CATS light rail maintenance “overhaul” delayed for years before derailment

Former CATS leadership took a year to tell the public about a train that derailed.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 6:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte’s former transit leaders knew about the need for a massive light rail maintenance project for years before a train derailment last May.

Although Charlotte city councilmembers only recently learned about the derailment, public records show the “midlife overhaul” plan to prevent this type of derailment from happening, was delayed again and again.

While recently appointed CATS Interim-CEO Brent Cagle says he is working out the contract to fix the trains, NCDOT has forced LYNX to take trains off the tracks that have logged too many miles.

The lack of available trains could ultimately slow light rail service and make trains less frequent if any more of the cars are forced out of service.

Cagle told councilmembers Monday the trains running on the Blue Line are safe.

Letters from NCDOT to CATS describe the maintenance problem as “unacceptable hazardous conditions.” The records claim the derailment was caused by in issue with the axle seal that leaked onto a bearing and led to the axel locking. According to CATS research, the issue is pervasive on all LYNX trains and has been found on the cars of another light rail system.

NCDOT ordered eight trains with the highest mileage were taken out of service and no train go above 35 mph.

Cagle’s been on the job since late last year but says he only recently learned the trains need a midlife overhaul that’s already overdue.

“Do I believe that staff should have informed me sooner, on December 1st? Yes,” Cagle told reporters Monday.

Public records show the overhaul has been on CATS radar for years but was never completed.

In February 2020, CATS two top former executives, CEO John Lewis and COO Allen Smith, told Mayor Vi Lyles and other Mecklenburg mayors about the pending midlife overhaul in a Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting.

Budgets over the last several years show CATS planned on paying for the maintenance starting in FY2020 using grants or capital investment plan funding. The estimated costs have fluctuated from $34 million to $44 million and now back to $24 million with Cagle’s estimate on Monday.

The most recently filed budget records show the midlife overhaul would be paid for with COVID-19 funds.

On Monday, Cagle emphasized CATS’s need to repair and replace both its bus and light rail fleets. WBTV has been uncovering maintenance needs and lagging resources in CATS bus system for more than a year.

NCDOT has now accepted CATS plan to fix these issues in what’s called a corrective action plan and will require CATS to submit weekly reports.