A metre gauge tram in Germany is still considered LRT.
Since the early 1970’s, the term LRT or light rail transit, has been in common use describing streetcar or interurban type rail transit. The first generation of modern LRT were German ‘Stadtbahn’ (City railway) style of tram, generally articulated and heavier built than trams or streetcars of the age. The first generation of North American LRT lines used the Duewag or Siemens, BN of Belgium, now Bombardier Inc., licensed built versions of ubiquitous ‘U-2’s’. These vehicles acted both as a streetcar and as an interurban, proving very successful in operation in cities including San Diego, Portland, Calgary and Edmonton. The original concept of LRT was build it cheap and build lots and it will be successful and LRT was.
Lille VAL light-metro.
During the same period, several proprietary transit systems were developed including Ontario’s Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC) ICTS and France’s MATRA VAL system. These proprietary transit systems were labeled Intermediate Capacity Transportation Systems (ICTS) or simply ‘light-metro'; though poor sales led the UTDC to rename SkyTrain ALRT or Advanced Light Rail Transit in the late 70’s. ICTS was supposed to bridge the gap of what a streetcar could carry and that which would justify a full fledged metro, but ended up costing as much as a heavy-rail metro, while having the same potential capacity of LRT. ICTS was designed to be elevated as speed of a transit system was the ‘flavour of the month’ and thought essential for a successful transit system. Sadly for the companies developing and marketing ICTS or light-metro, LRT and with articulated cars, priority signaling at intersections, and the concept of the reserved rights-of-way, proved superior to its much more expensive light-metro cousin. Light-metro became another dead branch on the tree of railway evolution.
The legacy of ICTS or light-metro lives on and despite overwhelming evidence that there is little benefit of very expensive grade separated transit systems, much political, bureaucratic, and academic prestige is still wedded to the notion that speed trumps all for a successful transit system. To increase the commercial speed of a transit system, the number of stations per route km. must be reduced. Thus light-metro systems have one half to one third the stations or stops than a comparable LRT system.
With 4-car trains and carrying over 500,000 passengers a day, Manilla’s LRT systems justifies the need for grade separation.
Grade separation of a transit line is very expensive and propels LRT into the category of light-metro, complete with its failings. Of course, when ridership demand, such as Manila, or Kuala Lumpor is very high, then it’s quite right to build LRT as a light metro; yet operating as a light-metro, the elevated (or underground) light-rail still maintains the ability to operate on much cheaper, at-grade rights-of-ways.
Seattle’s new LRT has more in common with light-metro, than light-rail.
There is a disturbing trend in North America to build LRT on miles of viaduct or tunnels (subways), with Seattle being a good example of masquerading light-metro as light-rail! The result is a very expensive transit system, which despite their much higher costs, will attract the same or fewer passengers than at-grade LRT. Many planners have blurred the definition of LRT and plan for light-metro, while still calling it LRT, with TransLink’s Evergreen line light-rail proposals being a good example. More confusion is sewn, by calling ‘rail’ transit systems the meaningless ‘rapid transit’ or ‘mass transit’, which do not define transit mode at all.
There are several reasons:
- Because the huge sums involved, politicians turn light-rail projects into make work mega-projects, spreading the taxpayers money to many more politically friendly companies and organizations.
- Local officials desperate for funding, try to fool more frugal Senior governments by building a politically prestigious metro by calling it LRT.
- The auto lobby wants all transit up in the air, out of sight, leaving the roads for cars.
- Land next to light metro lines tends to be rezoned for higher densities, giving windfall profits to landowners.
- Transit bureaucrats can hire more employees with light-metro, enhancing their departmental ‘prestige’.
- Planners do not understand the difference between metro, light-metro, and light-rail and lump them together as ‘rapid transit’.
Despite the much higher cost of light-metro, there is little evidence of superior operation. Cities that build hugely expensive light-metro and/or LRT built as light-metro, tend to have smaller networks with higher operating costs. Higher transit costs means new taxes must be found (carbon tax?) to fund the light-metro and taxes curbs the appetite for ‘rail’ transit expansion. Smaller ‘rail’ systems mean a much smaller modal shift from car to transit and in the time of global warming and peak oil, one wants to get the biggest bang for their transit buck.
In the U.S.A., planners now consider LRT as a variant of a metro and what once was called LRT, is now being labeled fast streetcar! In Europe, a tram can be the simplest of streetcar or a commuter train (Karlsruhe’s Two-system LRT). A dichotomy has appeared; in Europe transit planners strive to simplify and reduce costs of LRT, while in North America planners do the opposite, making LRT far more complicated and expensive than it need be!
Have American and Canadian transit planners lost their way?
One wonders if transit planners should get back to the basics and again plan for user and taxpayer friendly transit systems that were so popular, successful, and affordable thirty years ago. Maybe the old adage: “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” should be remembered by those advocating turning LRT into a metro.
Calgary’s C-Train LRT in the transit mall. 90% of the line is at-grade.