What is a Light Rail Vehicle

Light rail vehicles have made urban transportation to be very easy in many different parts of the world. Back in the 1970s, Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA), the forerunner of Federal Transit Administration in the U.S. described the latest streetcar transformation in the United States and Europe as light rail. These vehicles are not really physically light but lighter than the heavy rail system.

The term light was used in this context to mean its purpose is for fast movement and light loads. This mode of urban transportation uses predominantly or not necessarily grade separated rights-of-way as described by the Transportation Research Board in the United States in 1977. Light rail is a mode of transit service that operates usually two-car or three-car linked together on fixed rails normally separated from other traffic.

They are driven with electricity mostly with their power being tapped from an overhead electric line through a pole. An operator on board drives this vehicle.

With advancement in technology, some light rail networks have been made to have similar characteristics with the rapid transit rail. There are other light rail networks that operates partially in streets called trams. Due to their reliability and lower capital cost in the recent years, they have become really popular and the choice of many people as they save more money on this than taxis.

Types of light rail

There exist nowadays several types of light rail vehicles. In different parts of the world, the same terminology does not apply to all light rails. A light rail in another city maybe called a streetcar or tram in another city. There are other terms like light metro which are very similar to rapid transit networks. We also have the Sprinter, another light rail  not very similar to urban rail and does mostly inter urban rail transportation. As a result, cost of transportation varies. Metro-like systems tend to be more expensive that the tram-like systems.

Higher capacity light rail vehicles

It is difficult to draw a clear line between light rails and metros these days. However, in Europe this term is used to describe rapid transit system with short trains. Fairly Low frequency trains are also considered light rail.  Some trains despite them fully being segregated are still considered as light rail like the MRT-3 and LRT-1 in Manila in the Philippines. It is a very common thing in china in most of its cities like Shanghai, Dalian, for elevated light metro lines or even  metro lines like the Shanghai metro line 3 that operates with six-car trains to be considered light rail trains. Such systems are not considered as light rail in North America.

Lower capacity light rail vehicle

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to light rail vehicles of lower capacity. There is no clear definition of tram system, streetcar or light rail. They are all light capacity though but there is a substantial overlap in their technologies. Many of light rails can be used as streetcars or trams as a subcategory of light rail instead of a distinct transportation type. There are two versions of this lower capacity light rails, the traditional type with rail tracks running along the streets and sharing space with road traffic and the modern variation where trains run along their own right-of-way separated from the usual road traffic. The traditional type stops frequently and its tracks are usually very obstructive since it shares space, whereas the more modern variation has highly very visible tracks and does not have to share any space.

Mixed systems

From the name, we would correctly say they are light rails with mixed characteristics. Proper engineering has made it possible for a rail line to run along elevated viaduct, go underground and run along streets. This is very common in the United States where there is really no clear distinction between these types of urban rail systems. For instance, the Metro Rail’s Gold Line in Los Angeles considered a light rail has sections of it that could be described as light metro, tramway or even rapid transit. There is also a possibility of high-floor rapid transit cars like trams to run along a street. We call this street running.

What is the speed and the stop frequency of a street car?

Shanghai Maglev
Shanghai Maglev – World’s fastest high-speed trains in commercial service at 267 mph

Light rail vehicles may be referred to as any rail line that tends to stop frequently in a short distances with low speed. The average speed of a light rail is about 30 miles per hour. Though the differentiating factor between light rail and other systems is not the low top speed. For instance, North American light rail trains systems have top speed of sixty six miles per hour while the all underground Montreal Metro trains reaches only a top speed of about forty five miles per hour.  The New York City Subway trains have lower top and average speed than the Los Angeles Metro light rail vehicles. The reason being that the New York City Subways train carries far more passengers than many light rail train system in North America.

Some considerations about Light rail train system

A lot of light rail train systems are combined both with on-road and off-road sections even in the fairly old ones. Some countries especially in Europe only consider the old system as light rail. In such countries, trams running on mixed rights-of-way are not considered as light rail but streetcars or trams.


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