As Mayor Lyles commits to 'transparency,' CATS declines to answer basic questions about its response to derailment
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said in a statement Tuesday that the city is committed to “openness and transparency” after it was revealed the Charlotte Area Transit System didn’t disclose a light-rail train derailment for nearly nine months.
Her statement came as Mecklenburg Commissioner Leigh Altman has said the transit system’s actions were “beyond the pale” after the accident and that she wants an investigation into what happened.
Lyles and Altman are members of the Metropolitan Transit Commission, a governing body for CATS, which has a meeting Wednesday night. Altman has said she will call for an investigation of the transit system.
But while Lyles was saying she was committed to transparency, the city of Charlotte was still declining to answer basic questions about the derailment — such as when it reached out to the vehicle manufacturer to find out what happened.
The derailment happened in late May.
CATS has said an axle bearing on a light-rail vehicle cracked, and water seeped inside.
That displaced lubricating grease and caused the wheel to stop turning. The train’s wheels dislodged from the track, but the Lynx car did not tip over. No one was hurt.
At the time, CATS only said that there were delays on the Lynx Blue Line because of a “malfunction.”
When Brent Cagle took over as interim CATS CEO on Dec. 1, no one told him about the accident or the possibility that the entire Lynx fleet might need to be fixed. He said he learned about the accident after receiving a letter from the North Carolina Department of Transportation on Feb. 6, when it told CATS the agency had two “unacceptable hazardous conditions.”
Less than two weeks later, the DOT said CATS’ response to the accident was “unclear, insufficient and not acceptable.”
It ordered CATS to place all Lynx trains on a 35 mph speed limit. That's about 20 mph below normal top speed.
CATS waited nearly a month before telling the public about that.
Altman said she wants the investigation after reading about the DOT’s concerns from WFAE.
She wrote in a letter to her colleagues on the MTC that: “It would seem someone at CATS would have felt an ethical obligation to reveal this information to the City Manager, City Council, the MTC or the public over the last ten months. It thus appears there is a work environment whereby CATS staff felt unable to come forward with safety concerns not being handled properly by upper management. This is a serious problem of workplace culture which can and did jeopardize public safety.”
CATS has declined to answer basic questions from reporters or make top officials available since Cagle briefed City Council.
The Charlotte Observer reported that it asked the transit system how much repairing all 42 light-rail vehicles would cost. CATS told the newspaper it needed to clarify what repairs it was talking about.
WFAE asked CATS when it first contacted the light-rail vehicle manufacturer Siemens to help the transit system diagnose what caused the derailment in May. CATS would only say that it reached out to Siemens after the accident. It did not provide a date — or even a month.
Cagle spoke to the media after revealing the derailment to City Council at last Monday’s City Council meeting. No one from CATS had done so since.
In her statement, Lyles said that “addressing these issues requires a thoughtful approach that seeks to identify and solve the root causes rather than just the symptoms of the problems. Over the last six months, we have made significant progress in improving CATS and ensuring that it operates at its best. However, there is still more work to be done, and we remain committed to continuing this important work in the coming weeks, months and years.”
She did not call for the city to investigate what happened.
She said that she told City Manager Marcus Jones and Cagle that the City Council and MTC receive regular updates on the safety and security of the system.
She also floated the idea of a new governing structure for CATS.
CATS is a city department, and the chief executive of the transit system reports to Jones, the city manager. The City Council and mayor have oversight of the manager.
CATS is also governed by the MTC, which is comprised of elected officials from the city, county and the Mecklenburg County towns. The MTC votes on how CATS spends its money, but its members do not have the power to hire or fire anyone from the organization.
Lyles said the current governing structure has “overlap and a lack of clarity.”
She proposed the city consider making the transit system a regional authority.
That would remove oversight from the city. But it would likely require neighboring counties to spend millions of dollars for a regional transit system — something none have said they are willing to do yet.