CATS Interim-CEO on failures to maintain trains: “I’ll never know exactly why.”

The head of Charlotte’s transit agency sits down one-on-one with WBTV and answers how he’s trying to turn the page at the organization.
The head of Charlotte’s transit agency sits down one-on-one with WBTV and answers how he’s trying to turn the page at the organization.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 5:38 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - In a one-on-one interview with WBTV, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) Interim-CEO says he may never fully understand why critical maintenance for the Blue Line light rail cars was delayed year after year. Records from NCDOT show the failure of the previous CATS regime to complete the ‘overhaul’ maintenance was the root cause of one of the light rail vehicles derailing last year.

Charlotte’s city manager named Brent Cagle Interim-CEO of the beleaguered transit organization late last year. Since then, he’s revealed a light rail car derailment to Charlotte City Council and announced to the Metropolitan Transit Commission that inspections on light rail bridges and parking decks were past due.

In the interview with WBTV, Cagle said he can only speculate why maintenance priorities that were budgeted and even contracted for were never completed.

“I’ll never know exactly why, but here’s what I believe. I think there was miscommunication or lack of communication between the financial folks in CATS and the operations folks in CATS,” Cagle said.

“While the financial folks said, ‘hey, this money is available,’ I don’t know that that ever got communicated to operations.”

The trains need a ‘truck overhaul’ to help fix a defect that caused one of the light rail cars to derail in May 2022. They also need a ‘midlife overhaul’ that is recommended by the manufacturer, Siemens.

Because CATS needs to fix the train cars so quickly, Cagle told WBTV they are postponing the ‘midlife overhaul’ and contracting the critical ‘truck overhaul’ now. It’s not unlike taking your car to get the tires replaced but delaying the oil change and other repairs until later.

“Now we’re pivoting to focus on the truck overhaul, because today, that’s the most important thing,” Cagle said.

“Because you can’t afford the time of how long those cars would be out of service?” a WBTV reporter asked Cagle.

“That’s correct,” Cagle said.

Because many of the trains are passed their overhaul due date, NCDOT implemented several requirements, agreed to by CATS in a corrective action plan. Some of those requirements include:

- No trains allowed over 35mph

- Eight trains with the most mileage taken out of service. Those will be the first ones receiving the overhaul.

- Temperature stickers placed on trains to monitor train safety.

- No increases in level of service provided by light rail.

Even with the number of trains out of rotation, Cagle said that CATS can continue to maintain it’s current level of service, which is trains every 15-minutes during peak demand and 20-minutes during other times.

“If a large number of vehicles have to come out of service it could affect that, but we don’t foresee that,” Cagle said.

Cagle told MTC members he is meeting with CATS employees in town hall style meetings to encourage them to come forward with other uncomfortable truths, like overdue bridge and parking deck inspections.

So far, NCDOT has not recommended terminating light rail service because of safety issues.

“Can the people who use the system count on you to shut it down it down?” a WBTV reporter asked Cagle.

“If we ever get to a point where we believe we cannot operate safely, we’ll suspend service,” Cagle said.

“We will do that gladly in the name of safety with our partners.”

CATS three top executives have all left the organization in the last six months. While the former CATS CEO and CFO resigned, Chief Operating Officer Allen Smith was placed on unpaid administrative leave earlier this month, but Cagle wouldn’t say why.

Even with the recent executive departures, there are still top CATS leaders on the job that WBTV has raised questions about, including the head of the light rail, Deltrin Harris. Public records show Harris left a previous job in Washington DC after a report found a long list of safety and culture problems on his watch.

WBTV has also repeatedly reported on security issues overseen by Safety & Security General Manager David Moskowitz.

WBTV asked Cagle if accountability extended to people currently in those management positions.

“Absolutely, we are looking at that. Again, we are trying to understand everything that’s brought us, to develop a plan for moving forward and that doesn’t that doesn’t stop at the COO,” Cagle said.

“It doesn’t stop at the rail general manager, it doesn’t stop at the safety and security officer, that’s across the organization and we’re having those conversations and looking into all of these things.”