‘I missed it.’ Text to Charlotte manager changes Blue Line train derailment timeline
The text came at 12:43 p.m. on May 21, 2022 — about two hours after a wheel on Charlotte’s light rail derailed.
“FYI we just had a minor derailment of the Blue Line train northbound at Archdale Station,” the text from former Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis to City Manager Marcus Jones started.
Lewis said a set of wheels came off of the tracks while the Blue Line was carrying 36 people and that buses would be used to transport people while CATS staff investigated.
Jones didn’t respond. Normally he would send a thumbs-up emoji or “thanks” to acknowledge a text from Lewis, but that didn’t happen, he told reporters Thursday.
Jones told reporters he discovered the text recently when searching through correspondence with Lewis, who resigned as CEO in November. Jones said the topic didn’t appear in any other texts, calls or emails with Lewis after that.
Jones previously told staff members he heard about the derailment for the first time from Interim CEO Brent Cagle this year, according to a city spokesman.
“I share this information because it’s different from what I initially shared. It was an honest mistake,” Jones said in a Thursday briefing. “I missed it.”
During the briefing, Jones also said he’s requested the Federal Transit Administration to review CATS and is suspending the search for a new CEO for six months so the organization will have time to “stabilize.”
The news of a federal review comes just one day after U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Charlotte to talk airport safety improvements. A U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman told The Charlotte Observer Tuesday morning that Buttigieg, who oversees the Federal Transit Administration as transportation secretary, did not have time to answer questions that included the derailment.
The federal reviews normally happen every three years. The last one happened in 2022, but Jones said he’s received word that an off-cycle review could occur immediately.
CATS to be reviewed by multiple agencies
Jones also asked the city’s Transportation, Planning and Development Committee chaired by City Councilman Ed Driggs to oversee a comprehensive review of CATS. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman also requested the organization be reviewed by a third party after news of the derailment came to light.
“I think how we got here was because that level of management, between us and the organization, wasn’t getting or sharing information as it should,” Driggs said. “And those people don’t work here anymore.”
Altman said Lewis’ text message disclosure Thursday makes the need for a third-party investigator more urgent.
“I expect that today’s developments would be a part of the investigation into the operational and managerial failures at issue.” Altman said. “That investigation needs to be independent of CATS and the City of Charlotte, and the investigation needs to happen on an expedited basis.”
Lewis’ November resignation occurred after a year of staffing shortages, declining ridership, a shooting into a bus and reduced ride frequency. CATS Chief Operating Officer Allen Smith was placed on administrative leave with no pay this year, and Smith told the city he plans to retire April 1. The organization also lacks a permanent CFO.
“Is it a culture of silence or a culture of not listening? Really it’s a two-way street,” Cagle said during Thursday’s briefing. “Management has to listen.”
Jones also said he is identifying additional money to buy new vehicles and maintain existing ones, which CATS is severely behind on.
Repairing the light rail problem that caused the derailment will cost the city of Charlotte $30 million. The city also needs to fund replacements for its aging bus fleet.
The city is assigning General Services staff to CATS to assist with buying and maintaining vehicles until CATS hires dedicated employees, Jones said.
Who is held accountable?
It is unclear if Jones will be held accountable for failing to communicate the derailment to other city officials. It was important for him to speak publicly about it, he told reporters, but it “would be totally up to the council in terms of how the council addresses this particular situation for me.”
A light rail controller was fired for the derailment in June 2022, according to a termination letter provided by former CATS employee Terry Creech. He says he was the only employee fired for the derailment because “they needed someone to put it on.”
Creech was fired for violating two safety violations, but he says the train car shouldn’t have been put on the track in the first place. He found out later the light rail vehicle that derailed received maintenance for a wheel malfunction two days earlier. But Creech said he was told at the beginning of his May 21 shift that it was cleared to run with no more concerns.
“While it is confirmed that your actions did not contribute to the train’s derailment ... our records do confirm that the proper procedures were not followed,” the termination letter says.
What about city’s transit tax plans?
Charlotte is still working on a transit plan to present to legislators, but Jones said “it would be challenging to ask for (a transit tax referendum) this legislative session.” It’s unlikely the tax will appear on voters’ ballots this year.
The city needs the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly to approve putting a penny sales tax increase on voters’ ballots to pay for an ambitious transportation plan that includes building an east-to-west rail line in Charlotte. And the legislature’s Republican leaders have spoken publicly about their opposition to Charlotte’s plan.
The city is still “building a case” for a transit tax increase, Jones said.
Regional groups met Friday to discuss advancing the plan, he said. Council members have been talking to legislators in Raleigh and DC “as recently as this week” and city staff is working on plans and design.