Light rail in North America

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Streetcars in Toronto, the busiest light rail transit system in all of North America
Light rail car at Unidad Deportiva station in Guadalajara, the 2nd busiest LRT system in North America
The C-train is North America's 3rd busiest LRT system
Light rail vehicles on Boston's Green Line, the 4th busiest light rail system
Los Angeles Metro Gold Line trains in Pasadena, California, North America's 5th busiest LRT system
A Breda light rail vehicle on the T Third Line of San Francisco's Muni Metro, the 6th busiest LRT system 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[edit]

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.[2]

A preserved 1907 streetcar in Philadelphia.

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.[3][4][5] 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.[3][4][5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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[8] and San Diego, California.[9]

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.[7] 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.

Sprinter at Oceanside (Nov 13, 2007)
Sprinter at Buena Creek (Jun 26, 2008)

Diesel light rail[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

Siemens MAX train traveling on the yellow line in Portland, Oregon, the 7th busiest LRT system in North America.
A San Diego Trolley Siemens S70 at SDSU Transit Center in San Diego, the 8th busiest light rail system in North America.

The following table lists the twelve light rail systems in North America with the highest riderships in 2013:

City/Metro
Area Served
County Light rail system Annual Ridership
(2013)[10][11]
1 Toronto  CAN Toronto streetcar system 100,037,500
2 Guadalajara  MEX Guadalajara light rail system 89,150,235
3 Calgary  CAN C-Train 86,648,100
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
10 Philadelphia  USA SEPTA 32,794,900
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,[10] followed by Mexico's Guadalajara,[11] with Canada's Calgary having the third highest annual ridership.[10] 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.[10]

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[edit]

Main article: Light rail in Canada
Location Nation System Year Opened System
Length
Stations Lines Year Last Expansion Type
Calgary Canada C-Train[12] 1981[12] 700156000000000000056 km (35 mi)[12] 44[12] 2[12] 2012 Light rail
Edmonton Canada Edmonton Light Rail Transit[13] 1978[13] 700121000000000000021 km (13 mi)[13] 15[13] 1[13] 2010[13] Light rail
Ottawa Canada O-Train[14] 2001[15] 70008000000000000008 km (5.0 mi)[14] 5[14] 1 n/a Light rail
Toronto[note 1] Canada Toronto streetcar system[16] 1861[17] 700182000000000000082 km (51 mi)[17] 708[16] 11 2000 Streetcar
Notes
  1. ^ Toronto also has a metro/rapid transit system, in addition to its streetcar system - see the List of metro systems.

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.[18][19] 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.

Calgary[edit]

Main article: C-Train

At present, there are 44 stations in operation in the 56-kilometer (35 mi) C-Train light rail system,[12] with one (Tuscany station) currently under construction.[20] 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.[12]

Edmonton[edit]

Edmonton's original Siemens U2 Light Rail vehicle in an above ground station

Edmonton was the first city in North America to build a modern (second generation) light rail system.[21][22] 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 had grown to a 21-kilometer (13 mi) long light rail line serving a total of 15 stations.[13] The system is relatively successful by North American standards, with an average weekday ridership of 93,600 passengers in 2010.[23] 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.

Ottawa[edit]

Main article: O-Train

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.[14] 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[edit]

Location Nation System Year Opened System
Length
Stations Lines Year Last Expansion Type
Guadalajara Mexico Guadalajara light rail system[24] 1989[24] 700125000000000000025.0 km (15.5 mi)[24] 29[25] 2 1994 Light rail
Mexico City[note 1] Mexico Xochimilco Light Rail[26] 1986 700112800000000000012.8 km (8.0 mi) 18[26] 1 1995 Light rail
Notes
  1. ^ Mexico City also has a metro/rapid transit system, in addition to its light rail system - see the List of metro systems.
Light rail car at Estadio Azteca station on the Xochimilco Light Rail line in Mexico City.

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[27] 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,[11] 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 2013, the second highest rate of boardings per mile of any North American system.

Light rail in the United States[edit]

Overview[edit]

The United States has a number of light rail systems in its mid-sized to large cities. As of July 2014, 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).[28]

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.[3] 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[edit]

Location Nation System Year Opened System
Length
Stations Lines Year Last Expansion Type
Baltimore[note 1] United States Baltimore Light Rail 1992 33.0 mi (53.1 km)[29] 33[29] 3[29] 2006 Light rail
Boston[note 1] United States MBTA Green Line[note 2] 1897[30] 22.6 mi (36.4 km)[31] 66[31] 4[31] Ongoing[note 3] Light rail
Boston[note 1] United States Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line 1929[30] 2.6 mi (4.2 km)[31] 8[31] 1[31] (2007)[note 4] Light rail[note 5]
Buffalo, New York United States Buffalo Metro Rail 1985 6.4 mi (10.3 km) 14[32] 1 n/a Light rail
Camden, New Jersey
Trenton, New Jersey
United States River LINE (NJ Transit) 2004 28.3 mi (45.5 km)[33] 20[34] 1[34] n/a Light rail
Charlotte, North Carolina United States Lynx Rapid Transit Services 2007[35] 9.6 mi (15.4 km)[36] 15[36] 1[36] n/a Light rail
Cleveland[note 1] United States Blue and Green Lines[note 6] 1913[37] 15.3 mi (24.6 km)[38] 34[38] 2[38] 1996 Light rail
Dallas United States Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) 1996[39] 85 mi (137 km)[40] 61[40] 4 2009 Light rail
Dallas United States McKinney Avenue Transit Authority 1989 4.2 mi (6.8 km) 12 1 2013 Heritage streetcar
Denver United States RTD Light Rail 1994[41] 47 mi (76 km)[42] 46[42] 6[42] 2013[42] Light rail
Houston United States METRORail 2004[43] 12.8 mi (20.6 km)[44] 24[45] 1[44] 2013[44] Light rail
Jersey City, New Jersey United States Hudson–Bergen Light Rail
(NJ Transit)
2004 18.3 mi (29.5 km)[33] 24[46] 3[46] 2006 Light rail
Kenosha, Wisconsin United States Kenosha Streetcar service 2000[47] 2.0 mi (3.2 km)[47] 17[47] 1[47] n/a Heritage streetcar
Little Rock, Arkansas United States River Rail Streetcar 2004[48] 3.4 mi (5.5 km)[48] 15[49] 1[49] 2007 Heritage streetcar
Los Angeles United States Metro Rail[note 7] 1990[50] 70.3 mi (113.1 km)[50] 65[50] 4[50] 2012[50] Light rail
Memphis, Tennessee United States MATA Trolley 1993[51] 6.3 mi (10.1 km) 25[52] 3[52] 2004[51] Heritage streetcar
Minneapolis-St. Paul United States METRO: Blue & Green lines 2004[53] 21.8 mi (35.1 km)[53][54] 37[53][54] 2[53][54] 2014 Light rail
Morgantown, WV United States Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit 1975 8.7 mi (14.0 km) 5[55] 1 n/a(?) People mover
Newark, New Jersey United States Newark Light Rail (NJ Transit) 1935 7.0 mi (11.3 km)[33] 17[56] 2[56] 2006 Light rail (with subway section)
New Orleans United States New Orleans Streetcars 1835 22.3 mi (35.9 km)[57][58] streetcar-like surface stops 4[57] 2013[57] Heritage streetcar
Norfolk, Virginia United States The Tide 2011[59] 7.4 mi (11.9 km)[60] 11[60] 1[60] n/a Light rail
Oceanside, California
Escondido, California
United States Sprinter 2008[61] 22 mi (35 km)[61] 15[61] 1[61] n/a Light rail
Philadelphia[note 1] United States SEPTA Routes 101 and 102 1906 11.9 mi (19.2 km)[62] 52[63] 2[63]  ???? Light rail
Philadelphia[note 1] United States SEPTA Subway–Surface
Trolley Lines
1906 19.8 mi (31.9 km)[62] 16[63] 5[63]  ???? Streetcar (with subway section)
Philadelphia[note 1] United States SEPTA Route 15
(Girard Avenue Trolley)
2005 8.4 mi (13.5 km)[63]  ???? 1[63] n/a Heritage streetcar
Phoenix, Arizona United States Valley Metro Light Rail 2008[64] 20 mi (32 km)[64] 28[64] 1[64] n/a Light rail
Pittsburgh United States Pittsburgh Light Rail 1984 26.2 mi (42.2 km)[65] 53[65] 2[65] 2012[65] Light rail
Portland, Oregon United States MAX Light Rail 1986 52 mi (84 km)[66] 87[66] 4[66] 2009 Light rail
Portland, Oregon United States Portland Streetcar 2001[67] 7.35 mi (11.83 km)[67] 76[67] 2[67] 2012[67] Streetcar
Sacramento, California United States Sacramento RT Light Rail 1987[68] 38.6 mi (62.1 km)[68] 50[68] 3[68] 2012[68] Light rail
St. Louis United States MetroLink 1993[69] 46 mi (74 km)[70] 37[70] 2[70] 2006 Light rail
Salt Lake City United States TRAX 1999 44.8 mi (72.1 km)[71] 50[72] 3[72] 2013 Light rail
Salt Lake City United States S Line 2013 2.0 mi (3.2 km) streetcar-like surface stops 1 n/a Streetcar
San Diego United States San Diego Trolley 1981[73] 53.5 mi (86.1 km)[73] 53[73] 3[73] 2005[73] Light rail
San Diego United States San Diego Trolley's Silver Line[74][75] 2011[75] 2.7 mi (4.3 km)[76] 9[75] 1[75] n/a Heritage streetcar
San Francisco United States Muni Metro 1980[77] 35.7 mi (57.5 km)[77] 120[77][note 8] 6 (+1)[77] 2007 Streetcar (with subway section)
San Francisco United States F Market & Wharves line[78][79] 1995[79][80] 6.2 mi (10.0 km)[78] 32[78] 1[78] 2000 Heritage streetcar
San Francisco United States San Francisco
cable car system
[81][78][note 9]
1878[81] 5.2 mi (8.4 km) streetcar-like surface stops 3[81][78] 1952 Cable car
/Heritage streetcar
San Jose, California United States Santa Clara VTA Light Rail 1987[82][83] 42.2 mi (67.9 km)[82] 62[82] 3[82] 2005[82] Light rail
Seattle United States Central Link (Sound Transit) 2009 15.6 mi (25.1 km)[84] 13[84] 1[84] n/a Light rail
Seattle United States South Lake Union Streetcar 2007[85] 1.3 mi (2.1 km)[86] 11[86] 1[86] n/a Streetcar
Tacoma United States Tacoma Link (Sound Transit) 2003 1.6 mi (2.6 km)[84] 6[84] 1[84] n/a Light rail
Tampa, Florida United States TECO Line Streetcar System[87] 2002 2.7 mi (4.3 km)[87] 11[88] 1[88] 2010 Heritage streetcar
Tucson United States Sun Link 2014[89] 3.9 mi (6.3 km)[89] 22 1 n/a Streetcar
Notes
  1. ^ a b c d e f g This city also has a metro/rapid transit system, in addition to its light rail/streetcar system - see the List of metro systems.
  2. ^ While the MBTA Green Line is light rail, the MBTA Blue, Orange, and Red Lines of the system are rapid transit/subways.
  3. ^ See Green Line Extension
  4. ^ This was not a service "extension" per se, but a line renovation.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ While the Blue and Green Lines are light rail, Cleveland's other transit line, the Red Line, is rapid transit.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Muni Metro: 33 stations (9 underground; 24 surface), with an additional 87 streetcar-like surface stops.
  9. ^ 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.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]