City: Driver at fault in Charlotte streetcar collision

A series of mistakes by a streetcar driver likely led to a Saturday morning accident in which the streetcar rolled out of control roughly a half-mile down Elizabeth Avenue before slamming into an SUV, city officials said Tuesday.

In its first account of the accident, the city said the problem began around 10:30 a.m. when Streetcar 91 arrived at the Hawthorne station, across from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center – the last stop on the line.

The streetcars have controls at both ends, and the driver, Metro Coston Jr., walked from the front of the car to the back so it could travel in the opposite direction.

But the city said he failed to perform a critical function: Turn a dial that would activate controls at the back of the car instead of the front.

The driver then attempted to insert a key that would allow him to drive the streetcar. As he tried to do this, he somehow released the brake, Charlotte Area Transit System interim Chief Executive John Muth said.

Then gravity took over.

The 48,000-pound streetcar began gently rolling down Hawthorne Lane. The driver began pressing a large red button on his control panel that controls an electromagnetic emergency brake.

But since he hadn’t activated the controls in the back of the streetcar, that emergency brake wouldn’t work. The car then made a right turn on Elizabeth Avenue, which is a steeper hill, and it began rolling faster.

The driver began ringing a warning bell.

Nearly two minutes after the car began to roll, Coston contacted the CATS Rail Operations Center. The city said the center told the driver to use the streetcar’s third brake, which is a large black wheel a few feet to the driver’s right.

Turning the wheel would have stopped the streetcar.

But CATS said the driver didn’t turn the wheel.

Yelling, screaming

At this point, a security video released Tuesday shows, passengers began yelling, and children on the car began screaming. At the bottom of the hill, a Chevrolet SUV was stopped in the same lane for a red light. The streetcar rear-ended the SUV at 25 mph, pushing it forward before the vehicle was shoved to the side.

The driver of the SUV, Phillip Mackey, was treated and released Saturday from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, according to a hospital representative.

The streetcar came to a stop near the passage under Interstate 277 as it went up an incline. Then it began rolling downhill again until, after calling the Rail Operations Center a second time, the driver applied the emergency wheel brake.

After the accident, Muth said Streetcar 91 was driven on its own power to the maintenance facility in South End. Testing there showed no problems with the brakes, Muth said.

The transit system suspected that day that the driver had made a mistake in not switching the controls from the front to the back. Before resuming service, they sent an advisory to drivers reminding them of the need to switch controls from one cab to another.

CATS response

Muth said CATS is having “increased supervisor ride-alongs to ensure the proper procedures are being followed.”

He also said CATS is developing a visual checklist for streetcar drivers to remind them of the need to switch the controls from one cab to another.

The $37 million Gold Line made its debut July 14, becoming Charlotte's first streetcar line in 77 years. Trolleys run every 15 to 20 minutes between Brevard Street uptown and Hawthorne Lane in Elizabeth.

Muth said he is still awaiting results of drug and alcohol tests performed on the driver, which is standard procedure in an accident. Coston, 67, a 26-year CATS veteran, is on administrative leave.

Muth said Coston had 200 hours of training, like other drivers. Of that time, 160 hours were on Lynx Blue Line vehicles. He also had 32 hours of practice driving on streetcar vehicles and eight hours in the classroom.

At the end, Coston tried to open the doors for the passengers but couldn’t. Then he remembered to switch the controls to the back of the streetcar, which allowed him to open the doors.

Saturday wasn’t Coston’s first day driving the streetcar. He had driven the route for passengers on Friday, Muth said.

None of the 19 passengers on the streetcar was hurt.

Muth said passengers should consider the transit system’s overall safety record.

“We have a very good safety record,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of this.”

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