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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.

Missed maintenance, skipped inspections: CATS deals with 'systemwide failure'

 Ridership on the Lynx Blue Line increased by 86 percent from March 2022 from March 2021.
A Lynx Blue Line train derailed on May 21, 2022.

Interim Charlotte Area Transit System chief executive Brent Cagle told a transit oversight board Wednesday that he expects more problems will be found in the transit system as he works to change what he said is a “culture of silence” at the troubled agency.

“Where are the folks that I need to hold accountable?” Cagle said. “And where are the folks that I need to be listening to as they start to emerge and want to help CATS be great?”

He also warned members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission that he expects more bad news to surface if he is successful in encouraging employees to come forward.

“In an environment where we are encouraging employees, recommending to employees, asking employees to come forward and break the culture of silence, we should expect that there will be other things found,” Cagle said.

Cagle became interim CEO in December. For more than a week he’s been trying to manage a growing crisis at CATS over how the agency handled a May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train.

The train did not tip over, and no one was hurt. One passenger requested medical attention but was evaluated at the scene and didn't require treatment, Cagle said.

But the N.C. Department of Transportation has been highly critical of CATS’ response to the accident.

In a Feb. 6 letter — which was also how Cagle found out about the derailment the year before — the state criticized CATS for having two unacceptable hazardous conditions. The DOT then wrote on Feb. 17 that the transit system’s response to the derailment was “unclear, insufficient and not acceptable.”

The DOT ordered CATS to limit all Lynx trains to 35 mph, about 20 mph below their usual top speed.

During Wednesday’s MTC meeting, Cagle acknowledged other problems in addition to CATS having not performed required maintenance on Lynx trains.

  • Cagle said about 100 buses — 30% of the fleet — are too old. Federal guidelines specify that buses should not be used past 12 years. And most of those 100 are older than 15 years. The bus fleet urgently needs to be replaced, Cagle said.
  • He also said an employee recently disclosed that CATS failed to perform required inspections of bridges on the Lynx Blue Line in 2021. He said CATS has quickly hired a contractor to do that work.
  • And while CATS was scrambling to inspect the bridges, the transit system realized that it has also failed to inspect the parking garages on the Blue Line.

At the request of Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman, the MTC unanimously voted to direct CATS staff to hire an outside consultant to investigate.

Altman said she wants someone to “interview the CATS technicians who were involved. To interview CATS executive staff who had roles in this. To interview people in the city manager’s office who oversaw CATS.”

She also said she wants someone to “pull the records and the e-mails and the documents to substantiate what has actually occurred.”

Altman has been the most vocal member of the MTC about the derailment.

But as the disclosures of problems kept coming, other members of the oversight board were also furious at CATS.

“The trust that has been broken with our residents, with our families,” said Huntersville Mayor Melinda Bales. “I consider those that we represent are our families. We have got to find a way to fix that trust.”

Bales also asked Cagle why CATS did not perform the required maintenance on Lynx vehicles. Cagle didn't have a clear answer.

“I have heard many reasons, none that have satisfied me," he said. Cagle said CATS had enough money to do the maintenance it was supposed to do.

“This is not a money issue, this is a culture issue,” he added.

Davidson Mayor and MTC member Rusty Knox was also disappointed.

“First word that comes to mind for me is systemwide failure,” Knox said.

Are CATS' two boards the problem?

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who chairs the MTC, said it was important for the members to have what she called a candid conversation. Lyles said part of the problem is that CATS has two governing boards.

The first is the City Council, because CATS is a city department and CATS employees report up to the city manager. The second is the MTC, which has responsibility for setting the system's overall policy and direction but can't hire or fire CATS employees.

Lyles has said that dual governing structure may have led to communication breaking down after the derailment.

Altman, who sat next to Lyles during the meeting, dismissed that idea.

“I have also heard it raised that the governing structure is in some shape or form an apparent explanation for these failures,” Altman said.

“(But) there is no ambiguity that CATS is a public enterprise of a city of Charlotte. There is no ambiguity that CATS' CEO directly reports to the city manager. It can not be said that anyone at CATS is unclear who they should report to and this is the reason that all of the lapses occurred.”

City manager Marcus Jones attended the MTC meeting but did not address Altman’s points.

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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.