Light rail in North America
Light rail is a commonly used mode of public transit in North America. The term light rail was coined in 1972 by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA; the precursor to the U.S. Federal Transit Administration) to describe new streetcar transformations which were taking place in Europe and the United States. The Germans used the term Stadtbahn, which is the predecessor to North American light rail, to describe the concept, and many in the UMTA wanted to adopt the direct translation, which is city rail. However, in its reports the UMTA finally adopted the term light rail instead.
- 1 History of streetcars and light rail
- 2 Diesel light rail
- 3 Politics of light rail in North America
- 4 Ridership on light rail in North America
- 5 Light rail in Canada
- 6 Light rail in Mexico
- 7 Light rail in the United States
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
History of streetcars and light rail
From the mid-19th century onwards, horse-drawn trams (or horsecars) were used in cities around the world. In the late 1880s electrically powered street railways became technically feasible following the invention of a trolley pole system of collecting current by American inventor Frank J. Sprague who installed the first successful system at Richmond, Virginia. They became popular because roads were then poorly surfaced, and before the invention of the internal combustion engine and the advent of motor-buses, they were the only practical means of public transport around cities.
The streetcar systems constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries typically only ran in single-car setups. Some rail lines experimented with multiple unit configurations, where streetcars were joined together to make short trains, but this did not become common until later. When lines were built over longer distances (typically with a single track) before good roads were common, they were generally called interurban streetcars or radial railways in North America.
After World War II, seven major North American cities (Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto) 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. Additionally, Cleveland maintained an interurban system (e.g. the Blue and Green Lines) that is equivalent to what is now "light rail", which opened before World War I, and which is still in operation to this day.
In North America, many of these original streetcar systems were decommissioned in the 1950s and onward as the popularity of the automobile increased. Britain abandoned its last light rail system except Blackpool by 1962. Although some traditional trolley or tram systems still 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 renaissance of light rail in North American began 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.
Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with narrow gauge common in many early systems. However, most light rail systems are now standard gauge. 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 delivered and relocated conveniently using freight railways and locomotives. Another factor favoring standard gauge is that low-floor vehicles are becoming popular, and there is generally insufficient space for wheelchairs to move between the wheels in a narrow gauge layout.
Diesel light rail
A few recently opened systems in North America use diesel-powered trains, including the O-Train in Ottawa (opened in 2001), the River Line in New Jersey (opened in 2004), and the Sprinter in northern San Diego County, California (opened in 2008). Diesel operations are chosen in corridors where lower ridership is expected (and thus do not justify the expense of the electric power infrastructure) or which have an "interurban" nature with stations spaced relatively far apart (electric power provides greater acceleration, making it essential for operations with closely spaced stations). Operations with diesel-powered trains can be an interim measure until ridership growth and the availability of funding allow the system to be upgraded to electric power operations.
Politics of light rail in North America
Due to lower density of many American cities, LRT speed relative to the automobile, generally lower ridership levels, and questions of cost-effectiveness, the construction of light rail systems has spurred political controversy as a use of public funds. Arguments made against light rail systems often bill it as less practical than equivalent bus systems and less effective than increases in highway capacity. Arguments in favor of light rail point to overall improvements in safety and quality of life in cities supporting rail-based mass transit and long-term sustainability benefits.
Ridership on light rail in North America
The following table lists the twelve light rail systems in North America with the highest riderships in 2013:
|County||Light rail system||Annual Ridership
|1||Toronto||CAN||Toronto streetcar system||100,037,500|
|2||Guadalajara||MEX||Guadalajara light rail system||89,150,235|
|4||Boston||USA||Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority||72,273,600|
|5||Los Angeles||USA||L.A. Metro Rail||63,759,500|
|6||San Francisco||USA||Muni Metro||51,954,400|
|7||Portland, OR||USA||MAX Light Rail||38,371,600|
|8||San Diego||USA||San Diego Trolley||34,448,900|
|9||Edmonton||CAN||Edmonton Light Rail Transit||33,128,600|
|11||Mexico City||MEX||Xochimilco Light Rail||30,229,100|
|12||Dallas||USA||Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART)||28,965,700|
Toronto has the highest annual ridership of any light rail (in the case of Toronto, actually streetcar) system in North America, followed by Mexico's Guadalajara, with Canada's Calgary having the third highest annual ridership. Of the light rail systems in the United States, Boston has the fourth highest annual ridership in North America, followed by Los Angeles with the fifth highest.
In general, ridership on light rail systems in Mexico and Canada tends to be higher than the corresponding ridership on light rail systems in the United States, especially on a boardings per mile basis where the Mexican systems (Guadalajara light rail system and Xochimilco Light Rail) rank first and second, and three Canadian systems (Calgary's C-Train, Edmonton Light Rail Transit and Toronto's streetcars) rank third, fifth and seventh. On a boardings per mile basis, the most ridden light rail systems in the United States are again Boston's MBTA ranked fourth, followed by San Francisco's Muni Metro ranked sixth.
Light rail in Canada
|Stations||Lines||Year Last Expansion||Type|
|Calgary||C-Train||1981||56 km (35 mi)||44||2||2012||Light rail|
|Edmonton||Edmonton Light Rail Transit||1978||21 km (13 mi)||15||1||2010||Light rail|
|Ottawa||O-Train||2001||8 km (5.0 mi)||5||1||n/a||Light rail|
|Toronto[note 1]||Toronto streetcar system||1861||82 km (51 mi)||708||11||2000||Streetcar|
In general, Canadian cities have rates of public transit use which are two to three times as high as comparably sized U.S. cities. Census data for 2006 show that 11.0% of Canadians use public transit to commute to work, compared to 4.8% of Americans. This means that transportation planners must allow for higher passenger volumes on Canadian transit systems than American ones.
As a result of lower government funding, Canadian cities have to recover a much higher share of their costs out of operating revenues. This lack of funding may explain why there is resistance to the high capital costs of rail systems and there are only a few light rail systems in Canada.
At present, there are 44 stations in operation in the 56-kilometer (35 mi) C-Train light rail system, with one (Tuscany station) currently under construction. There are four routes that accommodate two C-Train lines (identified as the Red Line and the Blue Line on network maps). The routes, in chronological order, are the South (1981), the Northeast (1985), the Northwest (1987), and the newest one, the West (2012). Route 201 (Red Line) uses the South and Northwest lines; Route 202 (Blue Line) uses the Northeast and West lines. The two routes share most of the downtown line on the 7th Avenue South transit mall; the exception is the Downtown West – Kerby station, which serves only Route 202.
Edmonton was the first city in North America to build a modern (second generation) light rail system. The route first started construction in 1974, and opened its first segment on April 22, 1978, in time for the 1978 Commonwealth Games. The Edmonton Transit System built much of its initial light rail system underground, which meant that it could not afford to lay as much track to the suburbs at the time of its opening. The system has grown incrementally since its opening, and as of 2010[update] had grown to a 21-kilometer (13 mi) long light rail line serving a total of 15 stations. The system is relatively successful by North American standards, with an average weekday ridership of 93,600 passengers in 2010. The City of Edmonton has focused on LRT expansion plans in recent years, with one new line under construction, plans to extend current lines, and plans to add two additional lines.
In 2001, to supplement its BRT system, Ottawa opened a diesel light rail pilot project, (the O-Train), which was relatively inexpensive to construct (C$21 million), due to its single-track route along a neglected freight-rail right of way and its use of diesel multiple unit (DMU) vehicles to avoid the cost of building overhead lines along the tracks. The current line is only 8-kilometer (5.0 mi) long, serving just 5 stations. O-Train has had some success in attracting ridership to the system (approximately 14,000 per weekday), due to its connection of a south end big box shopping mall (South Keys), through Carleton University to the east-west busway (Ottawa Transitway) near the downtown core of the city.
In late 2009, Ottawa introduced plans for a new east-west line, including a tunnel through Downtown Ottawa, featuring 3 subway stations. Construction of this new line, dubbed the Confederation Line, started in late 2013.
Light rail in Mexico
|Stations||Lines||Year Last Expansion||Type|
|Guadalajara||Guadalajara light rail system||1989||25.0 km (15.5 mi)||29||2||1994||Light rail|
|Mexico City[note 1]||Xochimilco Light Rail||1986||12.8 km (8.0 mi)||18||1||1995||Light rail|
There are two light rail systems in Mexico: Guadalajara's, and Mexico City's Xochimilco Light Rail line (known locally as el Tren Ligero). A third system, Monterrey's Metrorrey also has some characteristics of a light rail system (especially in its use of high-floor light rail vehicles), but runs in a fully grade separated, exclusive right-of-way with high passenger volumes, which are generally the criteria assigned to "metro" or heavy rail systems; thus Metrorrey is considered to be a full metro system by at least the UITP transport organization and so is not included here.
Both of Mexico's light rail systems have among the highest riderships of any North American light rail system. Guadalajara's light rail system, despite being only about 15.5-miles long, transported an average of approximately 268,500 passengers per day in the Fourth Quarter (Q4) of 2013, translating into over 18,000 daily boardings per mile, which is the highest per mile boarding rate of any North American light rail system. The Xochimilco Light Rail line is close behind, seeing almost 11,400 boardings per mile in Q4 2014, the second highest rate of boardings per mile of any North American system.
Light rail in the United States
The United States has a number of light rail systems in its mid-sized to large cities. As of July 2014[update], there are 26 modern light rail systems, 6 modern streetcar systems, and approximately 10 heritage streetcar systems (plus the San Francisco cable car system, and Morgantown's light rail-like Personal Rapid Transit system) offering regular year-round transit service, for a total of over 45 operational light rail-type systems in the Untied States. The United States has a much larger number of "true" light rail systems (i.e. not including streetcar and heritage streetcar systems), by far, compared to any other country in the world (the next largest are Germany with 10 light rail systems, and Japan with 7).
Seven of these systems are vestigial "legacy" first-generation streetcar systems that were spared the fate of the other streetcar systems that were closed in the United States during the 1950s-1970s due to their having some grade separation from other traffic (e.g. subway tunnels) and relatively high ridership. Of these seven surviving streetcar systems, two of these (Muni Metro in San Francisco and Pittsburgh Light Rail) have seen their service substantial revamped and modernized since the 1960s (e.g. by the construction of new subway sections), whereas the other five (Boston, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, and Philadelphia) have seen less drastic expansions or modernizations since their earlier eras.
The other almost 40-someodd systems are all second-generation light rail (and streetcar) systems, with the oldest being San Diego's which was opened in 1981. In the 1980s, San Diego's system was followed by new light rail systems in Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, and San Jose, and by a heritage streetcar line in Dallas. Many new systems followed in the 1990s, and approximately 20 more new light rail and streetcar systems have followed since 2000.
Table of United States light rail systems
- This city also has a metro/rapid transit system, in addition to its light rail/streetcar system - see the List of metro systems.
- While the MBTA Green Line is light rail, the MBTA Blue, Orange, and Red Lines of the system are rapid transit/subways.
- See Green Line Extension
- This was not a service "extension" per se, but a line renovation.
- The Ashmont-Mattapan Line is run with historic PCC streetcar rolling stock, but is is considered by the MBTA to be a regular light rail line rather than a "heritage streetcar" line.
- While the Blue and Green Lines are light rail, Cleveland's other transit line, the Red Line, is rapid transit.
- For light-rail portion (Blue, Expo, Gold and Green Lines) of L.A. Metro only. The Red and Purple Lines of L.A. Metro are rapid transit/subway systems and are not included here.
- Muni Metro: 33 stations (9 underground; 24 surface), with an additional 87 streetcar-like surface stops.
- It is debatable whether this system truly qualifies as "light rail" (or as a true "transit" system either), but it is included in the table anyway for completeness.
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- List of Canadian urban rail systems
- American Public Transit Association
- Table of Light Rail Transit Agencies in the United States (from APTA)
- Federal Transit Administration (U.S.)
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- Commuter Rail, Light Rail & Rail Transit News
- Light Rail & Transit News – current news concerning light rail development and issues
- Light Rail Central photos & news
- A movie of Armour's electric trolley, circa 1897 from Library of Congress