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Light rail costs too much, does too little

Spotters’ Guide to Rail Transit

Feb 8


The Christian Science Monitor has another puff piece about streetcars and how Portland’s streetcar attracted “around $2.5 billion” worth of development. I don’t need to repeat again that this development was really attracted by other subsidies.

The article quotes Urban Land Institute researcher Robert Dunphy, who says that streetcars are not transportation but “amenities.” The article says that “most streetcars operating today — with the exception of those in larger cities such as Portland or San Francisco — fall into that category.”

But San Francisco doesn’t have any streetcars (unless you count cable cars, which are quite a different beast) and Portland’s streetcar is clearly an amenity. I suspect the writer is confusing streetcars and light rail. Another recent article about the wasteful San Jose BART extension confused light rail with commuter rail.

So I’ve put together this spotters’ guide to rail transit. You can also download this guide in PDF format. Many thanks to Benn Coifman for designing the delightful fonts that make this guide possible.

Vintage trolleys usually are designed to appear old fashioned and are mainly used as tourist attractions. They connect to the overhead wires with a single pole.

Modern streetcars are usually streamlined to look modern and most often run in streets as single cars that are powered by electricity, connecting to the overhead wires with a single pole or pantograph. Unlike the vintage trolleys, streetcars are supposed to mainly serve downtown residents and local shoppers.

Light rail may run in streets or on exclusive rights of way, often runs in trains of two or three cars, and is powered by electricity, connecting to the overhead wires with a pantograph. The “light” refers to the load capacity, not the weight of the cars or rail.

Heavy rail runs in subterranean or elevated lines, always on exclusive rights of way, in trains of four to eight or more cars, and is powered by electricity. The “heavy” refers to load capacity, not weight.

Commuter rail usually runs on existing or abandoned freight railroad tracks, which may cross streets or pedestrian paths. It is usually powered by Diesel locomotives pulling several passenger cars except in the New York-Connecticut areas where it is usually powered by electricity.

Before about 1990, the Federal Transit Administration and Census Bureau used the terms “streetcar,” “subway” (or elevated), and “railroad” to refer to these types of transit. But the light-rail industry decided that streetcar or trolley sounded too old fashioned, so purely as a marketing ploy they came up with the term light rail. That led the transit industry to describe subways and elevateds as heavy rail. No one really knew what “light” or “heavy” meant, but the truth is that all forms (except possibly streetcars) use about the same weight of rail, and light-rail vehicles are actually heavier than heavy-rail vehicles.

Since about 1990, the Federal Transit Administration has used the terms light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail. However, it conflates vintage trolleys and modern streetcars with light rail. Another form of rail transit, people movers or automated guideways, is in use in many airports as well as Detroit and Miami. Outside of airports, these people movers have not proven successful, though they maintain many proponents.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner