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So many CATS bus drivers are missing work that service could be cut, operator warns

Charlotte Area Transit System plans to convert its mostly diesel bus fleet to compressed natural gas beginning in two years.
David Boraks
A CATS bus in uptown Charlotte.

The private management company that operates Charlotte’s troubled bus system says it might cut service because not enough drivers are coming to work.

Transit Management of Charlotte, a subsidiary of RATP Dev, the private bus company that runs Charlotte's system, said in a letter sent to drivers last week that it’s "concerned and mystified that absenteeism remains a problem," two months after bus drivers agreed to a new contract that raised their pay.

CATS drivers threatened to strike in January during negotiations. The new contract was designed to encourage people to come to work, but general manager Steve Hamelin wrote that: "We continue to have so many operators that call out sick or leave half-way through their shift … that we end up with hundreds, if not thousands, of missed trips in a week."

He wrote that as a result the company is working with the Charlotte Area Transit System to plan for new service cuts, in addition to ones that were enacted last fall. To cut down on missed trips, CATS already slashed bus service to match the number of drivers last year. At least 40 bus driver positions might be cut this year if attendance doesn't improve, though Hamelin said the number could be higher.

He said drivers have a chance now to reduce their "points," or accumulation of disciplinary records, if they show up to work now.

"If these opportunities are not capitalized upon there will be little to discuss when you throw away a perfectly good career," he wrote.

The blistering letter, first reported by Queen City News, also implored drivers to think about passengers.

Hamelin wrote: "Imagine your family member standing at a bus stop in the heat or cold, early morning or late at night, waiting for a bus that never comes because somebody did not show up for work or left early."

He also said if drivers decide rules don’t apply to them, then, "You shall reap what you sew [sic]."

CATS buses are operated not by the city, but by a separate contractor. TMOC is a subsidiary of RATP Dev, the company that Charlotte contracts with to hire and manage drivers, and operate the system. The bus driver union also negotiates with TMOC/RATP Dev, not the city of Charlotte, because municipalities can't negotiate with unions under North Carolina law.

This year's bus driver absentee problem is the latest issue for CATS, which also attributed poor service and missed trips last year to driver absenteeism. Drivers have said they weren't paid enough and didn't feel safe, especially after a bus driver was shot and killed last year in a road rage incident.

CATS is also dealing with safety and operational problems on the Blue Line light rail, including the derailment of a train that led the state to cap all light rail speeds at 35 mph, and a shortage of rail controllers on duty that caused the state to threaten to shut down light rail service in Charlotte if the city can't increase staffing.

A Lynx Blue Line vehicle derailed in May 2022 because of a broken axle bearing. CATS interim CEO Brent Cagle only learned about the accident and investigation two weeks ago.

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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.