CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – During the worst stretch of Charlotte’s ‘ghost bus’ dilemma, when riders were waiting for buses that never arrived, CATS CEO John Lewis claimed the biggest challenge to overcoming the problem was operator absences.
At a council committee meeting on July 11th, Lewis showed graphs and powerpoint slides focusing on the amount of operator absences and the reason for CATS’ spotty service.
“In summary, that is the problem that we’ve been facing for the last several months,” Lewis said.
But internal records obtained by WBTV through sources, and months of videos and pictures, point to another part of the problem: broken buses.
CATS operators and drivers tell WBTV that the amount of broken buses is so great they often have to wait for a working bus to finish its route before they can
CATS operators and drivers tell WBTV that the amount of broken buses is so great they often have to wait for a working bus to finish its route before they can start theirs.
“Rows of buses full, with broken down buses. I’d say about 100 buses,” former CATS bus mechanic Louis Rugieri told WBTV.
Rugieri worked on fixing CATS buses for nine years until he left in July. He wasn’t employed by the city but instead, he worked for a private company called RATP Dev and its subsidiary Transit Management of Charlotte (TMOC) that was hired by the city to operate the bus system.
“The management company ran it to the ground,” Rugieri said.
Over the last few months, CATS bus operators started sending WBTV videos and pictures of buses breaking down and leaking fluid while they were picking up passengers.
After a recent union meeting, more than 20 CATS operators, also employees of TMOC, spoke with WBTV about the broken buses impeding their job. They said mechanical issues ruining their route was a common occurrence.
“Just this week I was broken down at Carolina Place mall,” one operator told WBTV.
WBTV obtained a copy of out-of-service reports for one day in July for the CATS garages on Tryon and North Davidson. It shows 106 buses out of the rotation for one day. The most recent public record WBTV could find numbering CATS fleet showed 314 buses. That means roughly 33 percent of the CATS fleet is out of service.
“You don’t have enough equipment for us to drive,” an operator told WBTV.
Every operator WBTV interviewed claimed to have waited for a working bus at some point, delaying their route.
“I had to wait almost five or six hours,” another operator said.
“If you don’t have the buses and the operators don’t have a bus to take out, then you can’t be on schedule,” an operator said.
“So folks just assume that the driver is not here, but they don’t have the equipment yet.”
Rugieri backed up the operator claims and so did other sources who previously worked in the bus operations division.
“Bus drivers just sit there waiting for a bus to come in and we’d fill it up and turn it back around and get it back outside on the road,” Rugieri said.
But, a lot of times, Rugieri said, he couldn’t fix the bus because he didn’t have the parts. The out-of-service logs WBTV obtained show more than 80 percent of the broken buses remain out of service because the maintenance division is waiting for parts to repair the buses.
“There were times that we had no oil filters, no wipers, no light bulbs, no batteries,” Rugieri said.
“Even shop equipment was broken down and lifts were broken. We had maybe five lifts that were working.”
Rugieri says the lack of parts didn’t mean less pressure to get buses back on the road.
“They would take a part off of a bus in the lanes and put it on a bus that we have in the shop to fix it just to get it out,” Rugieri told WBTV.
“Were you ever concerned that there were repair issues that were not being addressed on buses that were going out?” a WBTV reporter asked Rugieri.
“They want the buses turned around and then gone, send them out again and we have no parts,” Rugieri said.
“If it was brakes (broken), they took it out of service, it didn’t matter.”
“But some of the buses are just old and raggedy and just falling apart. I wouldn’t put my family on one of them buses,” Rugieri said.
WBTV has requested several public records from CATS and the City of Charlotte over a period of three months that would shed more light on the bus maintenance predicament. So far, the city has not fulfilled any of WBTV’s records requests and the only document that has been provided is the contract between Charlotte and RATP Dev.
WBTV reached out to RATP Dev but did not receive a response. The contractor has not replied to any of WBTV’s emails or phone calls related to CATS reporting.
After WBTV’s story aired Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for CATS provided responses to WBTV’s questions. CATS’ responses are in the bullet points below.
WBTV: Why should riders have confidence in the conditions of CATS buses given the concerns internally from operators and maintenance?
- Safety is, as always, CATS’ No. 1 priority, and we do not operate buses that are unsafe for operators or riders. Buses undergo regular scheduled preventive maintenance and are not put into revenue service with defective safety components.
- Buses come on/off the down (maintenance) list every day, so the total may be 100 buses inoperable, but it’s not always the same 100 buses.
WBTV: Why are the buses with repair issues remaining out of service for so long?
- A supply chain issue is causing the delivery of parts to be significantly delayed. Parts that used to only take one week to receive are now taking months. For example:
- Air compressors are on national backorder with no estimated delivery.
- Radiator vendor will not receive raw material from Asia to make radiator cores until late August 2022.
- Engine vendor Detroit has a 6+ month turnaround time.
- Engine vendor Cummins has a 3-4-month turnaround time.
WBTV: Why is the operator issue being elevated, highlighted and publicized by CATS if there are not enough working buses to accommodate all of the routes?
- We have enough buses available to cover current service levels. At the current level of service, we need 162 buses during weekday peak, 123 buses during Saturday peak and 86 buses during Sunday peak. Out of 316 buses, there are currently (as of 9:40 am on 8/29) 121 buses out of service and 195 available for service, so we have 33 more buses available than needed for service during today’s peak.
- Buses are available as needed. As of 8/25/22, there is a 19% spare ratio. FTA only allows a 20% spare ratio.
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