Apr 4, 2023 - News

State investigates CATS for alleged unsafe conditions in rail control center

CATS light rail

CATS light rail

Charlotte Area Transit System was found this weekend to be running its rail systems with insufficient staffing in the control center.

Why it matters: This is the latest instance when the N.C. Department of Transportation has flagged a hazard within Charlotte’s rail system. In a letter to CATS, NCDOT said it has put “undue stress and nearly overwhelming levels of responsibilities” on controllers assigned solo to the Rail Operations Control Center.

  • A controller is responsible for a number of oversight tasks for the trains, from monitoring and responding to two-way radio traffic to coordinating movements.

Zoom out: CATS has been in hot water over a light rail train derailment that happened in May. The public didn’t learn about it until last month. It took CATS 10 months to submit an acceptable plan to NCDOT, explaining how it would prevent another derailment.

The latest: NCDOT is investigating CATS as of March 27 for allegations of unsafe working conditions within its Rail Operations Control Center.

  • Late Friday night, the state department conducted an unannounced inspection of the center. It found only one controller was working from 11:25pm to 1am. They were balancing the duties of overseeing and managing the Blue Line light rail vehicles, Gold Line streetcars and two rail yards.
  • According to NCDOT’s letter, CATS had previously assured the state it was addressing staffing issues, yet “routinely planned” to schedule a single controller.

Interim CATS CEO Brent Cagle told Charlotte City Council members Monday that the rail operations manager informed him over a week ago that sometimes only one on-duty rail controller works the Rail Operations Control Center at a time because of short staffing.

  • “This is not an ideal situation,” Cagle told the council’s transportation committee. The rail center should have at least two or preferably three on-duty rail controllers, he said.

“They have informed us, again, that this is an unacceptable situation,” Cagle said. “We agree.”

Of note: CATS is working on a corrective action plan to respond to NCDOT. It plans to compensate controllers for mandatory overtime. Meanwhile, it will aggressively recruit new controllers over the next six months or so.

  • There was no mention of altering public transit schedules during Monday’s meeting, although NCDOT has ordered CATS to cease service if it cannot staff at least two qualified employees in the control center.

What they’re saying: “We will get to a place where, hopefully, I don’t have to provide you with new information,” Cagle said.

  • Last month, Cagle cautioned the Metropolitan Transit Commission that he would likely uncover new issues during his tenure as interim CEO. Former CEO John Lewis and other executives departed the troubled transit system in recent months.
  • In response to NCDOT, CATS chief safety officer wrote that there are five rail controllers and three chief controllers to staff the control center. He said they would not run the Gold Line if “for any reason” there could not be two controllers in the center. The Rail Operations Control Center vacancy rate is approximately 40%, according to CATS.

What’s next: Council is forming a workgroup to keep closer tabs on CATS. Last month, the MTC asked the city to bring in an outside company to investigate CATS and the derailment.

Yes but: During a committee meeting Monday, some city leaders seemed lukewarm about hiring an outside investigator when a review by the Federal Transit Administration is already happening.

Go deeper: Charlotte city leaders share next moves to get chaotic CATS in order

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