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 External links
- 10 References
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 River Line in New Jersey (opened in 2004), the O-Train in Ottawa (opened in 2001), 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||53 km (33 mi)||43||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 C-Train light rail system, with one currently under construction. There are four lines that accommodate two C-Train routes. The lines, in chronological order, are the South (1981), the Northeast (1985), the Northwest (1987), and the newest West (2012) one. Route 201 uses the South and Northwest lines; Route 202 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 and the West LRT line.
Edmonton was the first city in North America with a population of less than one million to build a modern light rail system (Greater Edmonton now has over 1 million people). The route first started construction in 1974, and opened its first segment on April 22, 1978, in time for the 1978 Commonwealth Games. While groundbreaking at the time, the Edmonton Transit System built much of its light rail system underground, which meant that it could not afford to lay as much track to the suburbs. In addition, Edmonton's central business district has less office space and the single line which was built did not reach areas which housed many commuters to downtown. The system is successful by North American standards, with a daily ridership of 93,600 passengers.
The City of Edmonton has focused on LRT expansion plans over the past couple of years, with one new line under construction, plans to extend current lines, and plans to add two additional lines.
In the 1970s and 1980s Ottawa, Ontario opted for grade-separated busways (the Ottawa Transitway) over light rail on the theory that buses were cheaper. In practice, the capital costs escalated from the original estimate of C$97 million to a final value of C$440 million, a cost overrun of about 450%. This is nearly as high as Calgary's C-Train system, which had a capital cost of C$548 million, is about the same length, and carries more passengers. Unfortunately, the Ottawa Transitway has reached capacity, with over 175 buses per hour on the downtown section, and has no cost-effective way to increase the volume.
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 use of diesel multiple units (DMUs) to avoid the cost of building overhead lines along the tracks. O-Train has had some success in attracting new ridership to the system (a few thousand more riders), 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.
Ottawa produced plans to expand both the Transitway and to open additional rail routes. The intention of the light rail project was to add to the system (although, the denser parts of the city would have been served by buses and streetcars while the suburbs would have had rapid transit) not to replace the existing Transitway. However, in mid-December 2006, the new Ottawa city council voted to cancel the LRT system despite the fact that funding was already in place and contracts were already signed. As of 2008, lawsuits against the city of Ottawa over its canceled light rail system totaled 36.7 million.
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. The new rapid transit line will follow part of the existing Transitway corridor from Tunney's Pasture Station in the west to Blair Station in the east. The city is currently looking at the Provincial and Federal governments to help fund a vast expansion to the east (to Orleans), west (to Bayshore and south (to Riverside South that would see 19 new stations and 35 kilometers of added track within 10 years. The current diesel O-Train headway will increase in 2014 from every 15 minutes to 8 minutes.
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. In older systems, such as in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Boston, the light rail is vestigal from streetcar days but were spared the fate of other streetcar systems by some grade separation from traffic and high ridership. A number of systems were built in the 1980s, a few more in the 1990s, and many more were opened in lower density cities in the early 2000s.
List of LRT Systems operating in the United States
- 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.
- 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.
The Baltimore Light Rail is a single line reaching from BWI Airport south of Baltimore, through the city and north to a strip mall and office park. With 30 miles (48 km) of track, the line achieves a daily ridership of 36,300.
Major efforts toward the creation of the light rail were championed by then mayor William Donald Schaefer, who wanted a transit link to the new baseball park, Camden Yards, about to be built downtown. In order to have the line completed the month that the Baltimore Orioles started playing in Camden Yards in 1992, the system was built entirely without federal money, a rarity in late 20th century U.S. transit projects. Federal funds would later be used to double track the whole system, decreasing headways which had been restricted to 17 minutes.
The light rail line was built entirely at grade, even through downtown's narrow streets. Though the majority of the track's length is grade-separated from acquiring disused railroad rights-of-way, trains run in the streets in some sections downtown. When the system was built, this resulted in vehicles having to wait in traffic lights, though in 2007 a signal preemption system was installed.
The Maryland Transit Administration has drawn up plans for an additional four lines which may be light rail, bus rapid transit, or heavy rail to create a comprehensive city system. As of 2007, only the future of one line is certain. The Red Line, which is in its intermediate planning stages, will be an East-West link light rail. The line will run 14.1 miles from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the western suburbs to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in the eastern part of the city. Stations will link to the existing central light rail line and to the MARC Penn line, a commuter rail line, in two locations. The line will be underground through the city center because of Baltimore's narrow streets and dense traffic, and will run mostly at grade otherwise. The Red Line will be operational in 2021.
Operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the DART Light Rail system is, by route miles, the nation's largest light rail network, with a 85-mile (137 km) rail system that serves Dallas and five of its suburbs, complemented by a 34-mile (55 km) commuter rail line that connects to Fort Worth and runs through Irving, a DART member city. The LRT lines began with the opening of the 20-mile (32 km) starter system in 1996. In the first few years after the turn of the century, DART opened several small expansions, culminating in the opening of the Green Line in December 2010.
DART currently runs four LRT lines. The Red Line begins in southwest Dallas at Westmoreland Station and runs northeast to downtown, then runs north through the suburbs of Richardson and Plano to its terminus at Parker Road Station. The Blue line begins in South Dallas at Ledbetter Station and runs north, joining the Red Line at 8th and Corinth Station on its trek to downtown. It continues north to Mockingbird Station before it breaks away from the Red Line and turns northeast toward Garland, ending its run at Downtown Garland Station. The Green line runs from its southern terminus at Buckner Station in Pleasant Grove to the northwest towards Downtown Dallas. The Green Line then continues northeast passing through the suburbs of Farmers Branch and Carrollton ending at North Carrollton / Frankford Station. The Orange Line is a peak-service only line (running concurrently with some of the northern portions of the Green and Red lines) until 2012, when the first phase expansion towards D/FW Airport is completed.
The system is currently under expansion. The Orange line will run from downtown, towards Las Colinas in Irving and on to DFW Airport. The Blue Line is expanding east to Rowlett and south to Interstate 20. When the latest expansion round is completed, DART's system will have 93 miles (150 km) of LRT.
The Los Angeles County Metro Rail system, which compromises of both heavy rail and light rail,operates four light rail lines: the Green, Gold, Blue and Expo lines. In September 2013, the lines collectively had 201,913 daily weekday boardings, making it the second busiest light rail system in the United States after Boston's. The Blue line, in particular is the busiest with 88,169 average weekday boardings. The Blue, Gold, and Expo Lines run mostly on at-grade right of way, with some street-running, elevated, and underground stretches in more densely populated areas. The Green Line is entirely grade separated, running in the median of I-105 and then turning southward along an elevated route.
The Blue Line opened first, in 1990. The Green Line began service in 1995, and the Gold Line entered service in 2003. A 9-mile extension of the Gold Line into East Los Angeles has finished construction and began regular service in November 2009. A further extension to Azusa from the northern terminus of the same line is also planned. Additional extensions of the Gold line to Whittier, Montclair and possibly Ontario Airport are under active study.
The newest line, the Expo light rail line which runs from Downtown Los Angeles to Culver City (Phase 1) opened on April 28, 2012. A further extension to Santa Monica (Phase 2) is currently under construction and will open in 2015. Other extensions of the Los Angeles County light rail system are under study. Among these is the Crenshaw Corridor Line, a light rail line running from the Miracle Mile area to the Los Angeles International Airport primarily along Crenshaw Boulevard.
The Pittsburgh light rail lines are vestigial from the city's streetcar days which lasted well into the 1960s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pittsburgh began replacing most of its remaining streetcar lines with buses, though streetcar lines that used the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel remained. In the late 1970s, it was decided to transition the remaining streetcar lines to light rail, and the new light rail iteration of Pittsburgh's system debuted on April 15, 1984. Thus, along with San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Newark, and Cleveland, Pittsburgh is one of the few American cities continuing to operate streetcars/light rail in an uninterrupted evolution from the streetcar era of the early 20th Century.
Pittsburgh's light rail network, commonly known as The T, is the 26.2-mile (42.2 km) light rail system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; it functions as a subway in both downtown Pittsburgh and on the city's North Shore and largely as an at-grade light rail service in the suburbs. The system is owned and operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT). As stated above, it is the successor system to the far more extensive streetcar network formerly operated by Pittsburgh Railways.
The current lines, which run south from the downtown into the South Hills area, were formerly operated by PCC streetcars. Beginning in the 1980s PAT reconstructed the lines along the existing right-of-way and ordered new trams from Siemens. PCCs continued to operate in tandem with the new light rail vehicles until 1999 when the last five were retired from service. PAT also constructed a new subway line in the downtown, ending decades of street-running in the Golden Triangle. The most recent expansion of the system, the North Shore Connector, opened in March 2012 – it was an extension of the downtown subway under the Allegheny River to connect with the North Shore in the vicinity of PNC Park and Heinz Field. A further expansion to the Pittsburgh International Airport is in the early planning stages.
The Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) system serves the Portland metropolitan area. It has 52.4 miles (84.3 km), comprising four lines: the Blue, Green, Red and Yellow, and serves about 130,000 daily. Like most modern light rail systems MAX runs along city streets—albeit in reserved lanes—in the city, but has its own right-of-way farther out. The only mixed-traffic street running on the system is along the Portland Transit Mall, in downtown, and light rail trains only share lanes with buses there, not any private vehicles. The length of MAX trains is limited to two cars by the relatively small 200-foot (61 m) blocks in downtown Portland.
The MAX system was born out of funds left over from the canceled Mount Hood Freeway, with the Gresham/eastside line (now part of the Blue Line) opening in 1986. The Hillsboro/westside line (now also part of the Blue Line) opened in 1998, more than doubling the system's size, followed in 2001 by the Red Line connection to Portland International Airport and in 2004 by the Yellow Line, which connects downtown to the Portland Expo Center via Interstate Avenue. Route colors were adopted in 2000. The Green Line is a 6.5-mile (10.5 km) extension that opened in September 2009 and connects a new transit center at Clackamas Town Center to the Gateway Transit Center, from where it follows previously existing MAX lines to downtown. Another major addition in 2009 was a new, second alignment through downtown, along the transit mall; it is used by both the Yellow and Green lines. Construction has begun on the planned Orange Line from the Green Line's downtown terminus at Portland State University to the southeast suburb of Milwaukie and will include the new Tilikum Crossing across the Willamette River.
Salt Lake City
The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) runs the 44.8-mile (72.1 km) light rail system known as TRAX in the Salt Lake Valley. The system, which opened in 1999, serves approximately 60,600 people every day using 146 vehicles. The system currently has three lines. The Blue Line begins in Draper at the Draper Town Center Station and travels north through the length of the Salt Lake Valley before ending in Downtown Salt Lake City at the Salt Lake Central Station (which is part of the Salt Lake Intermodal Hub). The Red Line starts at the Daybreak Parkway Station in the Daybreak Community in South Jordan (south west Salt Lake Valley) and continues northeast to the Fashion Place West Station in Midvale, where it joins the Blue Line. The two then split just after the Courthouse Station in Downtown Salt Lake City and the Red Line makes its way east toward the University of Utah before ending at University Medical Center Station. The Green Line starts at the West Valley Central Station in West Valley City and heads northeast before joining the two lines at Central Pointe Station in South Salt Lake. The Green Line continues north with the Blue Line until they split just after Arena Station in Downtown Salt Lake City. After it splits, it continues west to the Airport Station and the Salt Lake City International Airport. TRAX integrates with UTA's commuter rail train (the FrontRunner) which connects nearly the entire length of the Wasatch Front. In December 2013 it will also connect with the S Line streetcar (formerly known as Sugar House Streetcar) in southeast Salt Lake City. The S Line connects the TRAX system with the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City.
The San Diego Trolley currently comprises three daily lines, the Blue, Green, and Orange Lines, collectively running on 53.5 miles (86.1 km) of track and achieving average weekday ridership of approximately 90,000-100,000 over the past several years. During the time that the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB) was drawing up options for a transit system, Hurricane Kathleen (1976) made landfall, damaging many of the tracks operated by the freight carrier, San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway, and cutting them off from the greater Southern Pacific Railroad, so Southern Pacific petitioned for abandonment. The auspicious timing of the incident led the MTDB to buy and repair the tracks, opening a 13.5-mile (21.7 km) light rail segment in 1981, while also reestablishing freight service (the Blue Line and freight run on shared-use track on this same line to the present day). The system has been expanded incrementally ever since. There are currently plans for an 11-mile (18 km) extension to the University City community, connecting the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) campus and University Towne Centre shopping center to the rest of the system.
The North County Transit District also operates a diesel light rail line, called the Sprinter which runs between Oceanside and Escondido. The service began operations in March 2008 and operates with Desiro-class diesel multiple units (DMU) manufactured by Siemens in Germany.
- List of North American light rail systems by ridership
- Politics of light rail in North America
- Streetcars in North America
- List of tram and light rail transit systems
- United States
- Transportation in the United States
- List of United States light rail systems by ridership
- List of rail transit systems in the United States
- Rail transit in Boston
- Transportation in Dallas, Texas
- Rail transit in metropolitan Denver
- Transportation in Houston
- Rail transit in Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Transportation in New York City
- Transportation in Hudson Country, New Jersey
- Los Angeles County Metro Rail
- Transportation in Portland, Oregon
- Transportation in Salt Lake City
- Transportation of St. Louis, Missouri
- Public Transportation in San Diego
- Transportation in San Francisco
- Transportation in San Jose, California
- Public transportation in Canada
- A movie of Armour's electric trolley, circa 1897 from Library of Congress
- List of Canadian urban rail systems
- Table of Light Rail Transit Agencies in the United States
- Commuter Rail, Light Rail & Rail Transit News
- Light Rail Central photos & news | site was down 03/03/2010
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