Light rail

Light rail or light rail transit (LRT) is typically an urban form of public transport often using rolling stock similar to a tramway, but operating primarily along exclusive rights-of-way and having vehicles capable of operating as a single tramcar or as multiple units coupled together to form a train.


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 the UMTA wanted to adopt the direct translation, which is city rail (the Norwegian term, bybane, means the same). However, the 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.

The 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."

The 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 the O-Train in Ottawa, 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 Anglosphere.

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 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.

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 transit role.


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.

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.

Lower capacity

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:

  1. 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.
  2. A more modern variation, where the trains tend to run along their own right-of-way and are often 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 crossings.

Higher capacity

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, Boston's Riverside 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; many consider these not to be "light rail" lines but light metros. However, in Europe, 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 in 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.

System-wide considerations

Many light rail systemsâ€"even fairly old onesâ€"have a combination of the two, with 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 lowâ€"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 London, and 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.


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 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 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 the German 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 and followed by the 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 the Manchester Metrolink system in 1992.

Track gauge

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.

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.

Typical rolling stock

The 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.

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 cars.

Floor height

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.

Power sources

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 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 light rail transit systems worldwide

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 systems.

Capacity compared to roads

The table below illustrates the capacity of a light rail train (the Siemens S70) compared to that of a standard car with five seats. The average length of a standard five-seat car is about 4.74 metres. The length of a Siemens S70 light rail vehicle is 27.7 meters, approximately the same length as 5.8 cars. The maximum occupancy of a car is five people. The maximum capacity of the Siemens S70 is 220 people. This means that one metre in a car has a capacity of one person and one metre in a light rail vehicle has a capacity of almost eight persons, so the capacity of light rail is about eight times higher than that of a car, if only the length of the vehicles is taken into consideration. The average width of an automobile is about 1.77 metres, while the average width of the Siemens S70 is about 2.7 metres. The area of a car is about 8.4 m², while the area taken up by a light rail car is about 74.8m². In a car, each square metre has room for only 0.6 persons, while each square metre in a light rail car has room for 2.9 persons. This means that a light rail is significantly more capacity-effective than a car. Height is not taken into consideration, because it is not normally a problem given minimum-clearance regulations for underpasses.

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 has a theoretical capacity of up to 8 times more than one 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 1.2 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 2,400 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. Simple arithmetic shows that in order to carry 20,000 automobile commuters per hour per direction, a freeway must be at least 18 lanes wide.

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, the Calgary C-Train and 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, that 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 line using its own lanes can have a capacity of 7,000 passengers per hour (30 buses per direction, 120 passengers in articulated buses). Bus rapid transit is the traditional alternative to light rail, at least if very high capacity is not needed. Using buses, roads can achieve a high transit capacity. To have 30 buses per direction an hour, they must have priority in traffic lights and have their own lanes, as must trams to reach this density. 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 the same capacity in one train under the control of one driver, increasing the labor costs of high-traffic BRT systems.

The peak passenger capacity per lane per hour depends on which types of vehicles are allowed at the roads. 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 capacity.

(Edson & Tennyson, 2003)


US-based research on traffic safety shows that public transport is safer than private motor vehicles and that transportation systems that have their own infrastructure are safer than those that do not.

  • Regional passenger rail (RPR) is the safest way to travel. Its casualty rate (the average number of injuries and fatalities per billion passenger miles) is little more than one-quarter the rate for motor vehicles.
  • Rail rapid transit (RRT) is somewhat safer than light rail transit (LRT). RRT is almost twice as safe as motor vehicles, and LRT is more than one-and-a-half times safer than motor vehicles.
  • Bus is the least safe form of public transport. Buses use the same infrastructure as motor vehicles, and therefore suffer from traffic congestion and road accidents.
  • Private motor vehicles are the most dangerous form of at-grade motorized travel, with motorcycles the most dangerous of all.

There are reasons why public transport is safer than private transport. One is that since the capacity of public transit is higher than that of private vehicles, public transport use can reduce the number of distinct vehicles on the road, in turn decreasing the potential for accidents.

Health impact of light rail

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, ban bicycles completely.

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 (a lane mile is a mile-long lane) 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. Since a light rail track can carry up to 20,000 people per hour as compared with 2,000â€"2,200 vehicles per hour for one freeway lane, light rail is comparable in construction cost to freeways on a per passenger-mile basis. 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 T-REX (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, Alberta, 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 result, 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 $163 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.


Trams operating on mainline railways

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.

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 wires)
  • 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 New Jersey 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 O-train in Ottawa also has freight service at certain hours.

Third-rail power for trams

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.

See also


External links

  • Light Rail Transit Committee of the 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 systems
  • Light Rail 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)

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