Light rail, light rail transit (LRT), or fast tram is a form of urban
rail transport using rolling stock similar to a tramway, but operating
at a higher capacity, and often on an exclusive right-of-way.
Utah Transit Authority's TRAX is one of the fastest growing light rail
systems in the United States.
With nearly a quarter million riders served each day, Boston's MBTA
Green Line is the busiest light rail system in the United States.
There is no standard definition, but in the
United States (where the
terminology was devised in the 1970s from the engineering term light
railway), light rail operates primarily along exclusive rights-of-way
and uses either individual tramcars or multiple units coupled to form
a train that is lower capacity and lower speed than a long heavy-rail
passenger train or metro system.
A few light rail networks tend to have characteristics closer to rapid
transit or even commuter rail; some of these heavier rapid
transit-like systems are referred to as light metros. Other light rail
networks are tram-like in nature and partially operate on streets.
Light rail systems are found throughout the world, on all inhabited
continents. They have been especially popular in recent years due to
their lower capital costs and increased reliability compared with
heavy rail systems.
3.1 Lower capacity
3.2 Higher capacity
3.3 Mixed systems
3.4 Speed and stop frequency
3.5 System-wide considerations
4 Track gauge
5.2 Comparison with high capacity roads
5.3 Practical considerations
7 Construction and operation costs
8 Health impact
9 Integration with bicycles
10.1 Trams operating on mainline railways
10.2 Third-rail power for trams
11 Comparison to other rail transit modes
11.1 Typical rolling stock
11.2 Train operation
11.3 Floor height
11.4 Power sources
Tram and other light rail transit systems worldwide
13 See also
15 External links
See also: History of Trams,
Light rail in North America, Horsecar,
Cable car (railway), and Interurban
Streetcar built by
Preston Car Company
Preston Car Company in Ontario
Many original tram and streetcar systems in the United Kingdom, United
States, and elsewhere were decommissioned starting in the 1950s as the
popularity of the automobile increased. Britain abandoned its last
tram system, except for Blackpool, by 1962. Although some
traditional trolley or tram systems exist to this day, the term "light
rail" has come to mean a different type of rail system. Modern light
rail technology has primarily West German origins, since an attempt by
Boeing Vertol to introduce a new American light rail vehicle was a
technical failure. After World War II, the Germans retained many of
their streetcar networks and evolved them into model light rail
systems (Stadtbahnen). Except for Hamburg, all large and most
medium-sized German cities maintain light rail networks.
The basic concepts of light rail were put forward by H. Dean Quinby in
1962 in an article in Traffic Quarterly called "Major Urban Corridor
Facilities: A New Concept". Quinby distinguished this new concept in
rail transportation from historic streetcar or tram systems as:
having the capacity to carry more passengers
appearing like a train, with more than one car connected together
having more doors to facilitate full utilization of the space
faster and quieter in operation
The term light rail transit (LRT) was introduced in North America in
1972 to describe this new concept of rail transportation.
The first of the new light rail systems in North America began
operation in 1978 when the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, adopted
Siemens-Duewag U2 system, followed three years later by
Calgary, Alberta, and San Diego, California. The concept proved
popular, and although Canada has few cities big enough for light rail,
there are now at least 30 light rail systems in the United States.
Britain began replacing its run-down local railways with light rail in
the 1980s, starting with the
Tyne and Wear Metro
Tyne and Wear Metro and followed by the
Docklands Light Railway
Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London. The historic term light
railway was used because it dated from the British Light Railways Act
1896, although the technology used in the DLR system was at the high
end of what Americans considered to be light rail. The trend to light
rail in the United Kingdom was firmly established with the success of
Manchester Metrolink system in 1992.
See also: Passenger rail terminology
Edmonton Light Rail Transit
Edmonton Light Rail Transit in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, was the
first modern LRT line in North America
Link light rail
Link light rail in St. Louis, Missouri, United States
The Buenos Aires Premetro, built in 1987
The term light rail was coined in 1972 by the U.S. Urban Mass
Transportation Administration (UMTA; the precursor to the Federal
Transit Administration) to describe new streetcar transformations that
were taking place in Europe and the United States. In Germany the term
Stadtbahn (to be distinguished from S-Bahn, which stands for
Stadtschnellbahn) was used to describe the concept, and many in UMTA
wanted to adopt the direct translation, which is city rail (the
Norwegian term, bybane, means the same). However, UMTA finally adopted
the term light rail instead. Light in this context is used in the
sense of "intended for light loads and fast movement", rather than
referring to physical weight. The infrastructure investment is also
usually lighter than would be found for a heavy rail system.
Transportation Research Board
Transportation Research Board (Transportation Systems Center)
defined "light rail" in 1977 as "a mode of urban transportation
utilizing predominantly reserved but not necessarily grade-separated
rights-of-way. Electrically propelled rail vehicles operate singly or
in trains. LRT provides a wide range of passenger capabilities and
performance characteristics at moderate costs."
American Public Transportation Association
American Public Transportation Association (APTA), in its Glossary
of Transit Terminology, defines light rail as:
...a mode of transit service (also called streetcar, tramway, or
trolley) operating passenger rail cars singly (or in short, usually
two-car or three-car, trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is
often separated from other traffic for part or much of the way. Light
rail vehicles are typically driven electrically with power being drawn
from an overhead electric line via a trolley [pole] or a pantograph;
driven by an operator on board the vehicle; and may have either high
platform loading or low level boarding using steps."
However, some diesel-powered transit is designated light rail, such as
Trillium Line in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the River Line
in New Jersey, United States, and the Sprinter in California, United
States, which use diesel multiple unit (DMU) cars.
Light rail is similar to the
British English term light railway,
long-used to distinguish railway operations carried out under a less
rigorous set of regulation using lighter equipment at lower speeds
from mainline railways.
Light rail is a generic international English
phrase for these types of rail systems, which means more or less the
same thing throughout the English-speaking world.
The use of the generic term light rail avoids some serious
incompatibilities between British and American English. The word tram,
for instance, is generally used in the UK and many former British
colonies to refer to what is known in North America as a streetcar,
but in North America tram can instead refer to an aerial tramway,
or, in the case of the Disney amusement parks, even a land train.
(The usual British term for an aerial tramway is cable car, which in
the US usually refers to a ground-level car pulled along by
subterranean cables.) The word trolley is often used as a synonym for
streetcar in the United States, but is usually taken to mean a cart,
particularly a shopping cart, in the UK and elsewhere. Many North
American transportation planners reserve streetcar for traditional
vehicles that operate exclusively in mixed traffic on city streets,
while they use light rail to refer to more modern vehicles operating
mostly in exclusive rights of way, since they may operate both
side-by-side targeted at different passenger groups.
The difference between
British English and American English
terminology arose in the late 19th century when Americans adopted the
term "street railway", rather than "tramway", with the vehicles being
called "streetcars" rather than "trams". Some have suggested that the
Americans' preference for the term "street railway" at that time was
influenced by German emigrants to the United States (who were more
numerous than British immigrants in the industrialized Northeast), as
it is the same as the German term for the mode, Straßenbahn (meaning
"street railway"). A further difference arose because, while Britain
abandoned all of its trams except Blackpool after World War II, seven
major North American cities (Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, San
Francisco, Pittsburgh, Newark, and New Orleans) continued to operate
large streetcar systems. When these cities upgraded to new
technology, they called it light rail to differentiate it from their
existing streetcars since some continued to operate both the old and
new systems. Since the 1980s, Portland, Oregon, has built all three
types of system: a high-capacity light rail system in dedicated lanes
and rights-of-way, a low-capacity streetcar system integrated with
street traffic, and an aerial tram system.
SEPTA's 101 trolley pulling into 69th Street Terminal near
The opposite phrase heavy rail, used for higher-capacity, higher-speed
systems, also avoids some incompatibilities in terminology between
British and American English, as for instance in comparing the London
Underground and the New York City Subway. Conventional rail
technologies including high-speed, freight, commuter/regional, and
metro/subway/elevated urban transit systems are considered "heavy
rail". People movers and personal rapid transit are even "lighter," at
least in terms of capacity.
Monorail is a separate technology that has
been more successful in specialized services than in a commuter
Metrolink in Manchester city centre, England, is an example of
street-level light rail
Docklands Light Railway
Docklands Light Railway in London, England, is an example of light
rail separated from road traffic.
Tranvia de Tenerife
Tranvia de Tenerife (Tenerife, Spain) includes some operation at
street level, but separated from other traffic
Due to varying definitions, it is hard to distinguish between what is
called light rail, and other forms of urban and commuter rail. A
system described as light rail in one city may be considered to be a
streetcar or tram system in another. Conversely, some lines that are
called "light rail" are in fact very similar to rapid transit; in
recent years, new terms such as light metro have been used to describe
these medium-capacity systems. Some "light rail" systems, such as
Sprinter, bear little similarity to urban rail, and could
alternatively be classified as commuter rail or even inter-city rail.
In the United States, "light rail" has become a catch-all term to
describe a wide variety of passenger rail systems.
There is a significant difference in cost between these different
classes of light rail transit. Tram-like systems are often less
expensive than metro-like systems by a factor of two or more.
The most difficult distinction to draw is that between light rail and
streetcar or tram systems. There is a significant amount of overlap
between the technologies, many of the same vehicles can be used for
either, and it is common to classify streetcars or trams as a
subcategory of light rail rather than as a distinct type of
transportation. The two general versions are:
The traditional type, where tracks and trains run along the streets
and share space with road traffic. Stops tend to be very frequent, but
little effort is made to set up special stations. Because space is
shared, the tracks are usually visually unobtrusive.
A more modern variation, where the trains tend to run along their own
right-of-way, separated from road traffic. Stops are generally less
frequent, and the vehicles are often boarded from a platform. Tracks
are highly visible, and in some cases significant effort is expended
to keep traffic away through the use of special signaling, level
crossings with gate arms, or even a complete separation with non-level
Dulwich Hill Line
Dulwich Hill Line is mostly situated on segregated tracks
along a former heavy rail corridor
At the highest degree of separation, it can be difficult to draw the
line between light rail and metros, as in the case of Wuppertal's
Schwebebahn hanging rail system, the "D" Branch of Boston's Green
Line, Ottawa's Confederation Line, or London's Docklands Light Railway
which would likely not be considered "light" were it not for the
contrast between it and the London Underground. These may be
considered to be light metro lines rather than "light rail" lines. In
Europe, however, the term light rail is increasingly used to describe
any rapid transit system with a fairly low frequency or short trains
compared to heavier mass rapid systems such as the London Underground
or Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit. For instance, the LRT-1 and MRT-3
Manila are often referred to as "light rail", despite being fully
segregated, mostly elevated railways. This phenomenon is quite common
in Chinese cities, where elevated light metro lines in Shanghai,
Wuhan, and Dalian are called light rail lines. In North America, such
systems are not considered light rail.
Many systems have mixed characteristics. Indeed, with proper
engineering, a rail line could run along a street, then go
underground, and then run along an elevated viaduct. For example, the
Los Angeles Metro
Los Angeles Metro Rail's Gold Line "light rail" has sections that
could alternatively be described as a tramway, a light metro, and, in
a narrow sense, rapid transit. This is especially common in the United
States, where there is not a popularly perceived distinction between
these different types of urban rail systems.
It is even possible to have high-floor rapid transit cars run along a
street, like a tram; this is known as street running.
Speed and stop frequency
In some areas, "light rail" may also refer to any rail line with
frequent low speeds or many stops in a short distance. This inherits
the old definition of light railway in the UK. Hong Kong's Light Rail
is an example of this, although it is also called "light rail" because
it is a lower-scale system than the rest of the MTR. Sprinter in the
San Diego area uses DMUs and is targeted towards a commuter rail
audience; however, because of the large number of stops along the
line, it is called light rail.
Reference speed from major light rail systems, including station stop
time, is shown below.
Average speed (mph)
Dallas (Red Line)
Dallas (Blue Line)
Los Angeles (Blue Line)
Los Angeles (Green Line)
Salt Lake City
However, low top speed is not always a differentiating characteristic
between light rail and other systems. For example, the Siemens S70
LRVs used in the
METRORail and other North American LRT
systems have a top speed of 106 kilometres per hour (66 mph)
while the trains on the all-underground
Montreal Metro can only reach
a top speed of 72 kilometres per hour (45 mph). Los Angeles Metro
light rail vehicles have higher top and average speeds than Montreal
New York City Subway
New York City Subway trains. The main difference is that
Montreal Metro and
New York City Subway
New York City Subway trains carry far more
passengers than any North American LRT system, and the trains have
faster acceleration, making station-to-station times relatively short
in their densely populated urban areas. Most light rail systems serve
less densely populated cities and suburbs where passenger traffic is
not high, but low cost combined with high top speed may be important
to compete with automobiles.
Many light rail systems—even fairly old ones—have a combination of
both on- and off-road sections. In some countries (especially in
Europe), only the latter is described as light rail. In those places,
trams running on mixed rights-of-way are not regarded as light rail,
but considered distinctly as streetcars or trams. However, the
requirement for saying that a rail line is "separated" can be quite
low—sometimes just with concrete "buttons" to discourage automobile
drivers from getting onto the tracks. Some systems such as Seattle's
Link are truly mixed but closed to traffic, with light rail vehicles
and traditional buses both operating along a common right-of-way.
Some systems, such as the
AirTrain JFK in New York City, the DLR in
Kelana Jaya Line
Kelana Jaya Line in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have dispensed
with the need for an operator. The
Vancouver SkyTrain was an early
adopter of driverless vehicles, while the
Toronto Scarborough rapid
transit operates the same trains as Vancouver, but uses drivers. In
most discussions and comparisons, these specialized systems are
generally not considered light rail.
Historically, the track gauge has had considerable variations, with
narrow gauge common in many early systems. However, most light rail
systems are now standard gauge. Older standard-gauge vehicles could
not negotiate sharp turns as easily as narrow-gauge ones, but modern
light rail systems achieve tighter turning radii by using articulated
cars. An important advantage of standard gauge is that standard
railway maintenance equipment can be used on it, rather than
custom-built machinery. Using standard gauge also allows light rail
vehicles to be moved around, conveniently using the same tracks as
freight railways. Another factor favoring standard gauge is that
accessibility laws are making low-floor trams mandatory, and there is
generally insufficient space for wheelchairs to move between the
wheels in a narrow-gauge layout. Furthermore, standard-gauge rolling
stock can be switched between networks either temporarily or
permanently and both newly built and used standard-gauge rolling stock
tends to be cheaper to buy, as more companies offer such vehicles.
Crystal Mover LRT train on boarding
Energy efficiency for light rail may be 120 passenger miles per gallon
of fuel (or equivalent), but variation is great, depending on
Comparison with high capacity roads
While the table above compares the maximum capacity of each mode, the
average use of a lane might be quite different, based on a number of
factors. One line of light rail (requires 25' Right of Way) has a
theoretical capacity of up to 8 times more than one 12' lane of
freeway (not counting buses) during peak times. Roads have ultimate
capacity limits that can be determined by traffic engineering. They
usually experience a chaotic breakdown in flow and a dramatic drop in
speed (colloquially known as a traffic jam) if they exceed about 2,000
vehicles per hour per lane (each car roughly two seconds behind
another). Since most people who drive to work or on business trips
do so alone, studies show that the average car occupancy on many roads
carrying commuters is only about 1.5 people per car during the
high-demand rush hour periods of the day. This combination of
factors limits roads carrying only automobile commuters to a maximum
observed capacity of about 3,000 passengers per hour per lane. The
problem can be mitigated by introducing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV)
lanes and ride-sharing programs, but in most cases the solution
adopted has been to add more lanes to the roads.
By contrast, light rail vehicles can travel in multi-car trains
carrying a theoretical ridership up to 20,000 passengers per hour in
much narrower rights-of-way, not much more than two car lanes wide for
a double track system. They can often be run through existing city
streets and parks, or placed in the medians of roads. If run in
streets, trains are usually limited by city block lengths to about
four 180-passenger vehicles (720 passengers). Operating on two-minute
headways using traffic signal progression, a well-designed two-track
system can handle up to 30 trains per hour per track, achieving peak
rates of over 20,000 passengers per hour in each direction. More
advanced systems with separate rights-of-way using moving block
signalling can exceed 25,000 passengers per hour per track.
Most light rail systems in the
United States are limited by demand
rather than capacity (by and large, most North American LRT systems
carry fewer than 4,000 persons per hour per direction), but Boston's
and San Francisco's light rail lines carry 9,600 and 13,100 passengers
per hour per track during rush hour. Elsewhere in North America,
Monterrey Metro have higher light rail
ridership than Boston or San Francisco. Systems outside North America
often have much higher passenger volumes. The
Manila Light Rail
Transit System is one of the highest capacity ones, having been
upgraded in a series of expansions to handle 40,000 passengers per
hour per direction, and having carried as many as 582,989 passengers
in a single day on its Line 1. It achieves this volume by running
four-car trains with a capacity of up to 1,350 passengers each at a
frequency of up to 30 trains per hour. However, the
Manila light rail
system has full grade separation and as a result has many of the
operating characteristics of a metro system rather than a light rail
system. A capacity of 1,350 passengers per train is more similar to
heavy rail than light rail.
A bus rapid transit (BRT) system using dedicated lanes can have a
theoretical capacity of 3,600 passengers per hour per direction (30
buses per direction, 120 passengers in articulated buses). BRT is an
alternative to LRT, at least if very high capacity is not needed.
Using buses, roads can achieve a much higher commuter capacity than is
achievable with passenger cars. To have 30 buses per direction an
hour, buses must have priority at traffic lights and have their own
dedicated lanes. Buses can travel closer to each other than rail
vehicles because of better braking capability. However, each bus
vehicle requires a single driver, whereas a light rail train may have
three to four cars of much larger capacity in one train under the
control of one driver, or no driver at all in fully automated systems,
increasing the labor costs of high-traffic BRT systems compared to LRT
The peak passenger capacity per lane per hour depends on which types
of vehicles are allowed at the roads. Typically roadways have 1,900
passenger cars per lane per hour (pcplph). If only cars are
allowed, the capacity will be less and will not increase when the
traffic volume increases.
When there is a bus driving on this route, the capacity of the lane
will be more and will increase when the traffic level increases. And
because the capacity of a light rail system is higher than that of a
bus, there will be even more capacity when there is a combination of
cars and light rail. Table 3 shows an example of peak passenger
Car + bus
Car + light rail
(Edson & Tennyson, 2003)
An analysis of data from the 505-page National Transportation
Statistics report  published by the US Department of
Transportation shows that light rail fatalities are higher than all
other forms of transportation except motorcycle travel (31.5
fatalities per 100 million miles).
However, the National Transportation Statistics report  published
by the US Department of Transportation states that "Caution must be
exercised in comparing fatalities across modes because significantly
different definitions are used. In particular, Rail and Transit
fatalities include incident-related (as distinct from
accident-related) fatalities, such as fatalities from falls in transit
stations or railroad employee fatalities from a fire in a workshed.
Equivalent fatalities for the Air and Highway modes (fatalities at
airports not caused by moving aircraft or fatalities from accidents in
automobile repair shops) are not counted toward the totals for these
modes. Thus, fatalities not necessarily directly related to in service
transportation are counted for the transit and rail modes, potentially
overstating the risk for these modes."
Construction and operation costs
The cost of light rail construction varies widely, largely depending
on the amount of tunneling and elevated structures required. A survey
of North American light rail projects shows that costs of most LRT
systems range from $15 million to over $100 million per mile.
Seattle's new light rail system is by far the most expensive in the
US, at $179 million per mile, since it includes extensive tunneling in
poor soil conditions, elevated sections, and stations as deep as 180
feet (55 m) below ground level. This results in costs more
typical of subways or rapid transit systems than light rail. At the
other end of the scale, four systems (Baltimore, Maryland; Camden, New
Jersey; Sacramento, California; and Salt Lake City, Utah) incurred
construction costs of less than $20 million per mile. Over the US as a
whole, excluding Seattle, new light rail construction costs average
about $35 million per mile.
By comparison, a freeway lane expansion typically costs $1.0 million
to $8.5 million per lane mile for two directions, with an average of
$2.3 million. However, freeways are frequently built in suburbs or
rural areas, whereas light rail tends to be concentrated in urban
areas, where right of way and property acquisition is expensive.
Similarly, the most expensive US highway expansion project was the
"Big Dig" in Boston, Massachusetts, which cost $200 million per lane
mile for a total cost of $14.6 billion. A light rail track can carry
up to 20,000 people per hour as compared with 2,000–2,200 vehicles
per hour for one freeway lane,. For example, in Boston and San
Francisco, light rail lines carry 9,600 and 13,100 passengers per
hour, respectively, in the peak direction during rush hour.
Combining highway expansion with LRT construction can save costs by
doing both highway improvements and rail construction at the same
time. As an example, Denver's
Transportation Expansion Project
Transportation Expansion Project rebuilt
interstate highways 25 and 225 and added a light rail expansion for a
total cost of $1.67 billion over five years. The cost of 17 miles
(27 km) of highway improvements and 19 miles (31 km) of
double-track light rail worked out to $19.3 million per highway
lane-mile and $27.6 million per LRT track-mile. The project came in
under budget and 22 months ahead of schedule.
LRT cost efficiency improves dramatically as ridership increases, as
can be seen from the numbers above: the same rail line, with similar
capital and operating costs, is far more efficient if it is carrying
20,000 people per hour than if it is carrying 2,400. The Calgary,
C-Train used many common light rail techniques to keep costs
low, including minimizing underground and elevated trackage, sharing
transit malls with buses, leasing rights-of-way from freight
railroads, and combining LRT construction with freeway expansion. As a
Calgary ranks toward the less expensive end of the scale with
capital costs of around $24 million per mile.
However, Calgary's LRT ridership is much higher than any comparable US
light rail system, at 300,000 passengers per weekday, and as a result
its capital efficiency is also much higher. Its capital costs were
one-third those of the San Diego Trolley, a comparably sized US system
built at the same time, while by 2009 its ridership was approximately
three times as high. Thus, Calgary's capital cost per passenger was
much lower than that of San Diego. Its operating cost per passenger
was also much lower because of its higher ridership. A typical C-Train
vehicle costs only CA$163 (equivalent to $192 in 2016) per hour to
operate, and since it averages 600 passengers per operating hour,
Calgary Transit estimates that its LRT operating costs are only 27
cents per ride, versus $1.50 per ride on its buses.
Compared to buses, costs can be lower due to lower labor costs per
passenger mile, higher ridership (observations show that light rail
attracts more ridership than a comparable bus service)[citation
needed] and faster average speed (reducing the number of vehicles
needed for the same service frequency). While light rail vehicles are
more expensive to buy, they have a longer useful life than buses,
sometimes making for lower life-cycle costs.
Main article: Health impact of light rail systems
Integration with bicycles
Light rail lines have various policies on bicycles. Some fleets
restrict bicycles on trains during peak hours. Some light rail
systems, such as the St. Louis MetroLink, allow bicycles on the
trains, but only in the rear sections of cars. Some light rail lines,
like San Francisco's, allow only folding bicycles on board. In
some systems dedicated bike parking is available at select stations
and others are integrated with local bike share systems.
Trams operating on mainline railways
Karlsruhe Stadtbahn, trams sometimes share mainline tracks with
heavy rail trains
Around Karlsruhe, Kassel, and
Saarbrücken in Germany, dual-voltage
light rail trains partly use mainline railroad tracks, sharing these
tracks with heavy rail trains. In the Netherlands, this concept was
first applied on the RijnGouweLijn. This allows commuters to ride
directly into the city centre, rather than taking a mainline train
only as far as a central station and then having change to a tram. In
France, similar tram-trains are planned for Paris, Mulhouse, and
Strasbourg; further projects exist. In some cases, tram-trains use
previously abandoned or lightly used heavy rail lines in addition to
or instead of still in use mainline tracks.
Some of the issues involved in such schemes are:
compatibility of the safety systems
power supply of the track in relation to the power used by the
vehicles (frequently different voltages, rarely third rail vs overhead
width of the vehicles in relation to the position of the platforms
height of the platforms
There is a history of what would now be considered light rail vehicles
operating on heavy rail rapid transit tracks in the US, especially in
the case of interurban streetcars. Notable examples are Lehigh Valley
Transit trains running on the Philadelphia and Western Railroad
high-speed third rail line (now the Norristown High Speed Line). Such
arrangements are almost impossible now, due to the Federal Railroad
Administration refusing (for crash safety reasons) to allow non-FRA
compliant railcars (i.e., subway and light rail vehicles) to run on
the same tracks at the same times as compliant railcars, which
includes locomotives and standard railroad passenger and freight
equipment. Notable exceptions in the US are the
NJ Transit River Line
from Camden to Trenton and Austin's Capital MetroRail, which have
received exemptions to the provision that light rail operations occur
only during daytime hours and Conrail freight service only at night,
with several hours separating one operation from the other. The
Trillium Line in
Ottawa also has freight service at certain
Third-rail power for trams
Main article: Ground-level power supply
When electric streetcars were introduced in the late 19th century,
conduit current collection was one of the first ways of supplying
power, but it proved to be much more expensive, complicated, and
trouble-prone than overhead wires. When electric street railways
became ubiquitous, conduit power was used in those cities that did not
permit overhead wires. In Europe, it was used in London, Paris,
Berlin, Marseille, Budapest, and Prague. In the United States, it was
used in parts of New York City and Washington, DC. Third rail
technology was investigated for use on the Gold Coast of Australia for
the G:link light rail, though power from overhead lines was
ultimately utilized for that system.
In the French city of Bordeaux, the tramway network is powered by a
third rail in the city centre, where the tracks are not always
segregated from pedestrians and cars. The third rail (actually two
closely spaced rails) is placed in the middle of the track and divided
into eight-metre sections, each of which is powered only while it is
completely covered by a tram. This minimises the risk of a person or
animal coming into contact with a live rail. In outer areas, the trams
switch to conventional overhead wires. The
Bordeaux power system costs
about three times as much as a conventional overhead wire system, and
took 24 months to achieve acceptable levels of reliability, requiring
replacement of all the main cables and power supplies. Operating
and maintenance costs of the innovative power system still remain
high. However, despite numerous service outages, the system was a
success with the public, gaining up to 190,000 passengers per day.
Comparison to other rail transit modes
With its mix of right-of-way types and train control technologies, LRT
offers the widest range of latitude of any rail system in the design,
engineering, and operating practices. The challenge in designing light
rail systems is to realize the potential of LRT to provide fast,
comfortable service while avoiding the tendency to overdesign that
results in excessive capital costs beyond what is necessary to meet
the public's needs.
Light rail vehicles (LRVs) are distinguished from rapid rail transit
(RRT) vehicles by their capability for operation in mixed traffic,
generally resulting in a narrower car body and articulation in order
to operate in a street traffic environment. With their large size,
large turning radius, and often an electrified third rail, RRT
vehicles cannot operate in the street. Since LRT systems can operate
in existing streets, they can often avoid the cost of expensive
grade-separated subway and elevated segments that would be required
Streetcars or trams
Conversely, LRVs generally outperform traditional streetcars in terms
of capacity and top-end speed, and almost all modern LRVs are capable
of multiple-unit operation. The latest generation of LRVs is
considerably larger and faster, typically 29 metres (95 ft) long
with a maximum speed of around 105 kilometres per hour
A variation considered by many cities is to use historic or replica
cars on their streetcar systems instead of modern LRVs. A heritage
streetcar may not have the capacity and speed of an LRV, but it will
add to the ambiance and historic character of its location.
A derivative of LRT is light rail rapid transit (LRRT), also referred
to as light metro. Such railways are characterized by exclusive rights
of way, advanced train control systems, short headway capability, and
floor-level boarding. These systems approach the passenger capacity of
full metro systems, but can be cheaper to construct due to LRVs
generally being smaller in size, turning tighter curves and climbing
steeper grades than standard RRT vehicles, and having a smaller
The term interurban mainly refers to rail cars that run through
streets like ordinary streetcars (trams), but also between cities or
towns, often through rural environments. In the period 1900–1930,
interurbans were very common in the US, especially in the Midwest.
Some of them, like the Red Devils, the J. G. Brill Bullets, and the
Electroliners, were the high-speed railcars of their time, with an
in-service speed of up to about 145 km/h (90 mph). In Europe
interurbans are making a comeback as "tram-trains" (locally known
under different names) that operate on both railway and light rail
tracks, often with different voltage. The
Stadtbahn is one
well known example.
Typical rolling stock
BART railcar in the following chart is not generally considered to
be a "light rail" vehicle (it is actually a heavy rail vehicle), and
is only included for comparison purposes.
Rapid transit (heavy rail)
Tram, or streetcar
Gomaco Trolley Co.
3.2 metres (10 ft)
2.7 metres (8.9 ft)
2.6 metres (8.53 ft)
2.62 metres (8.6 ft)
22.9 metres (75 ft)
27.7 metres (91 ft) articulated
20.13 metres (66.0 ft) articulated
15.16 metres (49.7 ft)
72 seats, 220 max.
30 seats, 157 max.
40 seats, 50 max.
125 km/h (78 mph)
106 km/h (66 mph)
70 km/h (43 mph)
48 km/h (30 mph)
Further information: Automatic train operation
An important factor crucial to LRT is the train operator. Unlike rail
rapid transit, which can travel unattended under automatic train
operation (ATO), safe, high-quality LRT operation relies on a human
operator as a key element. The reason that the operator is so
important is because the train tracks often share the streets with
automobiles, other vehicles, and pedestrians. If trains were fully
automated on roads, nobody would be there to stop the train if a car
pulled in front of it.
Light rail trains are actually very sturdily
built for passenger safety, and to reduce damage from impacts with
Further information: Low floor
The latest generation of LRVs has the advantage of partially or fully
low-floor design, with the floor of the vehicles only 300 to
360 mm (11.8 to 14.2 in) above the top of the rail, a
feature not found in either rapid rail transit vehicles or streetcars.
This allows them to load passengers, including those in wheelchairs or
strollers, directly from low-rise platforms that are little more than
raised sidewalks. This satisfies requirements to provide access to
disabled passengers without using expensive and delay-inducing
wheelchair lifts, while also making boarding faster and easier for
other passengers.
Overhead lines supply electricity to the vast majority of light rail
systems. This avoids the danger of passengers stepping on an
electrified third rail. The
Docklands Light Railway
Docklands Light Railway uses an inverted
third rail for its electrical power, which allows the electrified rail
to be covered and the power drawn from the underside. Trams in
Bordeaux, France, use a special third-rail configuration where the
power is only switched on beneath the trams, making it safe on city
streets. Several systems in Europe and a few recently opened systems
in North America use diesel-powered trains.
Tram and other light rail transit systems worldwide
Tren de la Costa
Tren de la Costa in Greater Buenos Aires
Tram and light rail transit systems and List of tram
and light rail transit systems
Around the world there are many tram and streetcar systems. Some date
from the beginning of the 20th century or earlier, but many of the
original tram and streetcar systems were closed down in the mid-20th
century, with the exceptions of many Eastern Europe countries. Even
though many systems closed down over the years, there are still a
number of tram systems that have been operating much as they did when
they were first built over a century ago. Some cities (such as Los
Angeles and Jersey City) that once closed down their streetcar
networks are now restoring, or have already rebuilt, at least some of
their former streetcar/tram systems. Most light rail services are
currently committed to articulated vehicles like modern LRVs, i.e.
trams, with the exception of large underground metro or rapid transit
Metrotram in Kryvyi Rih (Ukraine) was separated from the streets, but
later it was upgraded to be compatible with common tramways
A number of UK cities have substantial light rail networks including
Nottingham, Manchester and a line between Birmingham and
Wolverhampton, with plans to extend out as far as Coventry.
Automated guideway transit
General Motors streetcar conspiracy
Light rail in North America
Light Rail Transit Association
List of North American light rail systems by ridership
List of rail transit systems in the United States
List of town tramway systems (all-time lists)
List of tram and light rail transit systems
(operational systems only)
United States light rail systems by ridership
Medium-capacity rail transport system
Passenger rail terminology
Railway electrification system
Streetcars in North America
Tram and light rail transit systems
Urban rail transit
^ a b "Fact Book Glossary - Mode of Service Definitions". American
Public Transportation Association. 2015. Retrieved 2015-01-06.
^ "National Transit Database Glossary". U.S. Department of
Transportation Federal Transit Administration. 18 October 2013.
Archived from the original on 13 November 2013. Retrieved 6 January
^ "What is light rail?".
Public transport A-Z. International
Association of Public Transport. 2008. Archived from the original on
13 October 2008. Retrieved 2015-07-29.
^ "This Is Light Rail Transit" (PDF). Transportation Research Board.
pp. 7–9. Retrieved 2015-01-06.
^ "What is Light Rail?".
Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA).
^ "Welcome to Saskrailmuseum.org". Saskatchewan Railway Museum.
BlackNova Internet Services. 11 September 2008. Archived from the
original on 15 October 2008. Retrieved 2009-12-26.
^ Courtenay, Peter (2006). "Trams in the UK". thetrams.co.uk.
Retrieved 26 December 2009.
^ a b Bottoms, Glen (2000). Continuing Developments in Light Rail
Transit in Western Europe (PDF). 9th National Light Rail Transit
Conference. Portland, Oregon: Light Rail Transit Association.
Retrieved 26 December 2009.
^ Thompson, Gregory L. (2003). "Defining an Alternative Future: The
Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America". Transportation
Transportation Research Board
Transportation Research Board (E-C058). Retrieved
26 December 2009. From: 9th National Light Rail Transit
^ Gregory L. Thompson (2003), Defining an Alternative Future: Birth of
the Light Rail Movement in North America (PDF), Transportation
Tram (definition)". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved
^ "The Yesterland Hotel Tram". Yesterland.com. Retrieved
^ "Trolley (definition)". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved
^ "Light Rail Transit". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved
^ Smiler, Simon P. "Trams, Streetcars, and Light Rail Vehicles".
citytransport.info. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
^ Plous, Jr, F.K. (June 1984). "A Desire Named Streetcar". Planning.
American Planning Association. Archived from the original on 3 March
2006. Retrieved 2007-08-14.
^ "Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With
Link Light Rail
Link Light Rail in the North American Context". 30 December
^ Comparison of Energy Use & CO2 Emissions From Different
Transportation Modes Archived 29 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine. page
7, Results of Analysis. M.J. Bradley & Associates, May 2007
^ Matt Lorenz and Lily Elefteriadou (2000) A Probabilistic Approach to
Defining Freeway Capacity and Breakdown (PDF), Transportation Research
^ "Highlights of the 2001 National Household Travel Survey: A-15
Vehicle Occupancy Per Vehicle Mile by Time of Day and Weekend Status".
US Department of Transportation.
^ Tom Parkinson and Ian Fisher (1996) Rail Transit Capacity Archived
11 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine., Transportation Research
^ Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual, Transportation
^ a b Hanson, Susan; Giuliano, Genevieve (2004). The geography of
urban transportation. Guilford Press. ISBN 1-59385-055-7.
^ "LRT-1 sets 25-year high record ridership". Manilla Light Rail
Transit Authority. 12 January 2009. Archived from the original on 26
March 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-14.
^ "NCHRP Report 599: Default Values for Highway Capacity and Level of
Service Analyses" (PDF). NATIONAL COOPERATIVE HIGHWAY RESEARCH
^ a b "National Transportation Statistics 2013" (PDF). U.S. Department
^ "Dissected: How're Ya Dying? Charting transportation mayhem in its
many gory varieties".
^ a b "Status of North American Light Rail Projects". Light Rail Now.
2002. Archived from the original on 28 October 2006. Retrieved 23
Link Light Rail
Link Light Rail Projects". Sound Transit (Central Puget Sound
Regional Transit Authority). 2006. Archived from the original on
2006-11-17. Retrieved 2006-11-23.
^ "Highway Construction Cost Comparison Survey Final Report" (PDF).
Washington State Department of Transportation. April 2002. p. 3.
Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-09-05.
^ Traffic and Highway Engineering By Nicholas J. Garber, Lester A.
Hoel, p. 37
^ Shaw, Mark (May–June 2006). "Reinventing a Corridor: Denver's
T-REX project nears completion after five years". Constructor.
McGraw-Hill Construction. Archived from the original on 19 October
2006. Retrieved 2006-11-20.
^ Flynn, Kevin (17 November 2006). "T-REX trains ready to roll". Rocky
Mountain News (Denver, CO). Retrieved 2006-11-20.
^ a b McKendrick; et al. (2006). "Calgary's
C-Train – Effective
Capital Utilization" (PDF). Joint International Light Rail Conference,
St. Louis, Missouri.
Calgary Transit. Archived from the original (PDF)
on 18 December 2011. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
^ "LRT technical data".
Calgary Transit. 2006. Archived from the
original on 2006-10-23. Retrieved 2006-10-14.
^ "Bikes on Muni". San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
^ Post, Robert C. (2007). Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of a
Technology. Greenwood Press. pp. 45–47.
^ "Gold Coast Light Rail Feasibility Study". Commonwealth Government,
Gold Coast City Council & Queensland Government Queensland
Transport. 23 December 2004. Archived from the original on 19 March
Bordeaux Light Rail Route Will Operate Without Overhead Lines"
(Press release). American Public Transportation Association. 2003.
Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved
^ "99% AVAILABILITY AND EXCEPTIONALLY HIGH PASSENGER LEVELS : THE
BORDEAUX URBAN TRAMWAY IS A RESOUNDING SUCCESS".
Railway-Technology.com. Net Resources International. Archived from the
original on 2008-06-13. Retrieved 2009-12-26.
^ Fazio, A. E.; Hickey, T. R. (2003). "Designing New Light Rail –
Taking Engineering Beyond Vanilla". Circular E-C058: 9th National
Light Rail Transit Conference. Transportation Research Board.
^ "Technical Data". Light Rail Vehicle System Houston/Texas, USA.
Siemens. 2008. Archived from the original on 27 April 2008. Retrieved
^ a b "
Siemens S70 Low-floor Light Rail Vehicle" (PDF). Siemens.
^ a b "Gomaco Trolley Company". Gomaco Trolley Company.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Light rail.
Light Rail Transit Committee of the
Transportation Research Board
Transportation Research Board (US)
Light Rail Transit Association (UK-based, international organization)
Light Rail Now! (US) A pro-light rail web site, opposing monorails,
Bus Rapid Transit (busways), and other less common transportation
Netherlands (NL) in English, Nederlands, Русский,
Deutsch, Français, Español
"This Is Light Rail Transit" (PDF) brochure by the American Public
Transportation Association (APTA) (2000; updated 2003)
Photo gallery of the world's light rail
Bus rapid transit
Open top bus
Public light bus
Rail replacement bus
Medium-capacity rail system
Vehicles for hire
Personal rapid transit
Bus garage (bus depot)
Bus turnout (bus bay)
Park and ride
Ticketing and fares
Automated fare collection
Contract of carriage
Farebox recovery ratio
Free public transport
Free travel pass
Manual fare collection
Reduced fare program
Public transport timetable
Transit-oriented development (TOD)
Hail and ride