The term light rail was coined in 1972 by the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Association (UMTA) to describe new streetcar transformations which were taking place in Europe and the United States. The Germans used the term stadtbahn 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.
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 in most of North America or radial railways in Ontario.
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. Britain began replacing its run-down local railways with light rail in the 1980s, starting with Tyneside and followed by the Docklands Light Railway in London. The trend to light rail in the United Kingdom was firmly established with the success of the Manchester Metrolink system in 1992.
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.
The renaissance of light rail in North American began in 1978 when Edmonton, Alberta adopted the German Siemens-Duewag U2 system, followed three years later by Calgary, Alberta and San Diego, California. These modern light-rail systems are more like subway or metro systems that operate at street level. They include modern, multi-car trains that can only be accessed at stations that are spaced anywhere from a couple blocks to a mile or more apart. Some of these systems operate within roadways alongside automobile traffic, and others operate on their own separate right-of-way.
|City||Number of Boardings|
|St. Louis (4Q2007)||73.2||23.8|
|Salt Lake City||45.4||12.8|
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.
Despite the fact that Calgary, Alberta has a lower population density than sprawling Denver, Colorado, the Calgary C-Train system has developed into the most successful and busiest light rail system in North America, with an average of 271,100 boardings per weekday in the fourth quarter of 2007, compared to 258,100 for Toronto, Ontario and 257,500 for Boston, Massachusetts, both of which are much bigger and more densely populated cities. It should be noted, however, that light rail carries a small share of metro riders in Toronto and Boston as both cities' metro systems use predominantly heavy rail.
The Calgary system was started in 1981 as the result of decisions to avoid building either downtown freeways or a heavy rail system. At that time, Calgary had less than half a million people and was considered too small for rail transit, but when it first opened the C-Train carried about 40,000 passengers per day. By 2007, Calgary was twice as big with 1 million people, but the C-Train system was over three times as long and carried over six times as many passengers.
As of 2007 45% of the people working in downtown Calgary took transit to work, and the city's objective was to increase that to 60%. The reason is that Calgary's downtown core covers only , is isolated from the rest of the city by two rivers and a railway line, and was built with relatively narrow streets by North American standards. In the 1960s planners proposed a comprehensive freeway system to improve access, but this was rejected due to intense public opposition. However, subsequent growth exceeded expectations and by 2006, Calgary had become the second largest head office center in Canada, with of office space and 120,000 people working in the downtown core. The downtown street system is at maximum capacity and has no room for traffic growth, but the city is confident it can add another 60,000 downtown workers in the next 20 years without making space for more cars. Peak hour travel by LRT is equivalent to the capacity of about 16 free flow traffic lanes and allows the city to have fewer than 0.4 downtown parking places available per worker.
Despite the downtown rush, 25% of the riders during rush hour are counterflow commuters - going out of downtown during the morning and into it during the afternoon. Many of these are students going to educational institutions, who receive deep discounts because they are filling seats that otherwise would be empty, and workers doing crosstown commutes to avoid the lack of freeways. However, as of 2007, the C-Train is suffering growing pains. Because population growth has exceeded expectations and LRT ridership has outpaced population growth, Calgary has had trouble buying enough new LRT vehicles and hiring enough new drivers to meet the demand. As a result, many passengers experience lengthy train waits due to overcrowding.
Despite funding problems resulting from lack of support from the provincial and federal governments, there are two extensions under construction. In November 2007, Calgary City Council approved another two further extensions on the two lines, to be completed by 2012.
In addition, on November 20, 2007, Council gave final approval for the new West Leg of Calgary's LRT, which would be the system's fourth leg. Construction for the West leg will begin in 2009, with completion expected in 2012. When the new light rail vehicles ordered for the extension are finally delivered, the city will have a total of 223 LRVs.
Besides the ongoing program of extending all station platforms to 100 m to accommodate four-car trains, transportation planners have identified two additional lines to be constructed within the next 25 years. They are to the North-Central and South-East districts of the city. BRT service is in place along the future North-Central route, and is expected to begin on the South-East route within a year. Calgary will also one day have to place a tunnel in their downtown to accommodate one of these new lines, or a combination of lines, much like Edmonton has already done.
According to John Bakker, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and one of the original designers of the system, going underground was a serious mistake. "Going into tunnels is about 10 times as expensive as going on the surface because you have to relocate utilities", said Mr Bakker. "Edmonton went into tunnels first, and it really bogged down everything thereafter, because they didn't have money". Edmonton's system is only 12 km long, while Calgary's light-rail system covered 42.1 km for about the same cost. As a result, by 2006 Edmonton's LRT ridership was relatively static at 42,000 per day, while Calgary's was over 250,000 and growing rapidly. However, a 10 km South LRT expansion is underway, almost all of it at surface, and is expected to be completed by 2009.
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, 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 over $280 million. Examinations for discovery are expected to start in the fall, with the trial beginning in 2009. The trial is expected to be lengthy.
All of the above is now under reconsideration as vehicles near the end of their lifespan and the future size and type of vehicle and trackway is contemplated. On March 16 2007, the Toronto Transit Commission announced a 120 Kilometre Light Rapid transit web throughout the city. This will be a 15 year project predicted to have 175 million-users by 2021. Funding has been announced at the municipal and provincial level, though not the federal. The plan has been released and can also be viewed at TransitCity.ca
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 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. The older systems attain higher ridership.
United States use of light rail is low by European standards. According to the American Public Transportation Authority, of the 20-odd light rail systems in the United States only five (Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Portland, OR), achieve more than 25 million passenger boardings per year, and only Boston exceeds the 50+ million boardings per year of the London Docklands Light Rail system.
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 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). 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 subsurface portion of the line was opened in 1897 to alleviate congestion for street level trolley cars, with numerous lines from the north and south converging via several portals to Park Street Station. By 1964, the transformation to today's system was nearly complete with the elimination of streetcars entering at Lechmere and Boylston; lines into the four remaining portals would be designated B, C, D, and E (the A line to Watertown being abandoned in the late 1960s). Three of today's four lines, although having their own separate path in the medians of their respective roads, still have segments without grade-separated rights-of-way, and consequently wait at traffic lights. The D line, which runs on a former Boston and Albany Railroad right-of-way, is the lone exception.
In 2004, the MBTA removed of the Causeway Street Elevated portion of the line, and replaced it with an underground tunnel, as a part of Big Dig environmental remediation, leaving the Lechmere Viaduct as the only remaining elevated part of the line. Other work includes many station overhauls that will improve handicapped accessibility.
In response to the dot com boom, the system became strained and Muni ordered newer, larger vehicles, which turned out to have their own noise and braking problems. In 1998, a four station extension of the trunk line was built, and in 2007 light rail service began on a new line going south from downtown, achieving limited success. Plans are underway for a three station underground light rail line, expected to serve 78,000 daily riders by 2030. Due to underground routing, the cost for the line is estimated at $1.5 billion.
The MAX system was born out of funds left over from the canceled Mount Hood Freeway, with the Blue line opening in 1986, the Red Line connection to Portland International Airport opening in 2001, while the latest line to be opened was the Yellow Line in 2004, which connects downtown to Portland Expo Center via Interstate Avenue. The Green Line is a track under construction intended to connect Gateway Transit Center and a new Clackamas Town Center Transit Center, while a planned Orange Line would be built from the Green Line's southern terminus at Portland State University.
DART currently runs two 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 system is currently under expansion as the Green Line is under construction and will run from Pleasant Grove in southeast Dallas to the suburbs Farmers Branch and Carrollton. It is set to open in two phases, first in September 2009, then in December of 2010. Other expansions include the Orange Line, to run from downtown, the Las Colinas in Irving and on to DFW Airport. Also, the Blue Line is set to expand east to Rowlett and south to Interstate 20. When the latest expansion round is completed, DART's system will have of LRT.
The Alum Rock - Santa Teresa line serves the eastern, northern, downtown, and southern areas of San Jose. The Mountain View - Winchester line operates between Mountain View and the Winchester neighborhood of San Jose. Both of these lines share the same tracks and stations on First Street between Tasman Drive in northern San Jose and the San Jose Convention Center in downtown. A third line, the Ohlone-Chynoweth - Almaden line, is a three-stop spur that connects the Almaden Valley area to the Alum Rock - Santa Teresa Line.
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.
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, would be an East-West link via either bus rapid transit or light rail. Whichever mode is selected, officials have insisted that the line be underground through the city center because of Baltimore's narrow streets and dense traffic.
The Blue Line's construction is part of a greater comprehensive transit network for the Charlotte metropolitan region. 70.6 more miles of track are planned, though some of these could be constructed as Bus Rapid Transit or streetcar lines.
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. Current expansion plans include an extension from the downtown subway under the Allegheny River to connect with PNC Park and Heinz Field; the North Shore Connector is slated to open by 2011.