New CATS Problem: Short staffing at the rail control center

The issue was also raised by NCDOT after the derailment in May 2022
CATS Interim-CEO Brent Cagle told the Transportation, Planning and Development Committee that CATS light rail division is dealing with a high level of vacancies
Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 5:47 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A surprise inspection by the North Carolina Department of Transportation exposed Charlotte’s Rail Operations Control Center is sometimes operating with only one employee. CATS Interim-CEO revealed the problem to a council committee Monday morning and said it’s “not an ideal situation.”

It’s just the latest unwelcome news from CATS delivered to councilmembers as city leaders say they’re prioritizing rebuilding the public’s trust in the organization.

CATS Interim-CEO Brent Cagle told the Transportation, Planning and Development Committee that CATS light rail division is dealing with a high level of vacancies.

“Specifically in our Rail operations Control Center, referred to as the ROCC,” Cagle said.

“There have been times when CATS was operating the ROCC with one rail controller on duty at a time.”

Records from the light rail derailment reviewed by WBTV indicate this not necessarily a new problem. CATS report of the May 2022 derailment shows only one controller was working at the time of the incident and that person was later fired.

In response to the problem NCDOT wrote “NCDOT believed that 2 or 3 Rail Controllers are assigned to work each daily shift.”

NCDOT didn’t appreciate CATS initial response either writing “Absolutely ZERO recommended follow-up actions or corrective action plans for this and now, a very seasoned Rail Controller is no longer with the agency.”

Cagle says it could take six months to correct the issue and ROCC employees will have mandatory overtime until then.

An email sent from NCDOT to Cagle announces the results of a surprise inspection on March 31st after an anonymous complaint was filed with the department.

“Despite prior assurances received and CATS’ ongoing actions to address NCDOT’s required ROCC staffing related Corrective Action Plans, NCDOT has verified that scheduling a single ROCC qualified employee to oversee and manage all ROCC job duties, on various work shifts, is routinely planned,” the NCDOT wrote in its letter.

NCDOT found that the third shift in particular has an excessive amount of specific job duties and “further distracts ROCC employees from the critical responsibilities of overseeing and managing rail vehicle and streetcar movements.”

Councilmembers and city leaders continue to stress that the light rail is safe and neither NCDOT or FTA have called to suspend the system. The ongoing issue is what other problems will come to light and how will that impact public trust and service reliability.

During the meeting Monday City Manager Marcus Jones and Committee Chair Ed Driggs confirmed to councilmembers that they don’t see a path to pursue the one-cent sales tax to pay for the city’s mobility plan this year.

Instead, city leaders highlighted a series of steps to start moving CATS forward in a new direction.

Six Steps CATS and City Leaders are taking

1. Federal Transit Agency (FTA) off-cycle review. Every three years, the FTA conducts a regular review of CATS – as it does with other transit agencies. The most recent review took place in 2022. The regional FTA administrator has suggested the FTA conduct an off-cycle review. At this time, Mr. Cagle will request the FTA being a review with a particular focus on the May 2022 event and whether protocol was followed. Included in the focus will be CATS’ budgetary and maintenance process. Mr. Jones has requested the FTA expedite this review. Throughout this process, the city and CATS will support the FTA in any way we can to ensure the review moves quickly.

2. Oversight of a comprehensive review of CATS to the Transportation, Planning & Development Committee (TP&D). Mr. Jones is requesting a council work group be established to take a deep dive into CATS and report back to the TP&D Committee and City Council. This review will build upon the Management Partners Review of CATS culture, leadership, budget, operations, maintenance and governance. Mr. Jones is committed to regular updates at the TP&D meetings. Mr. Jones will be heavily involved and visible with TP&D, just as he was with SAFE Charlotte. This was a very successful model and one that can yield similar positive results, like it has done for the city before.

3. CATS CEO search suspended for at least 6 months. Mr. Jones has suspended the CATS CEO search as of now. This will give Mr. Cagle and staff time to focus on identifying and addressing some of the “foundational” issues within our agency. Mr. Jones selected Mr. Cagle for the interim role because of his experience and leadership that has served the city well. Mr. Cagle has CATS on the right path and the support of the CATS team has played a huge role in this. The move to temporarily suspend the CEL search is to create assurance to staff that the leadership team will be in place for a while as this work continues. Mr. Jones wants to ensure that when there is a permanent CEO in place, that person and the CATS organization are in the best possible position to succeed long term.

4. Additional personnel support for CATS. The leadership changes within our agency have provided an opportunity to reset CATS. Mr. Jones is working with city leadership to provide CATS with resources necessary to continue to make progress toward identifying and addressing issues, including a focus on creating a better culture. The city’s expertise is being leveraged to help address CATS’ issues. For example, most of you have met Chad Howell our interim CFO. He is the CFO for Charlotte Water. One of the critical identified roles for CATS is asset management. The General Services Department has a deep team of experts in the area, and Mr. Jones will fully dedicate staff from the General Services Department to CATS to assist in asset management. This will be temporary until we hire an asset management personnel. Mr. Jones is also pursuing other leaders from outside the city to step into roles within CATS to close gaps, bring practices and further reset the organizational culture as long-term plans for the organization continue.

5. Review of the City Manager’s Office structure related to oversight of portfolios/department to ensure appropriate oversight, communication and accountability. Mr. Jones has had conversations with assistant city managers to understand how they worked with pervious CATS leadership and how information was shared. It is clear that there was regular communication with CATS leadership, but the information was not always readily shared or was not always accurate. In the past, CATS leadership felt at time that they were more accountable to the MTC than the city. Mr. Jones believes this is due to a complicated governance structure. Mr. Jones is looking to see if there needs to be structure of the City Manager’s Office to ensue the city is operating to the best of our abilities.

6. Internal and external work around culture, customer experience and leadership training. We will be working with the Dijulius group to build out a custom programs around culture, customer experience and leadership training. The Dijulius Group is the organization that worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to develop its nationally recognized CMPD Serves program. The MarCom division will take lead in this work and work with employees across the department to gather feedback.