Streetcars – light-rail, what’s the difference?

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With the ongoing transit debate, there is some confusion between streetcars and LRT, so what’s the difference?

Streetcars are just that, a rail guided transit mode that has the legal right to operate on the public highway. Streetcars in Europe are known collectively as trams, a term dating back over two hundred years, where ‘trams’ mostly coal carrying rail cars, traveled on a ‘tramway’ on the public highway. Back then, the public highway was merely a muddy track.

The term streetcar is strictly North American and with a few exceptions (Diesel LRT), describes a steel wheel on steel rail, electrically powered passenger vehicle, that operates strictly on public streets.

During the heyday of streetcars, many operators ran on routes that had few stops between urban centres and operated on an exclusive rights-of-ways, giving a much faster service. This was known as the ‘interurban’ or a streetcar that ran between urban centres. The interurban could operate on streetcar tracks in city centres and then network on to its own rights-of-ways, giving much faster journey times to its various destinations.

In the 1930’s several transit operators in Europe and the USA took the interurban concept and applied it to cities by giving  streetcar lines exclusive or ‘reserved’  rights-of-ways in city centres, giving much higher commercial speeds and faster journey times for customers. The depression, World War 2, and the auto revolution, started a chain of wholesale streetcar abandonments in many cities in North America and Europe and the lessons of the ‘reserved’ rights-of-ways were lost.

By the late 1960’s, streetcars had all but disappeared in North America and in Europe abandonments increased, with the old tramway’s being replaced by metro systems. A few cities in Europe upgraded their tramway systems to smaller pre-metros with large sections of grade-separated rights-of-ways, operating articulated cars. This was very expensive and the results were not all that encouraging. Overall transit ridership in cities with new metro or subway systems declined as the customer perceived that metro and buses (which replaced trams to take the customer the metro station) were not user friendly and it was just easier to take the car instead. As auto congestion increased in urban centres, more subways and metro were planned, with the thought at the time that the transit customer wanted fast subways. The customer, as it turned out wanted his or her the tram back.

A crisis of transit philosophy evolved, the transit customer wanted faster trams, but did not want subways (nor did the taxpayer) and one universal and unpleasant fact emerged, the customer did not want to take a bus! In the early 1970’s, the idea of the reserved rights-of-way reemerged and the results were encouraging. By giving a tram line even sort sections of reserved rights-of-ways, greatly increased commercial speed, which both increased ridership and increased productivity. The success of the reserved rights-of-way was instant and combined with the articulated rail car, the concept of priority signaling, and operating on a reserved rights-of-way gave the tram or streetcar almost the same commercial speeds of a metro at a fraction of the cost. A new name was coined to market the old tram/streetcar/interurban – Light Rail Transit or LRT.

Today a tram or streetcar system which operated at least 30% of its route on reserved rights-of-ways is considered LRT. In the USA and Canada, transit planners have tried to reinvent light rail as a light-metro(Vancouver & Seattle) and the streetcar as small trams, operating on marginal routes. It should be noted that Hong Kong’s 1067 mm, gauge tramway, operating small double-deck tram cars, carry over 80 million passengers a year and in France, Strasbourg’s tramway’s largest cars, called Jumbo’s, have a capacity of 350 persons. Any streetcar or LRT system can carry over 20,000 persons per hour per direction, the only difference being, LRT is able to obtain much higher commercial speeds.

A streetcar is considered a rail operated transit vehicle, operating on-street, in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority at intersections, while Light Rail or LRT is a streetcar that operates on a reserved rights-of-way, which can be as simple as a High Occupancy Vehicle Lane (HOV lane) or on a park like boulevard like the Arbutus Corridor, with priority signaling at intersections, giving it commercial speeds equal to that of a metro.

LRT operating on segregated rights-of-ways such as in a subway or on viaduct is considered a light-metro.

It is not the vehicle that dictates whether a transit line is a streetcar or tram, rather it is the quality of rights-of-way.

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One Response to “Streetcars – light-rail, what’s the difference?”

  1. Exclusive MAPS 3 poll - Page 3 - OKCTalk Says:

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