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Light railway refers to a railway built at lower costs and to lower standards than typical "heavy rail". This usually means the railway uses lighter weight track, and is more steeply graded and tightly curved to avoid civil engineering costs. These lighter standards allow lower costs of operation at the price of slower operating speeds and lower vehicle capacity.
The precise meaning of the term varies by geography and context.
In the United States, "light railway" generally refers to an urban or interurban streetcar system. The term light rail was introduced in the 1970s to describe a form of urban rail public transportation that has a lower capacity and lower speed than heavy rail or metro systems. Urban sprawl combined with higher fuel prices has caused an increase in popularity of these systems in recent years.
In the United Kingdom 'light railway' refers to a railway built or operated in the United Kingdom under the 1896 Light Railways Act although the term is used more generally of any lightly built railway with limited traffic, often controlled locally and running unusual and/or older rolling stock. A light railway is properly distinct from a tramway which operates under differing rules and may share a road. The term 'light railway' is generally used in a positive manner. Perhaps the most well known caricature of a light railway is the film The Titfield Thunderbolt, made in 1953 as many of the light railways and other small branch lines were being closed. Despite the great public affection for these railways very few were successful. H.F. Stephens was pivotal in the light railway world and tried many techniques to make light railways pay, introducing some of the earliest railcars and also experimenting with a rail lorry built out of an old Model T Ford. Nevertheless most light railways never made much money and by the 1930s were being driven out of business by the motor car. Although World War II provided a brief increase in the importance of these railways very few lasted beyond the early 1950s. Those that survive today are generally heritage railways.
The Heart of Wales Line has been operated under a Light Railway Order since 1972, and appears to be the only part of the national rail (that is, non-heritage) system run as a light railway.
Queensland adopted a narrow gauge of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) in order to make construction of lines lighter and thus cheaper, though this initiated a break-of-gauge with other states. The cost savings were due to light rails, low axleloads and low speeds as much as due to the gauge.
Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia followed suit with the narrow gauge to reduce costs, though South Australia ended up with an inefficient two-gauge system which negated some of the supposed cost savings of the narrow gauge.
There were a significant number of small and isolated mining and timber railway built to a variety of gauges and improvised standards.
There are still a large number of sugar cane tramways built to a common 610 mm (2 ft) gauge, and sharing research and development into advanced features such as concrete sleepers, tamping machines, remotely controlled brake vans, and the like. There is little through traffic with main line railways so that the break-of-gauge is not a problem.
The Iron Knob Railway was legally a "tramway". It operated 2000T ore trams which were heavier than most railways.
Many industrial railways were built to light railway standards. These may be of light and small construction, although the wagons carrying molten-steel in a steelworks can be several hundred tonnes in weight.
- See also Panama Canal Railway
The Panama Canal construction used a heavy network of 5 ft (1,524 mm) temporary railways in its construction to move vast quantities of soil from the excavations to the dams that were constructed.
Light railways have been used in several wars, especially before the advent of the combustion engine and motor car. These have often connect depots some distance behind the front line with the front lines themselves. Some armies have Divisions of Engineers trained to operate trains. Sometimes they operate a branch line of their own so that they can practice track and bridge building (and demolition) without disturbing trains on the main line.
- Central Asian Military railway
- Heeresfeldbahn - German and Austrian military railways
- Longmoor Military Railway - built by the Royal Engineers in order to train on railway operations on it. It closed in 1969.
- War Department Light Railways