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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.

'Culture of silence': Investigation coming into CATS train derailment, and agency's response

 Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman (far left) asked for an outside investigation into a May 21, 2022, Lynx Blue Line train derailment.
Steve Harrison
Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman (far left) asked for an outside investigation into a May 21, 2022, Lynx Blue Line train derailment.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to hire a consultant to investigate the May 2022 Lynx Blue Line light-rail derailment, as well as the lack of transparency from the transit system in the months after the accident.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman, an MTC member, pushed for the investigation after WFAE reported last week that the N.C. Department of Transportation had said the Charlotte Area Transit System’s response to the derailment was “unclear, insufficient and not acceptable.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, CATS’ interim CEO Brent Cagle also disclosed other maintenance problems, including with buses that are past their “useful life” and bridges and parking decks that haven’t been inspected as required.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles on Tuesday released a statement that said the governance structure for the Charlotte Area Transit System is part of the problem. She also said so on WFAE's Charlotte Talks Wednesday morning.

CATS has two governing bodies. The agency is a city of Charlotte department and its employees report to City Manager Marcus Jones, who in turn reports to City Council.

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WFAE reporter Steve Harrison talks about why everything seems to be going wrong at once for Charlotte's transit agency.

But CATS also reports to the MTC, which includes Altman, Lyles and the mayors of the six Mecklenburg towns. The MTC is supposed to set policies and oversee the system. But the MTC, does not have the power to hire and fire CATS employees, or allocate money like City Council.

Lyles said that having two supervising bodies may have contributed to transit employees not disclosing the accident. Late last year, a consultant hired by the city to examine CATS’ structure said the two governing bodies and lack of clarity was a serious structural problem for the organization.

Altman criticized that idea, saying “The need for a transit authority has nothing to do with CATS’ failure to disclose the derailment.”

Lyles did not call for the investigation in her statement on Tuesday. But she said she supported an outside review during an appearance on Charlotte Talks Wednesday morning.

“I've also heard that the governing structure of CATS is in some shape or form an apparent explanation for how these failures occurred,” said Altman. “But there is no ambiguity that CATS is a public enterprise of the city of Charlotte. There's no ambiguity that CATS’ CEO directly reports to the city manager.”

The Lynx train derailed on May 21 of last year. The train did not tip over and no one was hurt.

Cagle, who became interim CEO on Dec. 1, said the problem was due a faulty axle bearing. He said the seal around the bearing had cracked and that water had seeped inside.

That eventually led to corrosion, overheating and the axle no longer turning, a failure that Cagle has described as “catastrophic.”

Cagle revealed Wednesday night that operators had reported problems with how that light-rail vehicle was handling before the accident. But he said no one understood how serious the problem was. The vehicle remained in service.

The accident happened during the tenure of former CATS chief executive John Lewis, who left at the end of November. But when Cagle took over in early December, he said no one from CATS told him about the derailment.

Cagle said he learned about the problem when he received a letter from the DOT on Feb. 6. On Feb. 17, the DOT ordered CATS to implement a 35 mph speed limit on all Lynx trains — about 20 mph below their maximum, and 5-10 mph below their average operating speed.

Cagle said he’s still investigating what went wrong — and that he wants to change what he called a “culture of silence” inside CATS.

He said he’s trying to determine which employees need to be held accountable for deliberately failing to disclose problems and which employees were afraid to speak up about problems.

He said CATS never performed scheduled major maintenance on light-rail vehicles. He said money was not the problem, and he didn’t know why the maintenance wasn’t done.

Cagle also said an employee recently came forward and revealed that CATS hadn’t conducted required inspections of bridges on the light-rail line. He also said he doesn’t think CATS has inspected its parking garages on the line, either.

“We will be finding other problems,” he said.

Cagle said he expects it will cost $30 million to fix all 42 light-rail vehicles. That could take until January 2025, if Siemens, the manufacturer, is able to meet an expedited timetable.

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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.