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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.

CATS staff kept new CEO in the dark about light rail derailment risk

Brent Cagle stands before microphones
Steve Harrison
Interim CATS chief executive Brent Cagle said transit staff kept him in the dark about a May 2022 Lynx Blue Line derailment.

The interim CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System said Monday that transit staff kept him in the dark about a mechanical problem that led to a May 2022 Lynx Blue Line derailment, as well as a subsequent investigation that found the same problem could exist in all 43 light-rail vehicles.

Brent Cagle said he first learned about the derailment and the transit system’s plans to repair the vehicles when he received a letter from the N.C. Department of Transportation regarding the incident and CATS plans to correct it last month.

He said CATS staff had been working with the state transportation department and vehicle manufacturer Siemens to fix the problem but hadn’t informed him. During the meeting, Cagle said he was informed about two weeks ago, though he said after that CATS received the letter from NCDOT on Feb. 6.

Cagle said CATS implemented a speed limit of 35 mph on all Lynx Blue Line trains, capping trains' speed about 20 mph below their maximum, so operators have time to detect and adjust to any potential derailment. Cagle said the average speed for trains across the system is usually 40 to 45 mph. CATS has been restricting speed on Blue Line trains since Feb. 17.

“Do I believe staff should have informed me sooner, on December 1? Yes,” Cagle said, referencing the date he took over as interim CEO. “Would I have liked for them to have informed me sooner? Absolutely.”

Cagle spoke with reporters after a presentation to City Council. When asked whether CATS staff would be disciplined or fired for not disclosing the derailment and ongoing train problems, Cagle said that is a human resources matter.

“That’s something that I will decline to discuss,” he said.

Last week WSOC-TV and WBTV-TV reported that Allen Smith, the number two official at CATS, had been placed on administrative leave without pay. Cagle declined to comment Monday night on why.

Broken bearings

The latest news comes after a rough stretch for CATS, which has seen years of declining ridership, unreliable bus service, contentious labor relations and a near-strike with its drivers, and simmering uncertainty about how, and even if, the agency will raise money to expand its transit system. During his presentation Monday, Cagle painted a largely positive picture, saying that CATS is on track to meet its budget goals and has stabilized the bus operation. But Cagle also acknowledged that, in addition to the problems with its trains, CATS' bus fleet is aging and dealing with mechanical issues. He recommended an "aggressive" replacement cycle.

Before coming to CATS, Cagle had been an assistant city manager and also aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. He took over CATS from John Lewis, who announced his departure from CATS in the fall for a private sector job after a series of operational problems and misstatements about the transit system. Lewis' last day was Nov. 30.

Lewis did not tell Cagle about the derailment before he left, Cagle said.

When asked whether he thought Lewis knew about the problem, Cagle said: “I have to assume so. But I can’t speak for what John did or didn’t know.”

Cagle said the problem is the axle bearings on train cars. On the system’s older vehicles — which went into service in 2007 — there is a possibility of the axles no longer operating smoothly. That’s what happened during the May 21, 2022, derailment.

CATS described it as a "train malfunction" at the time.

Broken bearings can be a serious safety risk for trains — an overheated wheel bearing is suspected as the cause behind the disastrous Norfolk Southern freight train derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio, that released massive amounts of toxic chemicals.

Cagle said that in the CATS wreck, the middle axle on a train car seized up and stopped moving, causing the train to jump the track between the Woodlawn and Scaleybark stations. No one was hurt, he said.

CATS has a $12 million contract with Siemens to repair the trains. Cagle said he will ask City Council to spend more money to repair all vehicles — and to expedite the work. The repairs are supposed to be made by July 2025.

In addition to driving slower, Cagle said CATS staff are making additional safety checks on the vehicles.

Cagle said all Lynx Blue Line trains are safe.

“I am 100% confident that the CATS Blue Line is safe,” he said.

Council member Renee Johnson said City Council should have been informed as well.

"I think I speak for Council that we didn't know about this," she said. "So that's concerning ... I would think that's something that Council would have, or should have, known."

Clarifications: This story has changed to reflect that CATS lowered the speed limit for Blue Line trains on Feb. 17. The story had reported Feb. 18, which was the information provided at the City Council meeting.

The location of the derailment has also changed. The previous location reported, based on information provided at the Council meeting, was too broad. The story now has more specificity of where the incident occurred.


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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.