Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Washington Metro is Not Light Rail

It really bothers me when people who should know better call MARTA, BART and the DC METRO light rail. It's not. It's called heavy rail or Metro. They just happen to be new systems that weren't legacy like New York's subway, The El in Chicago or Boston and Philadelphia's subways. Philip Langdon, who edits New Urban News, writes a good article about the effectiveness of the Washington Metro in spurring development and how its changed the city. It has done a wonderful job and carries a ton of people, 900,000 a day per the NTD.

Now I could be wrong and the folks at the Hartford Courant could have added the title because no where in the article does it say light rail. But when journalists try to talk about these issues, it almost makes me not want to read the rest of the article if they make this mistake. Because if they make this basic mistake, how can I trust the rest of their reporting?

I can understand the confusion over the definition of light rail since its a pretty nebulous umbrella that includes streetcars, trolleys, street running, diesel multiple units as the case of the River Line in New Jersey. But there are a limited number of heavy rail systems in the United States, and they operate in a completely different fashion, all operate using a third rail and they all never have an auto crossing. UPDATE: From the comments, there are places such as Cleveland that run under overhead wires and places that might have legacy auto-crossings but it's not the norm.

But the problem is that I hear people call BART light rail all the time? Where does this come from? To me this makes clear the loss of knowledge or missing knowledge that permeates the United States. We can tell the difference between a compact car and a hummer, so why can't we figure out the difference between light rail and heavy rail? Am I off base here? [Rant off]


Cap'n Transit said...

The only place that the phrase "light rail" appears in that Courant piece is in the headline. I'm guessing that it came from an editor, not from Langdon himself.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Yeah i think you're right. That's what I suspect too. But that's just like when the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on streetcars and put a light rail vehicle in the picture.

kenf said...

"But there are a limited number of heavy rail systems in the United States, and they operate in a completely different fashion, all operate using a third rail and they all never have an auto crossing."

New York and Chicago both had auto crossings, and they may still. New York had one on the Canarsie line, and Chicago had/has several, on the Ravenswood line, and in Cicero.

Chicago and Boston both run/ran heavy rail under overhead wire, Skokie Swift in Chicago, and the Blue line in Boston. In Chicago, it was a legacy from the interurban era, and at one time the Evanston line was under wire.

Anyone know about Cleveland, which runs both heavy and light rail, in some places on the same tracks.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Apparently the Long Island Railroad used to have auto crossings but not since 1967.

Yes there are exceptions, but I don't think anyone would call those lines light rail.

After doing some checking Cleveland and the Boston Blue Line run on Overhead Electric Wires.

Anonymous said...

To be clear about the Blue Line on the T: It actually runs on BOTH overhead wires AND a third rail. The switchover is at the Airport station. Or at least it used to be in the 90s. I think the T has a plan to convert the Airport through Wonderland stretch to be third rail, ultimately, and I don't know where they are with that now.

M1EK said...

When you cooperate in the misrepresentation of DMU service as "light rail", you are part of the problem, not the solution. That New Jersey service (and our Austin service) have a lot more in common with heavy rail than they do with DART or MAX.

Justin said...

A little information about RTA's line s in Cleveland. The Heavy Rail is under cantenary, because it shares trackage with the Light Rail lines. There is a mix of high, and low platforms at the stop which serve both HRT, and LRT.

Anonymous said...

So what exactly is the difference between light rail and a streetcar? I'm asking because I'm vaguely interested in seeing what I should write to my local government about. New Haven is a pretty dense city, that already has a decent pedestrian center and a heavily-used commuter rail/Amtrak station. It's just that between the two is half-a-mile of nothing and the bus service is rather unimpressive (when does it leave, where does it go; no one seems to understand). It would seem perfect for light rail... or a streetcar?

Here is a google maps projection of roughly what I imagine an intelligent route would be (there would be, I think, no need to have it's own right of way)...


Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Well I would say streetcar. If you are going a short distance and are looking for basic circulation, the smaller streetcar vehicles are smaller scaled and fit in the urban environment better. If you're doing more of a commute function, which it doesn't look like from your map I'd say light rail. Lane reservation will depend on the width of the street and/or political will. Others might have another opinion on this. I'm going to try and write another streetcar post soon.

Anonymous said...

THe roads are reasonably wide - mostly two-lane one-way streets.

The unique feature of this system would be that often many people would be getting on all at once (when trains arrive at the two commuter rail stations) and heading to the residential and commercial areas downtown.

Ideally there would also be the potential to expand, depending on cost, (the two most obvious routes, as suggested by bus ridership levels, would be down Whaley Ave or Dixwell Ave).

M1EK said...

"The unique feature of this system would be that often many people would be getting on all at once (when trains arrive at the two commuter rail stations) and heading to the residential and commercial areas downtown."

If you think a lot of people who used to drive are going to take a commuter rail line into a lowish-density city like Hartford which requires that they take a bus (or even streetcar) transfer, you're kidding yourself. If the rail line went straight into the city center, they'd certainly take it, but your city isn't remotely dense or attractive enough these days to get choice commuters to accept an extra transfer each way.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

How dense is the city anon? From the google map it looks to have a good downtown grid and of course a well known University. How many students?

Anonymous said...


I'm talking about New Haven, not Hartford. New Haven is actually pretty dense. The latest census puts it at 6602 people per square mile, which makes it the densest city between New York and Boston (nearly twice the density of Portland, though granted Portland is a much bigger city). There are many development projects currently in progress that will increase that density.

45% of NH residents already get to work other than driving by themselves, roughly a third get to work other than by car at all.

True, this is talking about residents not workers, but New Haven's Metro-North and ShoreLine East station are patronized quite well inbound at rush-hour (don't have statistics on-hand but should be easily available) but many people DO make a connection to the commuter connection bus which transfer people from trains to the employment centers. If people are willing to get on a bus, many more will take light rail/streetcar. A third commuter rail line is scheduled to open in 2010.

NH has got a fairly compact CBD and residential downtown, which are just a little too far from the rail lines to make them walkable. Plus lots of residents (and students) with no cars, who do already use the train station frequently -- it seems like a pretty ideal case for a streetcar to me.

Finally, if you don't think New Haven is attractive, you haven't been here in the last fifteen years.

After hearing all of this, if you aren't convinced that New Haven should be looking into a streetcar or light rail, I'd be interested as to why. (And I still don't quite grasp the distinction between a streetcar and light rail).

Anonymous said...

That downtown grid is the first one in North America too.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Of course the lines are blurry and the foreign contingent laughs often about us splitting up streetcar and light rail, but to me the difference is that streetcars are A. Smaller width and shorter length vehicles and B. Run in the street with cars instead of a separate right of way.

This is the point of contention. I believe that in street construction for streetcars is much cheaper because there is no ROW purchase and the vehicles have smaller axle loads and speed requirements which creates less need for deeper track excavation and extensive overhead wiring. I'll let Mike say what he thinks even though we don't agree. You might also want to go read the earlier post on capital costs I wrote along with the comments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I read those posts and they were quite interesting. Do you have citations for the sources of the cost/mile? I'd like to write as complete a letter as possible.

By the way, Mike, I actually am curious if you think that a light-rail/streetcar line would be viable in this situation. If you still don't think so, there is probably little point in trying to convince city officials.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

New Starts Program Current Projects

Streetcar project costs aren't so concise and haven't been federally funded, but check out the page. They usually have costs in the links to each project.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in downtown New Haven (on Elm St near Howe), I don't think you'd see any benefit from running rail on the route you propose unless it was reserved-guideway. But reserved-guideway light rail could work.

The Elm Street leg is definitely wide enough to do it without too much griping. Whalley would be a little dicier to do without taking away some of the current wide sidewalk space, but I think you could swing it up to the "downtown" of Westville (maybe terminate right before Fountain splits out).

I don't think I'd try to go down Union Ave, though. You'd probably have to have some kind of flyover curve over the Amtrak/Shore Line East cooridor that brought the light rail alongside those tracks, and end the line with a new platform right in the middle of the Union Station rail yard, with an extension of the Union Station pedestrian walkway tunnel.
That downtown-to-Union Station segment would be pretty expensive compared to the rest, but probably the right investment.

Cap'n Transit said...

The LIRR has numerous grade crossings, especially on its outer branches. It also has several on the Montauk Branch, which runs from Jamaica through southwestern Queens to terminate in Long Island City. However, the Montauk Branch only runs one diesel revenue train per day in each direction, in addition to freight and equipment moves.

New Jersey Transit has several grade crossings, particularly on outer branches like the North Jersey Coast line. The three main Metro-North lines do not have any, at least as far as Croton and Southeast, but there may be some on the three New Haven branch lines.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the suggestions. The exact route is of course flexible. I had thought of suggesting it run down Union Ave in order to reduce the cost of the flyover and it to give the potential of having Union Station not being the terminus (the chance to add a small turn up the road to Yale-New Haven hospital, a major employment center is not to be forgotten). Also, after looking at some bus ridership data, it might also make more sense to send the route up Dixwell Ave (potentially terminating at Hamden center), rather than down Whalley.

In any case, I'm going to bring up this suggestion to a pedestrian/cycling advocacy group here in New Haven and send a few letters.

The situation is rather odd: it's hard to tell your political leaders that such a project is worth considering, because you aren't an expert (at least I'm not). On the other hand, in general, the experts only give advice when the political leaders have contacted them and asked (and often paid) for their services.

Anonymous said...

err, I meant eliminate the cost of a flyover.

M1EK said...

Sorry, I missed new activity on this thread - yes, I was incorrectly assuming Hartford (with which I have a bit of experience). I don't know enough about New Haven to have much opinion on it - but DSK obviously does.

Anonymous said...

Good, though still small, news for anyone who is still interested: "a streetcar initiative" is one of four items on the agenda for an upcoming Commuting meeting in New Haven:

"Transit for Connecticut" Community Meeting, Next Week

The Connecticut Association for Community Transportation and CT Transit
are sponsoring a community meeting next Tuesday, October 2 from 9:00 AM
to 12:00 PM in Room G2 of 200 Orange Street, New Haven. The meeting is
both an opportunity to listen and advocate for expanded public bus
transit service in New Haven.

Some of the City's priorities include a (1) new "cross town west
route", (2) more frequent service on major bus lines, (3) improvements
to the downtown shuttle / trolley program and, (4) a new streetcar
initiative. Elected officials, Connecticut Department of Transportation
representatives and state transit advocates will be on hand to listen to
your comments and concerns. If you have any questions, please do not
hesitate to call me at (203) 946-8067 or to RSVP, please call (877)

Michael Piscitelli, AICP
Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department
City of New Haven
200 Orange St., Ground Floor
New Haven, CT 06510
(203) 946-8067
FAX 946-8074