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A Lynx Blue Line train derailed in May 2022 because of a broken axle bearing. A subsequent investigation that found the same problem could exist in all 43 light-rail vehicles. CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle only learned about the accident and investigation nearly a year after the incident, when he received a letter from the NC DOT regarding the incident.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Altman wants 'accountability' for CATS’ response to Lynx derailment

Lynx Blue Line vehicle derailed on May 21, 2022.
Charlotte Area Transit System
A Lynx Blue Line vehicle derailed on May 21, 2022.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman said Thursday that the Charlotte Area Transit System’s response to a Lynx Blue Line derailment last year is an “outrage” and that she wants to know who has been held accountable.

Altman, who is also a member of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the oversight board for CATS, said she is stunned that the transit system didn’t notify the public about the accident on May 21.

“I am incredibly disturbed and disappointed,” Altman said. “And I have a lot of questions. I can not fathom that choice and it is an outrage frankly.”

Altman’s statements contrast with the lack of concern expressed Monday by most Charlotte City Council members. Although council member Renee Johnson said she was upset that she hadn’t been told about the accident, other council members declined to ask questions about what happened.

The derailment happened after a Lynx train’s wheels became dislodged from the track due to a faulty axle bearing. The train did not tip over, and no one was hurt.

But interim CATS Chief Executive Brent Cagle said the axle's failure was “catastrophic” and the accident could have been worse. CATS is making repairs to all 42 Lynx vehicles on a rotating schedule. The repairs could stretch into 2025.

While the accident happened in May, CATS did not disclose the derailment to the public. It said on Twitter that day that there would be delays on the Lynx Blue Line because of a train “malfunction.”

Cagle took over CATS on Dec. 1 for John Lewis. He told City Council Monday that no one told him about the derailment or the transit system’s investigation into what happened. Cagel said he learned about the problem when he received a letter from the North Carolina Department of Transportation on Feb. 6.

Leigh Altman
Leigh Altman

Altman noted that CATS has had numerous operational problems over the past year, such as not having enough bus drivers. But she said the lack of disclosure over the derailment is the most significant.

“Of all of the problems that CATS has had, this is the worst,” Altman said. “Because safety has got to be always the first duty. And to know of a defect and the possibility of a derailment and to not take steps is beyond the pale.”

Two weeks after that Feb. 6 letter, the DOT wrote CATS again, after reviewing the transit system’s plan to operate the Lynx safely.

It wrote that CATS’ safety plan was “'unclear, insufficient and not acceptable.” The DOT then directed CATS to implement a 35 miles per hour speed limit on all Lynx trains.
That speed limit went into effect on Feb. 17. CATS did not tell the public that it was slowing the trains down. On Monday, when Cagle informed council of the speed limit change, he did not mention that CATS was forced to do it. Nor did he mention that the state also ordered CATS to remove its eight highest-mileage vehicles from service.

Lynx trains have a top speed of 55 mph.

Altman said she has faith in Cagle’s efforts after he learned about the accident five weeks ago. But she wants to know more about what other CATS officials did or didn’t do.

“I don’t see where there has been accountability for any of that,” she said. “I don’t know who those people are. I don’t have an explanation for their actions, their failure to act.”

Lewis, the previous CEO, now works for a transit consulting company. He didn’t respond to an email sent by WFAE.

A city of Charlotte spokesperson said that City Manager Marcus Jones didn’t know about the derailment until Cagle learned about it in early February.

Two weeks ago, Allen Smith, the number two official at CATS, was placed on administrative leave without pay. It’s unclear why he was put on leave.

The DOT’s correspondence with CATS in February and March raises questions about how the city handled the aftermath of the investigation.

On Dec. 7, the DOT said it told CATS to contact vehicle manufacturer Siemens for a status update on the axel. The DOT letter doesn’t say when CATS first reached out to Siemens to determine what went wrong.

On Feb. 6, the DOT told CATS by letter that it has two “Unacceptable Hazardous Conditions.”

The first is that CATS was operating Lynx vehicles that were past Siemens’ recommended timetable for refurbishing the axles. The DOT said the transit system’s timeline for fixing them was too long.

The second problem was the CATS’ plan to monitor the axles was lacking, according to the DOT. CATS said it would install temperature monitoring strips on the axles; if they exceeded 130 degrees the vehicle would be taken out of service.

But the state described that CATS plan as “limited mitigation” and having “missing documentation” and “inconsistent compliance.”

The state noted that a review of temperate readings showed that one-third exceeded the 130-degree limit CATS had implemented. It said a “small number” of axles had been replaced. The state said all of those vehicles were still carrying passengers.

The DOT said CATS had not “adequately identified” how it would prioritize axle overhauls and had not conducted “any form of risk assessment or hazard analysis."

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.