service,” Cagle told the MTC Wednesday.

The faulty part was a bearing that creates friction with an axle. On the derailed train, a seal broke on a bearing, allowing water and corrosion in to ultimately stop the axle from turning.

“The well-being of passengers is the top priority for Siemens Mobility as well as CATS. We have been proactively working with the customer on a maintenance plan that will prevent any future issues with bearings,” train manufacturer Siemens said in a statement to The Charlotte Observer.

Along with decreasing maximum speeds from 55 to 35 miles per hour, CATS is also checking temperature strips daily that have been added to each train car, Hunter said. WFAE reported the speed decrease came as an order from NCDOT in response to an otherwise inadequate safety plan.

The derailment occurred under the leadership of former CEO John Lewis. Lewis resigned in November 2022, when Cagle, then the assistant city manager, took over as interim CEO.

Cagle and other city officials say they weren’t told about the May derailment until just a few weeks ago when NCDOT sent correspondence to the transit agency about the derailment.

Polls results on transit safety

After news of the derailment, the Observer launched a poll to ask readers about their opinion. Most of the 126 people who participated said the derailment won’t affect their CATS ridership habits.

The results are as follows:

  • 31% of respondents said they use CATS services for special events, 28% said they “never” used Charlotte transit, 15% ride every few weeks, 13% ride a few times a week, 8% ride every day and 6% ride once per month.

  • 89% of respondents said they ride the Blue Line light rail most often, 8% ride CATS buses most often and 3% ride the Gold Line most often.

  • 57% of respondents said “no” when asked if they’re worried about safety while riding on Charlotte’s transit system. Separately, 29% said they’re somewhat worried and 13% say they are worried about safety.

  • 72% of people said they wouldn’t change ridership habits because of the train derailment, 12% said they don’t ride frequently, 9% said they may decrease how often they ride and 7% said they wouldn’t ride any more.