City council approves $30 million in light rail repairs after 2022 derailment

CHARLOTTE — A CATS light rail vehicle derailed in May 2022 due to a faulty bearing and all 42 light rail cars remain at risk of this happening again, said Brent Cagle, interim CEO for Charlotte Area Transit Authority.

The public had no idea. Charlotte City Council members had no clue. Cagle says he found out two weeks ago. Now everyone has more questions.

“I think I can speak for council that we didn’t know about this,” Councilmember Renee Johnson said at a meeting in March. “So that’s concerning.”

On May 21, 2022, a light rail vehicle derailed between the New Bern and Archdale stations. A tweet from CATS called the issue “a train malfunction.” According to tweets, a bus bridge was in place between the two stations from roughly 1 p.m. until 10 p.m.

Cagle has been serving as interim CATS CEO since December. He said he found out from staff members two weeks ago about the incident after he was contacted by NCDOT about mitigation plans.

“Do I believe staff should have informed me sooner? On Dec 1? Yes,” Cagle told the council last month. “Would I have liked (for them) to inform me sooner? Absolutely.”

Cagle says the derailment was due to a faulty bearing. No one was injured. The middle section of the light rail vehicles became detached from the track. Cagle says all 42 light rail vehicles suffer from the same issue that caused the May 2022 derailment. But he says a mitigation plan is in place and he is confident in the safety of the light rail.

“I am 100% confident that CATS Blue Line, CATS rail is safe,” he said. “CATS Blue Line is safe. Safety and security are our top priority.”

On Monday, the Charlotte City Council unanimously approved spending up to $30 million to fix the light rail vehicles.

The work has to happen in California, and they need to buy or borrow dollies so they can ship seven or eight at a time. Until this issue is addressed, the maximum speed the light rail will travel is 35 mph instead of the average speed of 40 mph to 45 mph. This will not impact transit times, according to Cagle.

“At a lower speed, it possible for an operator to take action should something occur,” Cagle said last month. “If there are indications the bearing starts to fail, this gives the operator more time to react.”

CATS operators are also monitoring the temperatures of the axles and will pull them if they get too hot. According to Cagle, Siemens advised the light rail vehicles are at risk of derailing if the temperatures of the axles reach 150 degrees or greater. As a precaution, CATS is pulling vehicles with axle temperatures above 130.

Last week, Channel 9 reported CATS COO Allen Smith was placed on administrative leave without pay. Cagle declined to say if this is the reason why. Former CATS CEO John Lewis did not tell Cagle about the derailment before he left his position.

Due to their age, the faulty bearings are not covered by warranty. Cagle expects the new contract will be around $24 million.

Timeline, per CATS:

  • May 21, 2022: LYNX Blue Line train was traveling northbound on Track one. After crossing through the Old Pineville Grade Crossing between Scaleybark and Woodlawn stations, a wheel on the middle truck of Light Rail Vehicle 201 derailed and traveled 1,206 feet down the alignment before coming to a stop safely. The middle truck wheel came off of the tracks. It did not turn on its side or fall to the ground. There were 24 passengers onboard, and they were all able to offload safely. One passenger did request a medical evaluation on-scene. No passenger or employee was injured or transported from the scene. (see derailment photo attached)
  • May 24, 2022: Preliminary Incident Report submitted to NCDOT SSO
  • Jan. 25, 2023: Initial Final Incident Report submitted to NCDOT SSO
  • Feb. 6, 2023: After providing NCDOT SSO additional information they requested, NCDOT SSO notified CATS that there needed to be a corrective action plan submitted. NCDOT also asked CATS to consider implementing a systemwide light rail vehicle speed restriction on the LYNX Blue Line.
  • Feb. 17, 2023: CATS took immediate action before approval of the NCDOT SSO corrective action plan and implemented a speed restriction programmed systemwide for the LYNX Blue Line of 35 miles per hour. Over the next few days, CATS and NCDOT SSO worked together to create the corrective action plan.
  • Feb. 21, 2023: Revised Final Incident Report submitted to NCDOT SSO
  • March 1, 2023: NCDOT SSO accepts CATS Final Incident Report
  • March 2, 2023: NCDOT SSO approved the corrective action plan submitted by CATS. CATS worked internally to ensure all measures are in place to meet the reporting of the NCDOT SSO corrective action plan.
  • March 13, 2023: Interim CEO Brent Cagle gave a 90-day status update to City Council on his time at CATS.

The NCDOT’s State Safety Oversight Program is responsible for monitoring CATS’ compliance with its light rail and streetcar safety plan.

“In January 2023, the manufacturer of the light rail vehicle completed its final analysis and CATS submitted its final incident investigation report of the May 2022 derailment,” the NCDOT stated.

NCDOT directed CATS to develop a corrective action plan and install certain safety measures, including a 35 mph speed restriction.

NCDOT will continue to provide the required oversight to ensure CATS is following its FTA-required safety plan.

VIDEO: Chief operating officer of CATS on administrative leave without pay

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