Generally, light rail is used to describe systems which are in between passenger train systems on passenger load capacity and speed. The distinction is not always very helpful, with some light rail systems having capacities that are akin to larger subways with heavy rail, and some so-called heavy rail systems having speeds comparable to those of streetcars. These systems are usually called now light rail or sometimes pre-metro, that is, light rail systems running underground downtown and above ground elsewhere, such as the Link.
However, since then, a number of cities throughout North America have built transit systems and called them light rail, starting with Edmonton in 1978, with another 20 cities since. According to this research paper, which documents the birth of light rail in the United States, the term light rail was introduced in 1972 to describe the new systems being built across North America, which were modelled on Germanys stadbahn system.
According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), heavy rail (also called metrorail, subway, rapid transit, or rapid rail) is electric rail that is capable of carrying a large volume of traffic; is characterized by high speeds and/or rapid acceleration; is entirely or largely grade separated; and usually has boarding at higher levels. Light rail, or light rail transit (LRT), is a form of urban rail mass transit which typically has lower capacity and lower speeds compared with heavy rail and metro systems, but higher capacity and higher speeds than conventional streetcar systems. Light rail vehicles (LRTs) are differentiated from rapid rail transit (RRT) vehicles in their ability to operate through mixed-traffic, typically resulting in narrower car bodies and articulated joints in order to operate through traffic-congested street environments. Modern LRT technology is flexible and adaptable, and whether or not a given system is considered to be a real rapid transit system depends on its characteristics.
Proponents of light rail say rail transit improves community wellbeing through creating jobs, increasing economic development and property values, and reducing pollution and congestion–all while providing drivers an inexpensive alternative to the car. Indeed, in many cities, one may observe economic development occurring in the vicinity of transit stations, though that may not constitute a causal link between rail transit and economic development. The chart suggests that the frequency of service and the development of density around light rail stations explain much of the variation in transit ridership, and it shows why the building of light rail in areas with lower densities is generally not successful.
Outside a handful of denser central and quasi-central areas, most of which already have light rail lines, there is no place in America with sufficient transit ridership to justify rail investments. Light rail transit, like other mass transit systems, cannot function without subsidies derived from local sales taxes and state and federal grants. The salaries of transit workers paid with subsidies should not be considered a new revenue stream to a local neighborhood: Tax dollars were merely transferred from local residents and state and national taxpayers to transit workers, essentially taking jobs away from other industries.
It might be better simply to eliminate certain particularly poorly performing lines operated by transit agencies that incur higher light-rail operating costs. Most transit agencies do not need to expand their light rail systems, and yet many of them can make better use of their existing lines. Docklands Light Rail in Calgary, Alberta, uses a number of general-purpose light rail techniques to reduce costs, including minimising under-ground and overhead tracks, sharing transit malls with buses, leasing rights-of-way from freight railways, and pairing LRT construction with highway widening.
For example, the Sprinter Light Rail Line in Northern San Diego County was the least efficient light rail system by ridership per mile out of 23 that we studied, had the second highest operating costs per mile, and had the highest light rail-to-bus cost ratio. Calgarys LRT ridership is far higher than that of any comparable light rail system in the United States, with 300,000 passengers a weekday, and so Calgarys capital-efficiency ratio is much higher, too.
The Muni Metro system is composed of 71.5 miles (15.1 km) of standard-gauge tracks, seven LRT lines (six regular lines and a rush-hour shuttle), three tunnels, nine underground stations, twenty-four surface stations, and eighty-seven surface stations. Two stations, Stonestown and San Francisco State University, are located in the southwest portion of the city, with the remainder located in the east part of the city, where the Muni Metro system has undergone most recent expansions, in connection with the extension of the Embarcadero and Third Street light rail project. Metro Rail – Finally, on the opposite side of New York state, in Buffalo, The Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) operates Metro Rail, a single heavy/light rail line between Downtown Buffalo and University of Buffalos South Campus.
The 23.5-mile-long A-line in Denvers RTD system–strictly speaking, a commuter rail rather than a light rail system, since it operates larger trains at higher peak speeds–serves an airport located 18 miles away in the middle of the undeveloped prairies of Denver. The line is the only one of its kind that runs along Main Street, and is crucial to travelers heading into the university district, arriving either at the Salt Lake City International Airport or on FrontRunner commuter rail.
Parking is available at the Fannin South Park & Ride, which is located next to the Fannin South rail station, and various points along the rail lines. In addition to six eastlink stations, Sound Transit is building an operations and maintenance facility in the BelRed neighborhood, where light rail cars will be stored and maintained.
PANYNJ also operates a similar system at Newark Liberty International Airport (Airtrain Newark), connecting with New Jersey Transit/Amtraks Newark Liberty International Airport Rail Yard. While most light rail systems are powered by electricity, a diesel-powered system operates in New Jersey (New Jersey Transit is River Line, which operates between Trenton and Camden). The METRO Green Line extension (also known as the Southwest Light Rail Project, or SWLRT) is a generations-long investment in the transportation system of our region, adding 14.5 miles to METROs existing Green Line, connecting Downtown Minneapolis, Downtown St. Paul, and locations in-between Downtown Minneapolis.