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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.

State: CATS response to rail accident was 'unclear, insufficient and not acceptable'

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

The North Carolina Department of Transportation found two “unacceptable hazardous conditions” during an investigation of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s safety operations following a May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line vehicle.

It also said that CATS’ response to the accident was “unclear, insufficient, and is not acceptable.”

The state released three letters to WFAE Tuesday that it sent to the transit system in February and March as it evaluated CATS’ plan to make sure the light-rail line was safe.

The common theme from the DOT: It is not impressed with CATS’ response to the accident.

In a Feb. 6 letter, it noted two “unacceptable hazardous conditions.”

What's behind CATS' train derailment?
Reporter Steve Harrison discusses the 2022 derailment of a CATS light rail train, and why it wasn't disclosed until now.

The DOT wrote that the derailment was caused by delayed maintenance and criticized CATS for still operating light-rail vehicles that had surpassed the manufacturer’s timeline for the axles to be overhauled.

CATS said the derailment was caused by a broken seal in an axle bearing that allowed water inside it.

The DOT also said that the transit system’s plan to keep passengers safe by installing and monitoring temperature monitoring strips on the light-rail axles did not “reduce the safety risk to an acceptable level.” It also said CATS had “missing documentation and inconsistent compliance.”

Brent Cagle, who became interim CATS chief executive on Dec. 1, said he learned about the derailment when he received that Feb. 6 letter from the DOT.

He disclosed the derailment to the City Council for the first time Monday during a presentation on CATS. He also said that no one told him about the accident or the subsequent investigation when he was named to the top job at CATS.

The accident happened May 21 between the Woodlawn and Scaleybark stations in south Charlotte. The train car traveled about 1,200 feet after the derailment — but did not tip over. None of the 24 passengers aboard were injured, although one passenger requested medical assistance at the scene.

At the time, CATS posted on Twitter that there had been a “malfunction” on the Lynx Blue Line.

On Feb. 17, the DOT sent CATS another letter. It again dismissed the transit system’s efforts to make the Lynx safe.

The DOT wrote that it ordered CATS to develop a “Corrective Action Plan” for the Lynx vehicles, but instead said that CATS had given the state an explanation of why the problem had occurred. The transit system had cited problems such as pandemic-related supply chain shortages.

The state wrote that CATS’ response was “not acceptable” and that CATS needs to consider wear and tear on vehicle axles.

The DOT also analyzed CATS’ plan to install the temperature monitoring strips on the axles, as well as to review the mileage on each light-rail vehicle.

The DOT reviewed temperature readings CATS took in February. It found that more than one-third had reached temperatures in excess of 130 degrees — a cut-off temperature designated by CATS that warns of a possible problem.

The DOT wrote that CATS “has not conducted any form of risk assessment or hazard analysis.”

The state also ordered CATS to implement a 35 mph speed limit for all Lynx trains. The DOT said CATS initially questioned whether that was necessary.

During his presentation before City Council Monday, Cagle did not say that the state ordered CATS to implement the speed limit.

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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.