Light rail in the United States
Light rail is defined in the United States (and elsewhere) as a mode of electrified (or in a few exceptional cases, diesel-powered) rail-based transit, usually urban in nature, which is distinguished by operation in routes of generally exclusive, though not necessarily grade-separated, rights-of-way. This is distinguished from 'heavy rail' systems, also known as rapid transit or 'Metro' (e.g. subway/elevated), which are fully grade-separated from other traffic, and which are characterized by higher passenger capacities than light rail. Arguably, traditional streetcars (also known as trolleys in the North America, or as trams outside of North America especially in Europe), which is rail-based transit that takes place in shared roadways with automobile traffic and thus doesn't operate in exclusive rights-of-way, can be considered to be a sub-set of light rail, though the two modes of transit are often treated as distinct in the United States.
- 1 Light rail transit in the United States
- 2 History of streetcars and light rail in the United States
- 3 List of light rail systems operating in the United States
- 4 Light rail systems in the United States under construction
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
Light rail transit in the United States
The use of light rail in the United States is low compared to some European countries, but higher than some other nations, such as Canada and Australia.[clarification needed] According to the American Public Transportation Association, of the 30-odd light rail systems in the United States, six of them (Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Philadelphia, and San Diego) achieve more than 30 million unlinked passenger transits per year.
Compared with that of Canada, the United States federal government offers considerably more funding for transportation projects of all types, resulting in smaller portions of light rail construction cost to be borne at the local and state levels. This funding is provided by the Federal Transit Administration though as of 2004[update] the rules to determine which projects will be funded are biased against the simpler streetcar systems (partly because the vehicles tend to be somewhat slower).[original research?] Some cities in the U.S. (e.g. San Pedro, California) have set about building the less expensive streetcar lines themselves or with only minimal federal support.
The United States has a number of light rail systems in its mid-sized to large cities. In the oldest systems, such as in Boston, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, the light rail is vestigal from the first-generation streetcar systems of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but were spared the fate of other streetcar systems by some grade separation from traffic and high ridership. A number of second-generation light rail systems were inaugurated in the 1980s starting with San Diego in 1981, with a few more built in the 1990s, and many more opened in lower density cities since the early 2000s.
History of streetcars and light rail in the United States
From the mid-19th century onwards, horse-drawn trams (or horsecars) were used in cities around the world. The St. Charles Avenue Line of New Orleans' streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835.
From the late 1880s onwards, 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, six major cities in the United States (Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco; Toronto in Canada marks the seventh city in North America with a continuing first-generation streetcar system) continued to operate large first-generation streetcar systems. Additionally, a seventh American city, Cleveland, maintained an interurban system (e.g. the Blue and Green Lines) equivalent to what is now "light rail", that opened before World War I, and which is still in operation to this day.
|Boston||MBTA Green Line,
High Speed Line
|While changes have been made to the original 1897 Tremont Street Subway in 1962 and 2004, and to some of the line routes over the years, and the Green Line's streetcar "A" Branch was closed in 1967, both systems have run intact with mostly uninterrupted service since their opening dates.|
|Cleveland||Blue and Green Lines||1913||2||Light rail
|Aside from line and station renovations in the early 1980s, and the Waterfront extension in 1996, these lines have operated essentially uninterrupted as light rail/interurbans from their opening.|
|Newark||Newark Light Rail
(aka. Newark City Subway)
|1935||2||Light rail||Outside of an extension in 2002, and the switch to modern LRT vehicles in 2001, this line still operates essentially unchanged since the 1930s. A second, modern LRT line, called the Broad Street Extension, opened in 2006.|
|New Orleans||New Orleans Streetcars||1835||4||Heritage streetcar||The St. Charles Avenue Line of the New Orleans streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835; the line was electrified in 1893. The Canal Street Line dates to 1861, and was electrified in 1894; however, the line was closed in May 1964, and wasn't re-inaugurated with restored service until 2004. The Riverfront Line and Loyala Avenue Line are "new", and didn't open for service until 1988 and 2013, respectively.|
101 & 102 Trolley Lines,
Girard Avenue Line
|Light rail / Streetcar,
|The Subway–Surface Trolley Lines began operation as a mixed subway (Market Street Tunnel)/streetcar system in 1906, and have continued operation essentially unchanged, including the use of single-car trolley vehicles, since that time – however, three of the original eight lines were replaced by buses in the 1950s.
Similarly, SEPTA Routes 101 & 102 (aka. the Media-Sharon Lines) began operation as rail lines in mostly exclusive rights-of-way (i.e. light rail) in 1906, and have also operated mostly unchanged since then.
Additionally, SEPTA Route 15 (aka. the Girard Avenue Line) dates to 1859 as a horse car line, and was electrified in 1895; it was replaced with buses relatively late, in 1992, but service on the line was resumed with heritage streetcars in 2005 – a portion of the line is closed for construction, but is approximately scheduled to reopen in 2016.
|Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh Light Rail||1903 / 1984-87||2||Light rail||Began as a first-generation streetcar network (operated by Pittsburgh Railways), but was converted to light rail. By the 1970s, most of the original streetcar routes (now operated by PAT) were converted to bus, and it was decided to renovate the remaining streetcar lines (all of which still used the 1904 Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel) as light rail. This included the construction of a new 1.1 miles (1.8 km) downtown subway tunnel section. The converted light rail system opened for service in 1984, with the downtown subway tunnel opened in 1985, and the rest of the system opened in 1987. The light rail system was further renovated in 2004. A subway extension to the North Shore opened in 2012.|
|San Francisco||Muni Metro,
F Market & Wharves
|1917 / 1980-82||7,
|Light rail / Streetcar,
|Began as a first-generation streetcar network, but was partially converted to light rail. While most San Francisco's original streetcar lines had been converted to buses in the post-World War II years, five lines that had dedicated rights-of-way or used narrow tunnels (e.g. the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the Sunset Tunnel) could not be converted to buses. By the 1950s and 1960s, planning for the Market Street Subway was undertaken that would serve both the planned rapid transit BART system, and operate as a new subway tunnel for the five remaining streetcar lines. The partial switch to the Muni Metro light rail/subway service began in 1980, with full service commencing in 1982 – while operation in the Market Street Subway portion of Muni Metro can be considered true "light rail" service, the remaining surface portions of the five original Muni Metro lines still operate as streetcars. The surface Market Street streetcar line ceased service in 1982; however, it was continued as a seasonal summertime "festival" streetcar line – full surface streetcar service was restored to Market Street in 1995 as the heritage streetcar F Market & Wharves line. A sixth Muni Metro line, called T Third Street, operating as a true "light rail" line, was added to the system in 2007; a new subway extension of this line, called the Central Subway, is under construction, and is scheduled to open in 2019.|
When several of these cities upgraded to new technology (e.g. San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh), they called it "light rail" to differentiate it from their existing streetcar systems since some continued to operate portions of both the old and new systems.
In the United States, most of the original first-generation streetcar systems were decommissioned from the 1950s onward through approximately 1970 as the popularity of the automobile increased. Although a few traditional streetcar or trolley systems still exist to this day (e.g. New Orleans), 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 (Straßenbahn) networks and evolved them into model light rail systems (Stadtbahn). Except for Hamburg, all large and most medium-sized German cities maintain light rail (Stadtbahn) networks.
The renaissance of light rail in the United States began in 1981, when the first truly second-generation light rail system was inaugurated in the United States, in San Diego, California; the San Diego system adopted the German Siemens-Duewag U2 as the light rail vehicle. (This was just three years after the first North American second-generation light rail system opened in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta in 1978, and which used the same German Siemens-Duewag U2 light rail vehicles as San Diego's system adopted.)
Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with a variety of gauges common in many early systems (e.g. the broad Pennsylvania trolley gauge, etc. used by New Orleans' streetcars and by the light rail systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). However, most modern second-generation light rail systems now operate on standard gauge rail. 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 in second-generation light rail systems, and there is generally insufficient space for wheelchairs to move between the wheels in a narrow gauge layout.
List of light rail systems operating in the United States
There are approximately 35 light rail systems (including streetcar transit systems) operating in the United States. Seven of them are the 'legacy' systems described above; the other approximately 30 systems are "modern" light rail (or streetcar) systems, or are "heritage" systems, opened since 1980.
All of the operating light rail and streetcar systems in the United States are listed in the following table:
- This system also has a heavy rail rapid transit/metro portion (see List of metro systems), and connections to a commuter rail system; the figures and statistics presented here represent the light rail portion of the system only.
- While the MBTA Green Line is light rail, the MBTA Blue, Orange, and Red lines of the MTBA system are rapid transit/subways and are not included here.
- 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.
- This includes just the light rail lines (Blue, Expo, Gold and Green lines) of L.A. Metro Rail only. The Red and Purple lines of L.A. Metro are rapid transit/subway lines 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.
In Jersey City, New Jersey, the Hudson–Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) services the eastern and southern parts of the city and other areas of the Gold Coast to North Bergen, New Jersey, extending south to Bayonne on one branch. Liberty Historic Railway is trying to jump start the connection to the NJ Transit light rail line to the Central Railroad of New Jersey Jersey City Terminal.
Like San Francisco, Newark never fully abandoned its old streetcar system because part of it had a dedicated, underground right-of-way in an old canal bed. Beginning in the 1940s, a system that once extended far into Newark's suburbs was pared down to just the underground route, "Streetcar #7" which was rebilled the Newark City Subway. After decades of cutbacks, the line was finally expanded northward to Belleville in the early 2000s. A second branch running through downtown to Newark–Broad St. station was opened in the mid-2000s, and the system was rebranded again as Newark Light Rail.
Trenton to Camden via Burlington City
The River Line is a diesel light rail line in southern New Jersey, running along, except at its ends, what was previously the Bordentown Secondary, from Trenton to Camden, serving communities along the Delaware River between thee cities. This line is one of only two diesel light rail lines in North America, and the only one in the United States.
Phoenix is served by the METRO Light Rail system with a 20-mile starter segment connecting Phoenix with the cities of Tempe, and Mesa. A part of the Valley Metro public transit system, the initial segment of the system was completed in December 2008, after construction began in March 2005.
Commuter rail service had been absent in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area since the decommissioning of the Phoenix Street Railway in 1948. In 1989, the ValTrans elevated rail proposal, was turned down by voters in a referendum due to cost and feasibility concerns. Other subsequent initiatives during the 1990s failed over similar reasons.
METRO was created by the Transit 2000 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), which involved a 0.4 percent sales tax and was approved by voters in Phoenix in 2000. Transit 2000 aimed at improving the local bus service and the formation of bus rapid transit and light rail, among other things, which was seen as a more affordable approach. It used the route placing and color designations from the 1989 plan.
The Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) system serves the Portland metropolitan area. It has 52.4 miles (84.3 km) between four lines—the Blue, Red, Yellow and Green—and serves about 130,000 daily. Like most modern light rail systems, MAX runs in reserved lanes along city streets on some sections, but has a completely separate right-of-way on other sections. 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.
RT operates a 37.42-mile (60.22 km) light rail system, with two lines the Blue and Gold, 45 stations, and 76 vehicles (Siemens AG Duewag U2A vehicles and more modern CAF Light Rail Vehicles (LRV)). There are 76 vehicles in the entire fleet. Lines on the system operate from 4:30 am to 1:00 am daily, with service every 15 minutes in the day and every 30 minutes at night. The light rail system, with 49,800 daily riders, is the tenth busiest in the United States.
Salt Lake City
The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) runs the 35.5-mile (57.1 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 and contains 69 vehicles. The system has three lines, coded by the colors blue, red, and green. The Blue Line begins in Draper and runs north to end in Downtown Salt Lake City at the Salt Lake City Intermodal Hub. The Red Line begins at the Daybreak Community in South Jordan, Utah and runs northeast to end at the University of Utah Medical Center. The Green Line begins in West Valley City, Utah and runs northeast to pass through Downtown Salt Lake City before heading west to end a the Salt Lake City International Airport. All three lines have several common stations in south central Salt Lake City.
The San Diego Trolley comprises three daily lines, the Blue Line, the Orange Line and the Green Line, as well as a supplementary heritage streetcar downtown circulator (opened in 2011) known as the Silver Line that operates on select weekdays, weekends and holidays. The San Diego Trolley system collectively operates on 53.5 miles (86.1 km) of route, and achieved a weekday average of almost 90,000 unlinked passenger transits in the second quarter of 2013.
During the time that San Diego's Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB; now known as the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System) was drawing up options for a transit system, Hurricane Kathleen made landfall in September 1976, 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, and South 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 on July 19, 1981, while also reestablishing freight service on the same line (the Blue Line runs on shared-use track, with freight using the lines during late night). This marks San Diego as the first true second-generation light rail system inaugurated in the United States. The system has been expanded incrementally ever since, with the Orange Line opening in 1986 and the Green Line opening in 2005. There are plans to build and operate an 11-mile (18 km) extension of the Blue Line to the University City community by 2018, connecting the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) campus and the University Towne Centre shopping center to the rest of the system.
Light rail systems in the United States under construction
The following table lists entirely new light rail or streetcar systems under heavy construction. LRT systems that are in the planning stages (e.g. Los Angeles Streetcar), but not yet under construction, are not listed.
|System length||Type of vehicle||System type|
|Atlanta||GA||Atlanta Streetcar||2014||2.7 mi (4.3 km)||Siemens S70||Streetcar|
|Charlotte||NC||CityLYNX Gold Line||2015||1.5 mi (2.4 km)||Gomaco||Streetcar|
|Cincinnati||OH||Cincinnati Streetcar||2016||3.6 mi (5.8 km)||CAF||Streetcar|
|Dallas||TX||Dallas Oak Cliff Streetcar||2015||1.6 mi (2.6 km)||BEC Liberty||Streetcar|
|Honolulu||HI||Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project||2017||20 mi (32 km)||AnsaldoBreda||Light rail|
|Kansas City||MO||Kansas City Downtown Streetcar||2015||2 mi (3.2 km)||Urbos 3||Streetcar|
|Washington, D.C.||DC||DC Streetcar
(H Street NE/Benning Road Line)
|2014||2.4 mi (3.9 km)||United Streetcar||Streetcar|
- Light rail in North America
- Politics of light rail in North America
- List of United States Light Rail systems by ridership
- List of rail transit systems in the United States
- Public Transportation in San Diego
- Transportation in Dallas, Texas
- Transportation in Houston
- Transportation in Portland, Oregon
- Transportation in San Francisco
- Transportation in Salt Lake City
- Transportation of St. Louis, Missouri
- Rail transit in metropolitan Denver
- Rail transit in Boston
- Transportation in San Jose, California
- Transportation in Hudson Country, New Jersey
- Rail transit in Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Transportation in New York City
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Light rail in the United States.|
- American Public Transit Association (APTA)
- Table of Light Rail Transit Agencies in the United States (from APTA)
- Federal Transit Administration (U.S.)
- Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the U.S. National Research Council
- Commuter Rail, Light Rail & Rail Transit News
- Light Rail Central photos & news
- A movie of Armour's electric trolley, circa 1897 from Library of Congress