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Charlotte Area

Streetcar Driver 'Could Not Control The Trolley'

Jeff Siner
Charlotte Observer
Workers examine and cleanup the front end of a streetcar on Saturday, July 18, 2015, after it was involved in an accident with an SUV. The incident occurred around 10:30 a.m. when the streetcar rear-ended a sport utility vehicle.

Charlotte Observer

Questions remained Monday, two days after a Charlotte streetcar collided with an SUV after the trolley driver “tried to stop but could not control the trolley,” according to a police report.

Passengers on the streetcar describe a harrowing scene Saturday in which they realized the driver couldn’t control the 48,000-pound streetcar for about one-half mile as it rolled west down Elizabeth Avenue toward the SUV at the bottom of the hill. One passenger said the streetcar pushed aside the SUV as though it were a “piece of trash.”

The Charlotte Area Transit System said Saturday that it was investigating the accident and said the two remaining streetcars were tested and found to be safe that day. None of the 22 passengers was injured.

The transit system has declined to comment further. The city said Monday it will provide more information about the accident Tuesday.

Credit Charlotte Observer

Lory Cobb, who was on the streetcar with her husband, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, said passengers became concerned soon after the streetcar left the station across from Novant Presbyterian Medical Center.

“It was going faster than normal operating speed,” she said. “It was obvious that the driver had no control. We had no doubt that we were going to hit the vehicle.”

A police report said the streetcar was traveling 25 mph at impact. Its speed varies, but in a safety brochure, CATS said it takes a streetcar 100 feet to stop at 16 mph.

Andrew Maki was sitting in the back of the streetcar. He said it “started picking up speed and shaking, you know, like how an old roller coaster shakes.”

“Someone asked the driver if they could get off, and the driver told them that he couldn’t because the brakes went out,” Maki said.

He added that the streetcar “blew through one red light” and then “smashed the backside” of a car at the bottom of the hill.

CATS said the driver of the vehicle, listed in the police report as Metro Coston Jr., was given mandatory alcohol and drug testing, which is standard procedure for any accident.

Streetcar service resumed Saturday.

Two streetcar drivers said Monday they hadn’t been told by supervisors what caused the crash.

The driver of the SUV, Phillip Mackey, was treated and released Saturday from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Mackey has retained attorney Victor Mitchener, who said Mackey is not talking about the crash. The police report said his Chevrolet sustained $5,000 in damages.

One streetcar passenger, Julia Cummings, told the Observer the streetcar hit the SUV and “pushed it out of the way like a piece of trash and (the streetcar) kept going about 100 yards.”

Cummings said she believes the brakes failed on the streetcar. She said it was “one of the most terrifying experiences” of her life.

It’s possible the streetcar only stopped because it reached the bottom of the hill. Cummings said the streetcar traveled about 100 yards after the collision, stopping near the Interstate 277 overpass.

Streetcar builder says no other problems

It’s not a surprise that there would be an accident between a streetcar and a vehicle. The streetcars take longer to brake than passenger vehicles, and the streetcars can’t swerve to avoid danger.

But Saturday’s apparent loss of control by the streetcar driver presents a host of questions, including why the streetcar couldn’t stop and whether the other Gold Line streetcars are safe.

CATS has three replica streetcars, which were manufactured by the Gomaco Trolley Co. based in Iowa. CATS bought the cars in 2001, and they were used on the short trolley line from uptown to South End that preceded the Lynx Blue Line.

The Gomaco website describes the streetcar’s braking system, which it said it has two extra safety features.

In addition to the main braking system, “electromagnetic rail brakes are an added safety feature to allow emergency stops.”

The emergency brake is a wheel to the driver’s right side.

Gomaco also said the streetcars have a “dead-man” switch that will stop the car if the driver is incapacitated.

Richard Smith, a Gomaco vice president, said Monday he had never heard of any similar problem with any of its trolleys across the country.

He said checking the braking system would be “part of normal maintenance.”

CATS said after the accident that the streetcars had passed daily safety checks. The streetcar involved in the wreck was pulled from service.

Gomaco said its trolleys operate in Tampa, Fla.; Philadelphia; Fresno, Calif.; Los Angeles; Memphis Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., among other cities.

A search of news articles found no other instance in which the brakes on Gomaco trolleys were suspected of failing.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which operates a Tampa streetcar, said it hasn’t had problems with the Gomaco cars losing control.

“We have not had any accidents where the streetcar could not be stopped,” HART spokesperson Sandra Morrison said. “Our streetcars will not stop on a dime, but no brake malfunctions have been reported.”

When did streetcar lose control?

The Observer has requested a copy of the security camera video taken from inside the streetcar before the accident.

Three of the passengers said they boarded the streetcar at the Charlotte Transportation Center, across from Time Warner Cable Arena. Cummings, one of the passengers, said the streetcar did not stop as it made its outbound trip to Elizabeth.

That, in itself, is not unusual. The streetcar drivers will not stop at a station if there is no one waiting and if a passenger does not pull a rope that rings a bell. The bell tells the driver that a passenger wants to get off the streetcar.

It was Saturday morning when the accident occurred, so it’s possible no one was waiting for the streetcar at the stations along the route.

That last station on the line is across from the hospital, on Hawthorne Lane. Typically a driver will stop the streetcar, allow passengers to board, and then move to the opposite end of the trolley for the trip uptown.

Cummings said as soon as the driver began walking to the other side of the streetcar, the problems started. The doors didn’t open to let people off or new people on. The streetcar has controls at each end, so it can be operated in both directions.

She said the streetcar began picking up speed as it made the turn from Hawthorne Lane to Elizabeth Avenue. She said it should have stopped at a red traffic light at Charlottetown Avenue, but didn’t.

“Two cars barely squeaked past,” she said. “Two slammed on their brakes and almost slammed into the side of the streetcar. At that point you could tell we weren’t going to stop. We continued to accelerate.”

She said passengers realized they were going to crash and braced themselves.