What is
Light Rail?

Low-floor light rail technology is the updated version of streetcar technology, re-engineered to meet contemporary needs for accessibility by seniors, parents with strollers, and persons in wheelchairs, and that the new light rail vehicles carry more passengers than either the old trolleys or buses, cutting operating costs.

There has been much discussion over the term Light Rail, and exactly what it is and what it means.
There are several "official" definitions.

Lightrail.com's definition of "Light Rail"

For purposes of lightrail.com's page(s), "Light Rail" is defined as follows:

An electric railway system, characterized by its ability to operate single or multiple car consists (trains) along exclusive rights-of-way at ground level, on aerial structures, in subways or in streets, able to board and discharge passengers at station platforms or at street, track, or car-floor level and normally powered by overhead electrical wires.

Other "official" definitions offered

APTA Glossary of Transit Terminology definition:
"An electric railway with a "light volume" traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multi-car trains or single cars. Also known as streetcar, trolley car or tramway.

Transportation Research Board definition:
Light rail transit is: "A metropolitan electric railway system characterized by its ability to operate single cars or short trains along exclusive rights-of-way at ground level, on aerial structures, in subways or, occasionally, in streets, and to board and discharge passengers at track or car-floor level."

Some other definitions and thoughts submitted:

Simply stated: Light Rail = Trolley = Streetcar = Tram = Tramway

Trolley to LRT

Trolley (Past) ............................................................................... Light Rail (Present)

History of the term Light Rail

The exact origination of the term light rail is unclear, however, the term light rail was reportedly first used in the 1960's as a euphemism to avoid the (U.S.A.) term: trolley and streetcar, or (U.K.) term: tram and tramway. The term light railway has been used in England for years prior to it's current use referring to a type of mass transportation. Regardless, the name appears to have been introduced to try to give the streetcar/tram/trolley a more upmarket image.

On the other hand, the first new (and highly successful) system in the USA was aptly named the San Diego Trolley. (Jeff Kurland)

Current use of the term Light Rail

In most current settings, light rail is anything but "light", and is built to exacting standards. Maximum speeds of light rail trains is normally 60 miles per hour (100 km per hour), while heavy rail trains normally operate at higher speeds. Depending upon the specific system, the distance between light rail stations is shorter than within heavy rail systems, which lends some major advantages to urban settings. Within a light rail system, trains may operate in mixed street traffic (urban areas), downtown malls, on dedicated rights of way, or in the middle of major thoroughfares, where trains cross intersections, in the same manner as other vehicles. Due to these factors, the "average" speed of light rail systems is significantly lower than heavy rail systems.

Passenger Capacity of Light Rail

Light Rail "trains" operate as either single or multiple car consists. Passenger capacity of each car in a multiple car consist can be up to as many as 250 passengers (standees included). The number of cars that can be operated in any one consist are limited by several factors. One of the major factors is station platform length. Other minor factors include traffic logistics within the city and the ability of the control cab to operate more than a certain numbers of cars.

Why is Light Rail so Practical?
Is Light Rail right for my community?

Compared to heavy rail, light rail can be very practical for urban applications, due to it's ability to operate in mixed traffic settings. This ability can severely reduce construction costs of an urban rail system. However, within the same system, light rail has the ability of traveling at speed of up to 60 miles/hr (100 km/hr), when separated from these mixed traffic settings.

Updated July 30, 2008