Light-rail mechanics: Without more people, we can't provide safe, reliable service

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - The opening of the Lynx Blue Line Extension has overwhelmed the mechanics who keep light-rail vehicles running, one transit employee recently told City Council.

"We want to continue to provide a safe, reliable and dependable mode of transportation," said Kris Barrows, who has worked for the Charlotte Area Transit System for three years. "But without enough people, it's just not possible to do it."

Barrows said the biggest problem is that the extension requires more trains and staffing hasn't kept up. In addition, he said CATS is now running trains every eight minutes during rush hour, which gives mechanics less time to do their work.

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He also said electro-mechanics spend a significant amount of time fixing the city's three replica streetcars, which he said are prone to breakdown.

"The three trolleys take up a lot of manpower," Barrows said. "They are always breaking down. They take up as much manpower as the rest of the fleet."

Barrows said CATS has 27 mechanics covering three shifts, and he estimates CATS needs another 13 to 15 mechanics. He earns about $52,000 a year, and Barrows said private companies often hire CATS mechanics because they want their skills.

In response to questions from the Observer, CATS said it "appreciates the feedback its employees offer. We will work with them, so we may continue to provide a safe, reliable service." The transit system did not address specific questions about safety or reliability.

Barrows spoke to City Council during the public forum in early April. It doesn't appear his pleas have raised concerns among council members.

Julie Eiselt, the mayor pro tem, said city manager Marcus Jones has not sent council members information about what Barrows said. She said she isn't aware of any council members who have asked, either.

"At the end of the day, we need the manager to answer those questions," he said. "We want to know that safety on the light rail is a top priority. But I don't know that anyone has made a formal request from the manager to respond to that comment."

The Federal Transit Administration said it doesn't have a recommendation about how many mechanics/technicians transit systems should have.

Barrows is an executive board member of the Charlotte City Workers Union, a chapter of UE local 150. As the City Council discusses the budget for the upcoming fiscal year in July, the union has lobbied the city for better pay and working conditions.

It wants the city to do a "comprehensive review of staffing levels to ensure safety....Additionally the city should investigate departments with turnover rates to determine root causes."

Among the departments cited: repair crews for Charlotte Water; Solid Waste Services; and the Lynx Blue Line maintenance department.

Barrows said CATS recently opened a new maintenance yard on the Blue Line Extension.

"But you can walk in there and it's almost dark," he said. "We don't have enough people on the first and second shifts there."

Don Stanciauskas, another light-rail mechanic, agrees.

"I work six days a week constantly," he said.

Barrows said he took his concerns to his supervisors, as well as CATS chief executive John Lewis. He said Lewis encouraged him to speak with council members, who might be moved to help CATS with more money. Barrows said Lewis refers to the mechanics as "unicorns" because "we are awfully hard to find."

In an interview, Barrows said he and his colleagues are not compromising safety. He said they are overworked, but will not allow a light-rail vehicle to go into service if there is a problem.

"We would rather operate a train with just one vehicle than to put something out that isn't safe," he said.