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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.

Charlotte city manager was told of light rail derailment in 2022, contradicting earlier statements

Derailed train in Charlotte
City of Charlotte
Handout art
A CATS Blue Line train derailed in May 2022.

Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones said Thursday he was told about the May 2022 derailment of a Lynx Blue Line train at the time — contradicting his earlier statements that he didn’t learn about it until February.

Jones said he was reviewing his text messages and discovered one from former CATS chief executive John Lewis, sent on the day of the derailment.

Jones read the text during a news conference.

“That text reads 'FYI we just had a minor derailment of a Blue Line Train heading northbound at Archdale station. Middle set of wheels came off the track. 36 people aboard. No injuries,'” Jones said.

Jones said he didn’t remember receiving the text and that he never responded to it.

“This is something that I missed and I do not recall receiving this text,” he added. “There is no other reference to this incident. Finding this text troubled me.”

Jones said he asked the city’s IT department to review other messages and emails between him and Lewis about the derailment. He said there weren’t any more messages.

“I share this information because it’s different than what I initially shared. It’s not my intent to misinform anyone,” Jones said.

Jones' revelation Thursday is the latest in a string of problems for Charlotte's troubled transit agency. In the last year, CATS has dealt with plunging ridership, missed bus routes, cuts to service and a near-strike by unionized bus drivers. And just this month, CATS has revealed the May 2022 derailment — as well that all of its light rail vehicles are potentially suffering from the same axle problem that caused that train to leave the tracks — missed safety inspections on bridges, skipped regular maintenance on trains, and the fact that about 1/3 of its aging bus fleet is past federal guidelines for acceptable age and needs to be urgently replaced.

During the news conference, Jones and other city officials indicated they don't plan to release personnel files about CATS employees that could shed light on those problems. Lewis, the former CEO, left CATS at the end of November for a job in the private sector with a transit consultant. CATS chief operating officer Allen Smith was placed on unpaid leave last month.

City manager knew about CATS derailment
WFAE reporter Steve Harrison talks with All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Gwen about the latest revelations about CATS' ongoing troubles.

The city has refused to say why. On Thursday, Jones said Smith is retiring. CATS chief financial officer also left last year, leaving the three top jobs vacant or filled with interim employees.

Assistant City Manager Brent Cagle became interim CEO on Dec. 1. He has said no one at CATS told him about the derailment or the investigation into what caused it.

Instead, Cagle said he learned about the derailment on Feb. 6, when he read a letter from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The state criticized CATS for having two “unacceptable hazardous conditions” in operating the Lynx Blue Line.

Less than two weeks later, the DOT sent CATS another letter, saying the transit system’s response to the accident was “unclear, insufficient and not acceptable." The state said the transit system had failed to do required maintenance on its light-rail vehicles and it ordered CATS to limit the speed of all Lynx trains to 35 mph.

Jones also said he is having the Federal Transit Administration do what he called an "all-cycle review" of CATS, as well as recommending Charlotte City Council establish a working committee to take a "deeper dive" into the problems at CATS. Jones also said he’s suspending the search for a new CEO, and keeping Cagle in place for at least six more months.

Jones said the city is committed to moving forward with a $13.5 billion transportation plan, though he said it’s doubtful the city will ask legislators this session to place a one-penny sales tax increase in Mecklenburg County on the ballot. Without that funding, the transit plan — which would be centered on a new east-west light rail called the Silver Line — is effectively in limbo.

Personnel records and perspective

Under North Carolina law, a public employee’s personnel file is private, but the city council can vote to release that information if doing so is essential to maintaining public confidence.

But Jones said he’s not going to do that.

And City Council member Ed Driggs, who chairs the transportation committee, said he doesn’t think council will direct the manager to do that either.

"And yes we do have that discretion to make that determination but we can’t completely set aside the confidentiality of personnel records and do a large scale-dump," said Driggs.

Driggs also said that the entire accident needs to be put in perspective. He said the word "derailment" conjures up thoughts of what happened in East Palestine, Ohio, and that what happened to the Lynx Blue Line was minor. The train didn’t tip over, and no one was hurt.

But that contradicts Cagle's characterization of the Blue Line derailment. Cagle has talked about the potential for catastrophic failure on the Lynx — which is why the trains are being restricted to 35 mph, a full 20 mph below their normal top speed. He’s talked about a “culture of silence” in CATS, and the need to change that so employees feel comfortable coming forward.

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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.