What is Light Rail Transit?
Well, light rail transit (or LRT for short) is a tricky concept. The reason I say it’s tricky is because of its application and meaning in North America as opposed to its development and terminology in other parts of the world. Every part of the world has a term or usage of the concept or its associated vocabulary. The one common thread is this: for the most part, it is all rail, steel wheels on steel rails.
Basically, long story short, Light Rail Transit as applied in North America is like a hybrid between a streetcar (much like those that ran the streets of most major US and Canadian cities up until the 1950s and 1960s) and rapid transit (like subways and interurban railways). Light rail is found in many cities such as San Diego, Dallas, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. Most of these cities have light rail that serves multiple municipalities in a region surrounding the major city, while others serve just one major city and surrounding suburbs. A number of cities have implemented light rail transit as an enhancement to older but heavily used underground or street-level streetcar systems (e.g. San Francisco, Boston), while others have built out a new system with rights-of-way (the way of the tracks and associated safety features) that are either new or previously used by other railroads (e.g. Dallas, Seattle, Norfolk).
Why Light Rail Transit?
Well, the answer depends on the city or metro area. For cities with already established streetcar systems converted to light rail, it most likely made financial and operational sense to continue with a mode that carries thousands of people safely and efficiently into an out of the urban core compared to operating dozens or even hundreds of buses. Routes that carried heavy ridership were kept and allowed to continue into the urban core, while lighter-use routes were either consolidated or eliminated in favor of feeder bus routes to connect to the heavier rail lines. For cities that dismantled their streetcar systems entirely, light rail made sense only for reasons including better access from suburb to urban core as an alternative to driving on congested roadways and increase of economic activity related to land use and property tax rebates for developers who build mixed-use developments adjacent to transit. As the streetcar technology developed from the older streetcars of the early 20th Century to the PCC car to the standard 90-foot articulated (or longer) light rail car, the actual vehicles have gotten quieter around curves, more capable of higher speeds, smoother on acceleration and ride quality, and are powered by electricity through pantographs for high speed and high current draw as opposed to trolley poles with low current and slower speeds. That is not to say that all streetcars take the form of light rail, as there has been a resurgence of the old streetcar concept in the form of a modern, lightweight “streetcar” that travels primarily on city streets at slower speeds but feature amenities of modern buses and light rail vehicles.
Where did this concept come from?
The term light rail can be traced back as early as the 1960s when the last of the major cities succumbed almost completely to the streetcar-to-motorbus conversion by corporations such as General Motors and National City Lines. There was a time prior to the 1950s that streetcars were found in nearly every major city in the United States. Over the course of a quarter century or more, the mostly private streetcar operations were losing money and could not maintain their railways. General Motors and National City Lines (both conglomerations related to the oil industry) were given the green light to buy out many streetcar lines and convert them to motorbus operation which was more flexible and more comfortable than the old clunky streetcars, even though the more streamlined PCC car (Presidents’ Conference Committee) was in production from the 1930s to the 1950s. Many large city transit bus routes today still follow remnants of the old streetcar systems they once replaced. Nonetheless, there are a number of streetcar lines that were consolidated or rerouted into “subway” or street-level trunks/corridors still remain to this day, though their rail vehicles and route designations might have changed from the old days. Such examples include San Francisco’s MUNI Metro under Market Street (the lines were surface lines all the way to Downtown up until the 1970s when the city decided to build a downtown metro tunnel to keep the large amounts of trains off the streets) and the MBTA Green line in Boston.
Light rail as we know it today can be traced back to the 1970s with Boeing (which had bought out helicopter maker Vertol) designing and built what the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA, which is today’s Federal Transit Administration, or FTA) would promote as the standard light rail vehicle to convert streetcar operations (really, PCC operations) to something more modern. Only San Francisco and Boston participated in the experiment, which didn’t do as well as officials hoped. Nonetheless, the experiment with this concept proved to be a catalyst for systems that wanted to build light rail but with a different model railcar. At the same time, Edmonton had a slightly different idea: repurpose a light metro type car used in Frankfurt, Germany. Edmonton decided to build their light rail system and used this model as their vehicle, which Calgary followed suit. San Diego followed suit, but requested that the high-floor cars have access from cheaper low-level platforms for their starter light rail system, which has developed into what we know today as the San Diego Trolley. Once these systems developed vehicles to fit their operations, other cities contracted Siemens and eventually other manufacturers to design and build light rail vehicles for their operations.
What does Light Rail Transit look like?
This is probably a question that appears easy to answer, but has its exceptions to the rule. Most light rail vehicles used in the US and Canada have some kind of level boarding, whether it is high-floor with high platforms or low-floor with low platforms for wheelchair and disabled accessibility, are single-unit or the more common articulated-unit cars, are primarily electric-powered via a pantograph on top of the train, and have a smaller carbody profile than a metro or subway train. An example of a typical light rail vehicle would be the Siemens-built S70 “Avanto” low-floor light rail vehicle used in Charlotte, Norfolk, and Houston. Other cities, like Denver and Salt Lake City use the Siemens-built SD100 or SD160 high-floor variant with low platforms, and cities like St. Louis and Pittsburgh use the SD400 or SD460 high-floor variant with mainly high platforms. There are other variants of vehicles built by other manufacturers such as CAF (Sacramento, Pittsburgh), Kinkisharyo (Seattle, Phoenix, Jersey City, Newark), and Bombardier (Minneapolis).
Most light rail rights-of-way are what we call grade-separated, which means that trains are often elevated above ground level or dug underneath. Sometimes, trains run on ground-level but are separated from cars either along roads or adjacent to roads, limiting exposure to automobiles to transit centers or road crossings/intersections. There are some systems with lines that run within the medians of highways, much like some subway or commuter rail lines, while some plow straight through grassy or wooded areas between stations. Most systems have stations roughly a quarter of a mile to half a mile apart, though some systems have stations much farther apart. Many light rail stations are standalone stations in that they serve the community directly within walking distance, while others double as transit centers for access to other modes of transportation or park-and-ride facilities where commuters can park their car and take the train into the city avoiding highway congestion and saving gas and money.
Many systems have what is called proof-of-payment ticketing, where users buy tickets and validate them as proof to transit personnel that a fare was paid, based on an honor system, since collecting tickets on the vehicles like in the streetcar days would slow many light rail systems to a crawl due to increased dwell times (time spent stopped in stations). For a number of cities, proof-of-payment has been a hassle due to the added cost of extra fare inspection teams and law enforcement presence due to high fare evasion and crime in certain areas of their networks. The added operating costs for personnel are much less of a sticker shock than the increased capital cost of completely grade-separating the light rail from the street and adding turnstiles much like a subway system, although Los Angeles felt the opposite with their recent installation of turnstiles at all rail stations when they didn’t have any before, mainly due to rampant fare evasion, high crime, and homeless invasion. For many other systems, however, the nonexistant capital cost of turnstiles and the operating cost of enforcement personnel give riders a sense of security and a feeling of openness and accessibility to use mass transit for a demographic that would otherwise handle most of their daily errands in a private car.
So how much does Light Rail cost?
Millions per route mile, assuming a two-track line with overhead wires for powering the trains and some sort of separation of trains from traffic and pedestrians. Some light rail systems such as the San Diego Trolley and Sacramento RT’s Light Rail system were built for anywhere from $20-50 million per mile, while other systems such as Seattle’s Sound Transit Link Light Rail and the HBLR (which I work for) were built for roughly $100-250 million per mile, accounting for advanced signalling systems, yard facilities, right-of-way acquisiton, and labor costs by region. Some systems were built for relatively cheap due to other railroads disusing their tracks to then be rebuilt for light rail, but other systems were built rather expensively due to the same reasons. All current light rail systems were built as two-track systems to cut down on building costs, so to account for a lack of express tracks for faster service, stops are spaced much farther apart than streetcar lines or even subway lines in some places.
What is so great/not so great about Light Rail?
One great thing about light rail is that it is cheaper to build than a subway if you account for the fact that most light rail systems are not completely separated from streets and crossings or have elaborate fare control zones like most subway systems in North America. With most light rail systems, you can easily walk up to the platform or ticket machine area and purchase or validate tickets without a physical barrier to transit services. Some underground light rail stations may have mezzanines to allow riders to choose platforms depending on direction of travel or to allow for easy transfer between transit modes. The trains are usually frequent, smooth-riding, and quick to accelerate for the train to achieve close to maximum speed for faster, more efficient travel between stations that are farther apart. This, in theory, should cut travel time from suburb to downtown in lieu of the lack of express tracks to bypass slower local trains. Light rail trains are as easily adaptable in highway medians as they are along downtown streets, whether running in a mixed environment on one side or on a street completely by itself. Some stations have their own platform separate from pedestrian walking space, while some use the sidewalk as a platform. In some cases, light rail can also share street space with other transit vehicles (as in Portland, OR) or even with automobiles (as in HBLR on Essex Street), much like the streetcars of yesteryear.
Some of the not so great things about light rail? In some instances, light rail by itself does not foster economic growth promised by politicians who woo developers into transforming parcels of land adjacent to the light rail into transit-oriented development (TOD). Conversely, it can be said that TOD alone cannot always provide the ridership needed for the investment in light rail to prove worthwhile. It goes to show that if you build it, they don’t always come, especially if all of the pieces do not come together, such as a balance of shopping, employment, and residences within walking distance to the light rail or a short bus ride away, convenient places to park if you own a car, and a system with an acceptable degree of speed and reliability given the distance from the urban core. I will also address the car argument as well: people say that light rail does not take people out of their cars. I’m not sure if the object of light rail (or any transit whatsoever) is to take people out of their cars, as some politicians want people to believe, but rather that light rail, if designed and operated effectively, is another convenient option to driving if you don’t necessarily have to. For suburb-to-suburb travel, light rail is far from ideal in most situations due to the car-eccentric nature of most American suburbs, but for urban and suburb-to-city travel, light rail can be an acceptable option to access the city. Aside from the operational issues that come with light rail, whether it is the extra ridership demands and extra train overtaxing the system or the operational constraints that extra traffic might place on its bottlenecks in street-running territory, light rail is relatively safe and comfortable if you know the rules to ride, much like the rules of the road.
All Light Rail Systems aren’t created equal.
Every system caters to a different demographic, from commuters to the city or shoppers traveling from one system extreme to another, and each line in each system can and should be treated differently. What works for Dallas may not work for Portland, and what works for Sacramento may not be fit for Boston. Designers for the Calgary system might have preferences and circumstances different from the designers of the Norfolk system. Most of these systems do have a common goal of attempting to reach far away commuters to bring them downtown within a reasonable amount of time or to give riders and option to take the train to recreational events and sporting venues without having to search for parking or sit in traffic. All systems are not created equal, though they serve a purpose: better mobility in an urban region, options for commuting, and a cleaner environment.