Light Rail & Streetcars



The Netherlands’ Randstadrail

The Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Sytske_R.

Architects and urban designers may be no fans of elevated transport infrastructure and fair enough. Rarely is the overhead viaduct, rail bridge or elevated freeway a contributor to the urban form.

Typically, they sap the very life out of the surrounding area.

Notwithstanding that argument, however, is the fact that tunnelling is remarkably more expensive than building overhead transport infrastructure while providing the exact same quality and level of service.

Plus there’s the question of the view – but that’s something for a whole other post.

Now if the architects and urban designers of the world were willing to open their own wallets to make up for the difference in price between elevated and tunnelled transport infrastructure, then tunnels it is. But until that unlikely day ever arrives, elevated transport infrastructure is likely to be the preferred means of providing fully-dedicated rights-of-way for public transit in the near future . . . at least in places where virtual slave labour can’t be used to build said tunnels.

The entire problem with the elevated versus buried argument is the logical fallacy both sides present. The buried proponents argue that elevated infrastructure is inherently ugly and detrimental to the urban form and it’s a hard argument to refute when you see things like Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway or the Chicago El. But the argument breaks down because the fact that most elevated infrastructure is ugly doesn’t mean all elevated infrastructure must be ugly.

As I’ve argued before, ugly is an opportunity to be beautiful and elevated can be beautiful.

The elevated proponents, meanwhile, don’t do themselves any favours by consistently producing and constructing some of the most ugly and intrusive infrastructure ever unleashed on the urban form. You can’t claim that a piece of infrastructure will help a community when a great many historical examples have destroyed, decimated and cut-up pre-existing communities.

Let’s be frank here: Most elevated transport infrastructure is ugly and it’s therefore no surprise that architects and urban designers get all up in arms whenever a new one is proposed for any city. Just look at the debate over Honolulu’s new LRT line over at The Transport Politic here and here.

Which brings me to the Netherlands new light rail systems the Randstadrail. Opened in phases over the second half of the last decade, it connects The Hague with Rotterdam. While most of the Rotterdam system is underground, much of the track infrastructure in the Hague is elevated. And unlike most standard elevated tracks, these are elevated not just physically, but aesthetically as well. Take a look:

A Randstadrail station as integrated into a pedestrianized plaza. Image by deVos.

Note how the overhead rails don’t overwhelm the sidewalk below. There’s an elegant, almost beautiful interplay between street, rail and service. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

An entrance up to the Randstadrail. Image by flickr user Daniel Sparing.

A train departs a Randstadrail station. Image by flickr user Ferdi’s-World.

From underneath the Randstadrail. The lattice work creates a sculptural effect that is almost organic. Notice too the space for pedestrians and the lack of support columns. Image by flickr user Gerard Stolk.

It’s an interesting example of using the elevated track as a visual cue, guide and corridor. It seems designed to play with the pedestrian at street level as much as it is designed to move people above street level.

Will elevated infrastructure work everywhere? Of course not. Some urban form dictates that elevated infrastructure is completely inappropriate and impossible. But at the same time, if one considers geologic and economic factors, some environments are completely inappropriate for tunneled infrastructure too.

At the end of the day architects and urban designers have a responsibility to understand the financial constraints cities face and cannot disregard all elevated structures simply because they’re “ugly.” After all, an architect’s or an urban designer’s job is to make the urban form beautiful within the structural, political, environmental and economic factors of the day. For an architect or urban designer to willfully ignore something as viable as elevated transport infrastructure simply on the grounds of aesthetics is to admit that they possess a severe lack of creativity and are quite likely just not very good at their jobs.

To draw an analogy: If you were bad at chemistry, would you run around claiming chemistry to be stupid, useless, harmful or ugly? Or would you instead rely upon people who actually did understand chemistry and knew how to use it responsibly?

Hopefully this current debate subsides in the near future. It’s harmful and it’s wasteful. Hopefully as the internet allows us to easily peer into the backyards and intersections of the world, systems like the Randstadrail in The Hague and projects like Zürich’s Im Viadukt will gain notice and can go a long way to showing the world that elevated infrastructure can be more, shall we say, elevated.

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Toronto Downsizes Streetcar Fleet Due to Winter Storms

Toronto Ice Storm.

In my neighbourhood. Creative Commons image by flickr user Bad Alley.

Over the holidays, a particularly nasty ice storm wreaked havoc in my hometown of Toronto (and much of the surrounding area for that matter). The storm was so bad it left hundreds of thousands of people without power over Christmas. The problem was then compounded by several wicked cold snaps that saw the mercury plunge into the minus 20’s celsius on several occasions.

Like the transit nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but note the fact that the city had to downsize its fleet of streetcars to cope with the frigid temperatures. According to the linked article, the city’s (admittedly very old) streetcar fleet cannot cope with temperatures that cold. Which is interesting because to people in the Great Lakes, winter weather such as this is nothing unfamiliar. Minus 20 (30 with the wind chill) is par for the course.

And as any Torontonian knows: There is nothing worse than waiting for a streetcar in a frigid winter storm — because in all likelihood it just won’t ever come.

Astute readers will immediately point out that — obviously — such a problem wouldn’t happen with a gondola or cable transit system. But hold on there, tiger, because that’s not the point. We’re not braggarts and we’re not about to say to Toronto “hey, Toronto, why don’t you just replace all of your streetcars with gondolas.” That would be ridiculous. That would be illogical. And that would smack of techno-zealotry — a character flaw we try very hard to avoid. 

The point instead is this: When you choose to use winter weather as an argument against cable cars (as a surprising number of people do), understand first that an urban gondola or cable car is basically a souped-up ski lift. And you know what works really well in really bad winter weather? Ski lifts.

And you know what doesn’t work really well in really bad winter weather? Streetcars in Toronto. Yet people rarely ever take the time to realize that.

It’s a strange paradox that has less to do with transit and more to do with people in general. People will almost always hold the unfamiliar to an irrationally higher standard than that which they’re (un)comfortably accustomed to.

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The Economics of Hong Kong’s Trams

Hong Kong Tramway Map

Map of the Hong Kong Tramway system. Creative Commons image via Wikimedia.

Last week the New York Times ran an interesting piece on Hong Kong’s historic street-level trams.

These double-decker, non-air-conditioned relics are apparently quite the workhorses.

According to the Times the trams move 200,000 (220,000 according to Wikipedia) people per day along the 13 km route with 1.5 minute headways between vehicles—and,despite zero government subsidies, they do so profitably.

Hong Kong Tram

Hong Kong tram image by flickr user DavidSandoz.

French company Veolia Transportation owns the trams 100% and is able to eke out a profit from the system, despite fare prices being only approximately $0.30 USD per trip.

All this seems lovely enough, but something just doesn’t add up to me.

How can a privately-run transport system possibly be profitable given these numbers?

Even with ancillary revenues from billboard advertising and “private party” rentals, it is hard for me to understand the economics here.

Let’s assume an average fare price of $0.25—once one factors into the equation pass, child and seniors discounts that number seems reasonable (if not a little bit high). That yields ticket revenue in the $20 million USD range.

Yes, I’m sure that advertising revenue is significant and the cost of drivers in China minimal, but the economics still seem highly dubious.

I’m not saying the system isn’t profitable—it most likely is, or else why would a private company continue to own it? The question I have is how is it profitable?

Any guesses?

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Three Eye-Opening Papers On How We Build Transit

The other day I discussed how modal choice often has less to do with the intrinsic qualities of a technology and more to do with extrinsic factors. Those comments caused something of a stir with people coming out saying a variation of the following:

  • Light Rail is a scam.
  • Light Rail is awesome.
  • It depends. (Note: This is the camp I tend to fall in.)

Within the comments I disagreed with a commenter who referred to a “Light Rail Scam” but also admitted that “LRT has been foisted onto places that didn’t need it and probably shouldn’t have been built. But that’s not the case everywhere.”

Which prompted frequent commenter Matt the Engineer to question “What LRT lines weren’t needed and shouldn’t have been built?”

Very good question, Matt.

For readers interested in this issue, there are three essential articles they should look to (Note: clicking on the title of the article will allow you to download it):

The Pickrell piece is insanely readable for something as mundane as transit ridership forecasting. If you only have time to read one, this is the one you should look at. It gives a rather disturbing insight into how public transit is planned, funded and built in North America.

The Flyvbjerg piece, meanwhile, is a little more technical but nevertheless eye-opening. In fact, most of Flyvbjerg’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in how we (in)effectively conduct mega projects in the developed world, particularly in regards to public transit. If you take the time to work through his materials, you’ll come out the other end with a different mindset than when you entered.

The FTA piece, lastly, is boring beyond belief. But is great as a reference point to see how this all comes together. In it, you’ll find out which LRT systems in the US are the star performers (they’re not the ones you think), which are the true dogs (they probably are the ones you think), and which ones are middling at best (a few surprises).

If you’re a transit nerd, you need to read these.

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World’s Largest Bus – Youngman JNP6250G – 300 Persons

Youngman JNP6250G - world's largest bus in terms of capacity. 300 passengers.

In recent news, various news media outlets (1,2,3) have reported that we’re about to see the world’s largest bus – Youngman JNP6250G in China. The official statistical breakdown of this public transit behemoth is as follows:

  • 300 person capacity (40 seats, 260 standing)
  • 25 meters (standard bus: 12m)
  • top speed ~80kph
Of course, as soon as this news story went online, the classic age old debate of “my bus is bigger than your bus” soon emerged. The Brazilians and Swiss have chimed in and proved that their bi-articulated buses are similar in length if not longer than their Chinese competitors (Switzerland: 24.7m and Brazil: 28m). Despite such similar bus sizes, the Chinese bus somehow beats their challengers in terms of maximum capacity (300 persons vs the 128 person capacity in Switzerland and 250 person capacity in Brazil). My initial guess for this discrepancy is that loading standards vary dramatically country by country.

28m bi-articulated bus in Curitiba. Image by Chinadaily.

Nevertheless, given the enormous capacity of these buses, it appears that it begins to challenge those coveted numbers seen in LRT systems. Let’s do a quick comparison:
  • Melbourne’s Bombardier Flexity Swift LRV: 150 
  • Minneapolis’ Bombardier Flexity Swift LR: 180
  • Calgary Siemens SD160NG: 226
If we directly compared these figures, the Youngman bus holds up to 2x the number of passengers in the Melbourne LRVs. 


So I understand that capacity is not the only thing important in building better and faster rapid transit networks. However, since we’re now able to manufacture such large functional modern buses and assuming building BRT infrastructure is more cost-effective than LRT, what’s preventing us from pursuing such transit initiatives in North America? Aesthetics? Comfort? Pride? Environmental concerns?

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Medellin to Build Two Urban Gondolas – Integrated Into A Light Rail Line!

Metro Medellin's planned LRT/Tram line (in green) and two new Metrocable lines (in Purple and Pink).

Metro de Medellin is in no rush to slow down.

The transit agency of this Colombian metropolis has been expanding their public transportation system at breakneck speeds for the past 15 years and things just continue apace.

The agency recently released plans for their Corredores Verdes (Green Corridor) Light Rail/Tram plan. Their approach is a three-pronged strategy to connect the western district of the city with downtown and includes:

  • An ~ 5 km long LRT/Tram system with 8 stops that terminates/originates at the central San Antonio Metro station. The connection to San Antonio will allow easy transfers to both Linea A and Linea B of their impeccably-operated elevated metro system.
  • Two Urban Gondola lines (Metrocables) serving hillside barrios. The lines will be ~ 1.5 km long and have three total stations each (two terminals and one intermediary station).

Of particular note is Medellin’s approach to ticketing along the route. If the agency’s promotional video is to be believed, the LRT system will adopt a technique created and popularized by Curitiba’s famed BRT system.

Rather than have LRT drivers deal with ticketing, on-vehicle ticketing agents or a policed honor-system, enclosed station platforms will be equipped with turnstiles allowing for people to pay their fare prior to queueing for the tram. This approach speeds boarding and increases efficiency dramatically:

Curitiba's BRT system - the first to pioneer enclosed platforms at street level with ticketing and turnstile features. Image via Wikipedia.

Medellin's planned LRT system appears to borrow the ticketing approach used by Curitiba. Image via Metro de Medellin.

Metro de Medellin is quickly gaining a reputation for being one of the most innovative transit planning bodies on the planet and this project should only solidify that reputation.

The agency is a poster-child for multi-modality and non-conventional thinking. With Medellin’s recent acquisition and expansion of the Metroplus bus service combined with the addition of the LRT/Tram, this agency will soon seamlessly blend four separate technology modes (Metro, LRT/Tram, Urban Gondola and BRT) in order to provide public transportation for 2.5 million people.

This is how you do multi-modality:


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Luminus via Tractus by Steven Dale


Rendering of the under-construction Blue Light Rail line in Lagos, Nigeria. Image via

Remember: Light Rail Transit (LRT) isn’t always Light Rail Transit. And that goes for all forms of public transportation.

Anyone recall our CPT / ART debate?

While we may like to pretend we work and live in a scientific field, the world of city-building and transit is anything but scientific.After all, there’s no official taxonomy of public transit technologies and I doubt we’ll see one anytime soon. (Note: While Vukan Vuchic’s Urban Transit textbooks have helped a lot in resolving this issue, even he admits to the slipperiness of transit vehicle definitions.)

Maybe we need a more defined definition of Light Rail Transit (Luminus via Tractus perhaps?), but until that time comes it’s important for everyone understand that the definition of a public transit technology isn’t arbitrary and objective – it’s subjective and as much about marketing as it is about anything else.

Consider the under-construction Blue LRT line in Lagos, Nigeria.

This system has confused more than a few people as all estimates of ridership suggest something far more robust than LRT (Yonah Freemark hints at this confusion in a post from a couple years back). From a technology perspective it’s virtually impossible to imagine any single LRT system carrying half a million riders per day (as this Lagos State Government document suggests), yet all the imagery (see above for example) and reports (see previous link for example) categorically reinforce the idea that Lagos’ first urban rail line is to be LRT in nature.

But it’s not. And we know that because of this:

Last week Railways Africa reported that Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola has visited Toronto, Canada and is prepared to purchase a fleet of 15-year-old decommissioned subway cars in order to service the “light rail project.” The subway cars in question look like this:

"Light" Rail. Image by flickr user Loozrboy.

This is Heavy Rail Transit (HRT). Or Subway Transit. Or Metro Transit. Or Whatever You Want To Call It Transit (WYWTCIT) – but it’s clearly not Light Rail. There’s obviously a disconnect here between one person’s definition of Light Rail and another people’s definition.

That’s not to suggest nefarious doings or shenanigans on the part of anyone. It’s just to point out that when you read statistics about any given transportation technology, it’s important to consider the lens with which those statistics are being viewed through.

Calling Heavy Rail “light” doesn’t make it weigh any less.

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