Mar 14, 2023 - News

CATS needs to repair all 40-plus light rail trains to prevent another from going off the tracks

Photos: CATS

Last May, a Blue Line light rail train went off its tracks due to a faulty axle bearing. Charlotte Area Transit System mainly kept the incident under wraps.

Now, the agency is just beginning to correct the defect, which affects the entire 42-vehicle fleet.

  • The Blue Line is safe to ride in the meantime, according to CATS.

Why it matters: This is another setback for the transit agency, which is now out a CEO, CFO and COO, who was placed on administrative leave recently, WBTV reported.

Yes, but: City officials appear optimistic that CATS is moving in the right direction now that interim CEO Brent Cagle is uncovering and addressing problems.

What’s happening: Cagle, who became interim CATS CEO in December, told city council about the derailment on Monday. He said he only learned about it two weeks ago after the state Department of Transportation contacted CATS. NCDOT ordered the agency to craft an action plan to prevent another malfunction.

  • “I think I can speak for council that we didn’t know about this,” City Council member Renee Johnson said. “So, that’s concerning.”

Details: The train had just passed through the Old Pineville Grade Crossing between Scaleybark and Woodlawn stations when a wheel on the middle truck derailed. It “traveled 1,206 feet down the alignment before coming to a stop safely,” per CATS.

  • There were 24 passengers onboard who offloaded safely. One requested a medical evaluation.
  • Two more derailments occurred last year at CATS’ North and South train yards in September and October, WBTV found.

NCDOT ordered CATS to slow the Blue Line’s speed down to a max of 35 mph (from an average of 40-45 mph). The system, Cagle said, now has “mitigating measures” in place to help identify a problem “before it becomes a catastrophic failure.”

The speed change, implemented Feb. 17, does not affect the schedule, per CATS.

  • CATS is contracting with manufacturer Siemens for the bearing maintenance. The city will pay for the repairs.

Zoom in: It took months for CATS and NCDOT to finalize a plan to rectify the “unacceptable hazardous condition” that caused the derailment. CATS sent a preliminary report about the incident on May 24 but didn’t send a final report until January.

  • CATS also submitted a corrective action plan in February, but NCDOT initially rejected it because it was “unclear, insufficient” and unacceptable, per NCDOT records Axios obtained.
  • In a Feb. 6 letter to CATS, NCDOT said the hazards had to be addressed in the “most expedient manner possible” before the light rail resumed normal service. It said delayed maintenance directly contributed to the derailment. In response, CATS blamed pandemic-driven supply chain and staffing issues.
  • The state approved CATS’ revised corrective action plan on March 2.

Catch up quick: The pandemic exacerbated underlying issues for CATS. As ridership declined, bus drivers voiced safety concerns. They nearly went on strike recently. Meanwhile, CATS passengers lost trust in the system as it struggled to provide reliable service.

  • Cagle said CATS’ operations are stable now. It cut down on missed trips from 9% to 1% since summer.
  • CATS is also planning to spend an extra $3.5 million on security measures.

The big picture: CATS needs to focus its efforts and money on preserving assets, Cagle said. Multiple times a week, mechanical issues disrupt service on the light rail and on the Gold Line streetcar.

In recent years much of the attention around CATS has been on its ambitious and flashy plans, such as redeveloping the transit center into an Uptown tower home to the Hornets practice facility and building a new east-west light rail across the county.

  • “I’m engaged in those [projects] as well. But we have to focus on the day to day,” Cagle told council. “You have to do the fundamentals well.”
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