The Strange Case of the Karlsruhe TramTrain – Streetcar, LRV, or Commuter Train?


A Karlsruhe tramtrain operating on tram tracks. The same LRV can operate on the mainline.

Recent posts on the LRTA blog, debated the the present definitions of streetcar/tram and light rail. North Americans tend to define LRT as a light-metro, where as Europeans associated LRT as a tram. Now added to the debate is the tramtrain and the strange case of the Karlsruhe’s new Zweisystem (two system) LRT: is it a tram or a train?

The tramtrain was not invented in Karlsruhe, rather transit planners refined interurban operation with specially designed tram-cars, which could operate on both on the regular railways and on city tram tracks, which use girder rail. The North American interurban was probably the first incarnation of tramtrain as the heavier interurbans operated on both streetcar tracks and railway trackage. In Europe, many light railways operated on city streets and even shared tram tracks when need be, thus the concept of dual operation of trams on railway tracks and trains on tram tracks is both old and sound.

Leaving Chur station the light railway train uses a main road.

The coming of the tramtrain has further blurred the definition of an already blurred subject: just how does one define a streetcar or tram; light rail or LRT; light-metro and of course tramtrain.

On-street train station in Chur is much simpler than many LRT stations.

Light metro has further blurred the definition of LRT as in Asia and North America, light rail vehicles are operated as light-metro on fully segregated rights-of-ways, either on elevated guide-ways or in subway. Though retaining the ability to operate on lesser rights-of-ways, these “hybrid” light-metros have more in common with Vancouver’s SkyTrain proprietary light-metro, than LRT. Seattle’s new LRT, can be defined as a “hybrid” light-metro, which does have sections of at-grade operation, it also has miles of elevated guide-way and subways. Elevated guide-ways and/or subways drives up construction costs and by doing away with the great economies of LRT over metro that originally made the mode successful. This has not been lost on the light-metro lobby.

Seattle's LRT operates on great lengths of elevated guide-way, which costs as much to build as a light metro. The cost advantage of LRT is immediately lost with such construction.

Previous definitions of transit mode (tram or streetcar, LRT) were based mostly on the vehicle size and weight, but with the growing popularity of the tramtrain, where one vehicle can operate as a streetcar, light rail vehicle and passenger train, the old modal definitions are now of little use. What is more, transit planners and politicians tend to call very expensive light-metro projects, light-rail, in an attempt to confuse the populace, forcing the taxpayer to fund the wrong type of transit mode needed.

A Karlsruhe TramTrain on the mainline!

The 21st century demands new definitions for streetcar/tram, LRT and light-metro – not based on the vehicle but on the quality of rights-of-ways. Zweisystem offers these definitions for ‘rail‘ transit.

Streetcar or tram: A steel-wheel on steel rail vehicle, powered by electricity (either by overhead wire or third rail), with the exception of deisel LRT, which operates on-street, in mixed traffic, with little or no signal priority at intersections.

LRT: A steel-wheel on steel rail vehicle, powered by electricity (either by overhead wire or third rail), with the exception of diesel LRT, which operates on a reserved rights-of-way with signal priority at intersections. A reserved rights-of-way is an at-grade route that is for the exclusive use of a light rail vehicle and can be as simple as a HOV lane with rails, a railway line, or as complicated as a park-like lawned  boulevard.

Light-metro: A steel-wheel on steel rail vehicle, powered by electricity (either by overhead wire or third rail), which operates on a segregated rights-of way, either elevated or subway.

TramTrain: An electric or deisel vehicle that can operate as tram/streetcar, LRT or a passenger train.

It is the TramTrain which has forced a rethink on transit mode, as one vehicle can be a streetcar, a light rail vehicle and/or a commuter train, operating on one route.

The lesson for Rail for the Valley is clear: TransLink and others opposed to TramTrain will confuse transit mode to such a degree that the average person will not know who to believe, for clarity, RFV must use the above definitions and ensure others do too.

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6 Responses to “The Strange Case of the Karlsruhe TramTrain – Streetcar, LRV, or Commuter Train?”

  1. Mark Dublin Says:

    The great thing about light rail is that you can give it as much or as little right-of-way as it needs.

    Seattle didn’t elevate that particular stretch of the line because we like the view- which happens to be spectacular. Likewise, we’re not sending the north segment underground tp get it out of the rain.

    Seattle is uniquely deprived of existing rail right-of-way located where transit needs to run. If we had even an old freight spur in any needed direction, we’d have run the whole system at-grade.

    The airport line leaves the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (no place else to put transit through Downtown Seattle) at grade. It does about four miles of street running through the Rainier Valley section of Seattle before climing onto the viaduct shown.

    As for versatility, the downtown tunnel was designed for joint operations with buses and light-rail trains following each other through the tubes. We presently use New Flyer hybrid articulated buses along with the trains.

    So be careful about using Seattle as an example of a place that wastes money on transit. Come visit- the trains depicted now run from the Sea-Tac Airport all the way downtown. You’ll see that of the whole transit world, Seattle has probably learned your lesson the best.

    Mark Dublin

    Zweisystem replies: I’m afraid I disagree with you. Seattle’s hybrid light rail/metro system is grossly overbuilt for the ridership it carries. I’m afraid the engineers got control of the planning and when this happens, costs rise dramatically and high construction costs deter expansion. The one airport Seattle’s LRT doesn’t cater to is Boeing field and the myriad of businesses in that area, which would create ridership. And yes, there was a ‘rail’ right-of-way there, now mostly blacktopped over. Transit that serves airports just do not generate the ridership that many would expect and again, the huge costs to do so, would have been better spent elsewhere.

    Seattle’s transit tunnel is an expensive folly, which politicians desperately would like to conceal from the taxpayer so of course the new light rail operates in it. It would have been far better to keep light rail on-street for easier access.

    The other problem with the LINK LRT, was that it had to compete against the glitzy monorail, which by its nature, was completely elevated.

    Sad to say, Seattle due to its massive costs is not a good example of light rail planning, in fact, like Vancouver, is a guide on how not to build LRT.

  2. Ben Schiendelman Says:

    zweisystem, I think you’re missing the ridership we’ll have as we build more on Link in Seattle. While the initial line is carrying some 20,000 a day, the extension northward will quadruple that number, and the next extensions to the north and south will double it again. Ridership in 2030 is expected to reach nearly 300,000 weekday.

    It’s incredibly short-sighted to say “Look at the ridership phase one gets in the first six months of operation!”

    Zweisystem replies: I am sorry, your argument doesn’t hold water. 20,000 passengers a day doesn’t justify the massive costs involved with Seattle’s hybrid light metro/rail system; it doesn’t even justify a more basic LRT/tram system. I severely doubt that 300,000 passengers a day will use the line by 2030, as there is no network to attract ridership and no hint of any sound planning at all.

    Seattle has caught the “Vancouver” disease, where politicians think that the more money one spends on a transit system, the better it is. Sadly, great expectations have been created with such poor planning and I’m afraid that Seattle’s Link LRT will be a black eye for light rail planning in North America.

    As a general note, Zweisystem is critical of bad light rail planning as well and has never supported the LRT Evergreen Line for the same reasons, very little ridership for such a large expenditure.

    As for Seattle, the long subway tunnel to the University will again drive up costs of the projects, but the ridership gained, like the RAV/Canada Line, just will not justify the investment. Real LRT has been ignored and the taxpayer has been duped.

  3. Ben Schiendelman Says:

    Ah ha. I understand now why you think what you do.

    300,000 a day in 2030 comes from the $18 billion we’ve voted to invest between now and 2023. We have a giant bus network (much larger than Vancouver’s) that already carries more than that.

    So when you make these claims about “no network” and “no planning”, I have to assume you simply aren’t aware of what already exists and what investment we’re making.

    Zweisystem replies: Zweisystem is fully aware of what exists in Seattle and the big mistake Seattle’s transit planners have made. You have invested a massive amount of money into a single line system and hope to cascade huge volumes on bus riders onto the metro to claim high ridership, just like what has happened in Vancouver. I’ll wager Seattle’s LINK LRT will not show a modal shift from car to transit for a very long while. As for the 300,000 passenger a day by 2030, I think you are smoking some BC “Bud” left by Translink’s planners!

    $18 billion doesn’t go far these days, especially if one is fixated on subways and viaducts and of course a great deal of money will be spent on highways. And here is your problem, you just can’t spend your way our of transit chaos, as Vancouver has tried to do, you have to plan smart and plan for what the customer wants and the 20,000 or so a day using Seattle’s Link LRT tells me that the Seattle transit customer has not been consulted with, nor is attracted to the shinny new hybrid light-metro.

    You will find that the new Seattle hybrid LRT will become a financial millstone around the taxpayers necks and will stall further “rail” development. Your huge transit projects in Seattle, including a new tunnel or viaduct; a subway to the U of W; and a new floating Bridge across lake Washington, will give the taxpayer plenty of excuses to not vote for further “rail” transit. And of course there is a certain Mr. Tim Eyman, who is a joker in the deck and who knows what he will conjure up, especially when the taxpayer feels over burdened by massive transit taxes, just like what happened in METRO Vancouver.

  4. zweisystem Says:

    A note from Zweisystem: Seattle Transit officials should have a look for TramTrain operation on the Eastside rail line, but of course the hoary old problem arises – the taxpayer will start asking embarrassing questions why TramTrain (LRT) was so much cheaper to install than the current hybrid light metro/rail style of planning. The same conundrum faces TransLink’s planners with the interurban and they have just chosen not to deal with it.

  5. nick Says:

    I think that it was a good idea to use the existing subway in Seattle and I can see that the elevated sections are a way of allowing room for light rail. Hopefully this is within existing rights of way.

    However surely the whole point of light rail is that it runs mainly along existing roads which whilst expensive and disruptive is less costly then tunnelling and elevated sections. Also in an age where we are concerned with access and reducing car usage, making passengers go either up to an elevated section or into a subway sounds counter-productive.

    In Ottawa for example, the expensive tunnel section could prove the undoing of the. Also, many people may not even know that the LRT is there if it is underground whereas if LRT is running right up the main street to the Houses of Parliament for example it would be hard to miss.

    Also there are personal security and other considerations whereby many people don’t actually like being underground in a tunnel.

    And with tram train (lets call them traims!) you can get the LRT from the suburb or another town and be taken more or less to your downtown or other destination all on street level. Here in the UK in Manchester there is the tram system that employs street running in the city centre but runs onto tracks and stations in the suburbs that were previously mainline tracks. There is not however any shared running.

    Traims (sorry but a like it partly because I just invented it but tram trains is a very cumbersome term) are going to be trialled as an extension of Sheffield Supertram. These will run on mainline tracks to the adjacent city of Rotherham.

  6. NIT Says:

    I think zweisystem makes some interesting points, but seems to be convinced that unlike Karlsrhue, West Coast transportation is planned by idiots. I have been to the town of Karlsrhue, it is flatter than Nebraska, without hills, lakes or ocean to deal with. Seattle’s roads frequently have elevation changes of hundreds of feet in a mile or so. It has large waterways and high, sometimes unstable hills. Lets not forget needing to build earthquake resistant infrastructure. Further, Karlsruhe is a town of 300,000, not a city of millions. Karlsruhe’s roads don’t know a traffic jam, Seattle has some of the worst in the US.

    Zweisystem, it would be more enlightening to compare Seattle to a city with similar demographics, geography and existing infrastructure.

    Zweisystem replies: Seattle is a place not to compare to anything. The area where the TramTrain operates is not unlike the Fraser Valley; I don’t see any mountain ranges along the old BCE route. In fact the demographics of Karlsruhe and METRO Vancouver are comparable, only there is a lot more LRT in Karlsruhe.

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