Charlotte’s light rail cars are aging. New report urges fast safety action
WBTV Investigates: CATS Interim-CEO disclosed derailment previously kept secret
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A final report on Charlotte’s light rail derailment from last May raises more safety concerns about the maintenance of the vehicles and procedures for making sure trains in need of inspections are taken off the tracks.
Officials from NCDOT who reviewed the report offered blistering critiques of some of CATS’ initial findings and found that failure to immediately perform midlife and truck overhauls of the trains was “not acceptable.”
WBTV obtained the report through a records request with NCDOT and identified several major issues LYNX riders should know about.
Maintenance and Overhauls
To NCDOT, what caused the train to derail is clear. In the comments section on CATS report, an official from NCDOT wrote “root cause is poor maintenance which led to the wheel bearing failure.”
Despite the certainty from NCDOT, CATS Safety & Security General Manager David Moskowitz wrote in response “deferred maintenance possibly contributed to the failure of the bearing and is properly listed as a contributing factor.”
NCDOT’s reference to maintenance is regarding midlife and truck overhauls the train cars need according to the manufacturer, Siemens. The report says that the specific car that derailed was due for an axle overhaul at 10 years, but it has been operating for 12 years without the overhaul being completed.
Conducting the overhaul is critical, according to NCDOT.
“CATS must explain what actions will be taken to reduce safety risks. Operating these trains, for the next two years, without overhauls is unacceptable,” an NCDOT official wrote in the report.
Since the report was sent on February 28, CATS Interim-CEO Brent Cagle has announced his efforts to get Siemens to conduct the overhauls quickly. NCDOT has forced CATS to take some of the light rail vehicles with the most mileage out of service. No light rail vehicles are permitted to go over 35mph.
WBTV is still investigating to find out the reason the overhauls weren’t completed on time.
In the contributing factors section of the report, CATS wrote the overdue maintenance issues were “a result of supply chain issues and staffing caused by COVID and decisions made at the procurement/finance level.”
In a statement emailed to WBTV, a spokesperson for CATS wrote “CATS is currently working to understand the pause on the overhaul of the rail vehicles. With the departure of past leadership, CATS is currently trying to understand the past business decisions that were made.”
CATS says there are two overhauls needed, a truck overhaul and a midlife overhaul. The midlife overhaul will cost between $43-50 million. The truck overhaul will cost $24 million but contracts and council approval haven’t happened yet.
CATS says $50 million total has been earmarked for the project, $38.9 million from the American Rescue Plan, and $11.1 million from the Coronavirus Response and Relief fund.
Taking Safety Seriously
Before CATS employees knew the train had derailed, the operator driving the light rail called the Rail Operations Control Center to report the train was “wobbling back and forth on the tracks really bad.”
Despite the use of what NCDOT calls a “trigger” word, the controller at the ROCC instructed the operator to try and move the vehicle to the Scaleybark station. When the operator said he didn’t feel moving the train was safe, the controller instructed him to turn the vehicle off and on and reset it before attempting to move it again.
NCDOT had several comments on this interaction and regarding safety procedures CATS claimed could have prevented the derailment.
· NCDOT wrote it was “the operator who decided that the train should not be moved…was ROCC going to just keep trying other means to correct propulsion problem?”
· Only one controller was on shift at the ROCC at the time of the derailment. NCDOT wanted an explanation for why ROCC was understaffed. “NCDOT believed that 2 or 3 Rail Controllers are assigned to work each daily shift.”
· NCDOT noted rail car maintenance did not complete a walk-around before attempting to move the train and asked if that was due to a perception that an operator “does not know what he/she is doing or is there another explanation?” CATS said there was no explanation and there was no written procedure for conducting a walk-around to diagnose train problems.
One section on safety that stood out is regarding CATS’ claims of what operators could have done to prevent the derailment.
The report states that as the train switched operators, they discussed the train was having “intermittent propulsion issues while departing stations.”
In its conclusion section of the report, CATS wrote “Had the train been reported faulty by the initial operator and removed from service, the derailment could also have been prevented…”
NCDOT flatly rejected this possibility in its comment writing that the department “disagrees with (the) statements, as it’s clear how the ROCC would have responded” and pointed to the ROCC controller telling the operator to try and resent the train after it derailed.
NCDOT is requiring CATS to monitor temperature strips on the remaining cars in operation to make sure that components like bearings aren’t at risk of failing before the overhauls start taking place.
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