City Transit Diaries 7: Light Rail

This is Part 7 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.

Light rail transit (or LRT) is a very common and relatively new form of rapid transit in North America, found in 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada. The first LRT system here opened in 1978, and the term was first coined by the U.S. Government in 1972 as a translation of the German "Stadtbahn," which refers to a streetcar system that includes segments built to rapid transit standards.

Light rail today--with some inevitable exceptions--fits this description pretty succinctly, fitting comfortably between a streetcar and heavy rail rapid transit.

Light rail lines are structured closer to rapid transit, linking urban cores with suburbs. LRT may sometimes have rapid transit-like infrastructure such as high-platform stations and tunnels, but often operates in mixed traffic for a portion of their routes.

To navigate street-level corridors, light rail vehicles are smaller and more similar to streetcars, in that they have narrower bodies and more articulation. They can be coupled together in multiple-car sets for more capacity, but their length may be limited by the length of city blocks.

LRT works well in North America, enabling smaller cities to develop rapid transit systems that fit their needs for a lower cost, though some of the largest and more car-focused cities utilize LRT as well. Below are the 30 systems found in the U.S. and Canada:



Light RailLink runs north-south through the Baltimore, complimenting the city's single rapid transit line. The three-line, 30-mile system is primarily one route with three short spurs. It was built very quickly without Federal aid, but as a result much of the initial system was single-track, which limited frequency. It was double-tracked in the early 2000s.



The MBTA Green Line is the busiest light rail system in the U.S. The four lines share an underground tunnel in downtown Boston, parts of which are the oldest in the country. The lines split into branches that are remnants of the city's streetcar system. A northern extension of the system is under construction, the first notable expansion of the system.


Buffalo Metro Rail is a single, 6.4-mile line connecting downtown to the south campus of the University at Buffalo. It first opened in 1984 (fully in 1986) as part of a larger planned system, but population decline and low ridership have stalled these plans. An extension was recently announced, but its construction is unknown.



The CTrain is a two-line system in Calgary, first opened in 1981. Today, the 37-mile network is the busiest in the U.S. and Canada, with nearly 45% of downtown workers reportedly taking the CTrain to work. Because of its high ridership, it operates in four-car trains with a capacity of 800 passengers.



The River Line is an interurban light rail line connecting New Jersey's capital Trenton to Camden, across the river from Philadelphia. The 34-mile line opened in 2004, and was the first line in the U.S. to use diesel-powered light rail vehicles. It is named the River Line as it runs more or less parallel to the Delaware River.



The first phase of the LYNX Blue Line opened in 2007, replacing the city's short heritage streetcar line. It is currently 9.6 miles, running from the southwest to the city center. A northern extension that will double the length of the system is nearly completed.



The Blue and Green Lines are the light rail portion of Cleveland's RTA Rapid Transit system. The lines are built from two of the city's streetcar lines, which have operated continually since the early 1900s. The LRT lines uniquely share tracks with the city's one heavy rail rapid transit line for a portion of their route, as both are powered by overhead lines.



At 93 miles, the DART system is the most extensive light rail network in the United States. First opened in 1993, it offers connections to the city's variety of transit modes, including 2 commuter rail lines, two streetcars, and a small people mover. The original rolling stock was converted in 2010, adding a middle section for level boarding and higher capacity.



The first line of the RTD light rail system opened in 1994. After many expansions, the system today comprises 7 lines over more than 50 miles, the most recent of which opened earlier this year. There are further extensions planned, though many new lines under construction are heavy rail commuter lines.



The ETS light rail system is the first new LRT in the U.S. and Canada,  opened in 1978. The 15-mile system was expanded a number of times, with a second line added in 2010. The system is one of the busiest, operating in five-car trains during rush hour, the longest in North America.



METRORail is the LRT system in Houston, which from 1990 to its opening in 2014 was the largest U.S. city without any rail transit. After the system was expanded in 2015, he system is nearly 24 miles in length, though still very a small system relative to the size of the city, as well as neighboring Dallas' network.


Jersey City

The 34-mile Hudson–Bergen system was built between 2000 and 2011, running generally parallel to the Hudson River across from Manhattan. It provides transfers to PATH rapid transit, NJ Transit commuter rail, and ferries into New York. The vehicles used on this system are currently being extended with new sections for more capacity.


Los Angeles

Four of the six lines of the Los Angeles Metro Rail system are LRT. At nearly 90 miles, the Green, Blue, Gold and Expo lines make up the majority of Los Angeles' rapid transit network, extending to suburban cities such as Long Beach and Santa Monica. These lines run in a mix of forms, including underground, elevated, and mixed with street traffic.



The Minneapolis Metro is a growing light rail network currently consisting of two lines at 22 miles. The system has a number of connections, including acting as the connecting rail service for the city's airport terminals. Further lines and extensions are in development.



The Newark Light Rail consists of two lines: the partially-underground Newark City Subway which first opened in 1935 as a streetcar line, and the shorter street-level Broad Street Extension that opened in 2006. The two lines combine for a length of 6 miles.



The Tide light rail line opened in 2011 in Norfolk, Virginia--one of the smallest U.S. cities to have a full light rail system. The 7-mile line runs east from the city center, and a planned extension would continue the line to Virginia Beach on the coast.



The Sprinter is a 22-mile line connecting Oceanside and Escondido in California. The structure of the line is more akin to commuter rail than traditional light rail. It operates on a rebuilt branch railroad that still sees freight rail service in the overnight hours.



The O-Train is a short, 5-mile line in Ottawa. It was introduced in 2001 as a pilot project. It is legally considered a mainline railway, though it is described as light rail due to its smaller trainsets and original plans to extend the line into downtown. A more traditional light rail line is also under construction in Ottawa.



The Pittsburgh Light Rail is a 26-mile system of the city's surviving streetcar network, the oldest portions of which date back to the early 1900s. The two lines were upgraded in the 1980s to operate in an underground tunnel in the city center, transitioning to an at-grade alignment along the hilly southern suburbs.



The Norristown High Speed Line is a 13-mile interurban light rail line that is often difficult to classify, as it operates with third rail power in a completely dedicated right-of-way. Routes 101 and 102 are similar to the city's streetcar lines, though they operate a more grade-separated route and the vehicles are double-ended. These three lines originate at the 69th Street Transit Center, and are the remaining lines of the former Red Arrow Trolley System.



Valley Metro Rail first opened in 2008, and today the system is 26 miles in length, the vast majority of which is at grade in the median of Phoenix's wide avenues. A number of expansions of the single line are planned or under construction.



MAX Light Rail is a five-line, 60-ine network in Portland built in a series of six separate projects. The lines converge at-grade on the Portland Transit Mall, which is shared only with buses. The length and capacity of the trains is constrained by the short size of the city blocks in this area. The system also features the deepest station in North America.



Sacramento's RT light rail system first opened in 1987 with an 18-mile "starter line." Today, after numerous expansions, the system is nearly 43 miles in length, and further expansions are in development, including to the city's airport.


St Louis

The two-line MetroLink light rail network first opened in 1993, running mostly east-west through St. Louis. Despite healthy ridership, the system has been expanded slowly over its history, the most recent in 2006. The lines cross the Mississippi River into Illinois on the lower deck of the historic Eads Bridge which opened in 1874.


Salt Lake City

The TRAX light rail network, first opened in 1999, is now 45 miles in length after the most recent expansion in 2013. The system was first built as part of the city's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympic games. It was first met with resistance from citizens, but it quickly became a successful system.


San Diego

The San Diego Trolley is the oldest new light rail system in the United States, first opened in 1981 on a freight line damaged by a hurricane. Today, the 53-mile, 3-line system is one of the busiest, having recently undergone a renewal project to upgrade the system and introduce new rolling stock.


San Francisco

Muni Metro is a light rail system in San Francisco. With the construction of the region's rapid transit network, the city's five remaining streetcar lines were upgraded to light rail in 1980 and rerouted into a shared tunnel downtown. The system is heavily used, though expansions have been slow. Today, a second downtown tunnel is under construction.


San Jose

The VTA Light Rail connects San Jose to the Silicon Valley suburbs. The 42-mile system consists of two lines and one spur line which is the shortest in the country. The system is not widely used in the car-focused city, and as a result suffers from low ridership.



Sound Transit's Link light rail system currently consists of one 20-mile north-south line that first opened in 2009. Ridership is high, and a number of expansions have been implemented as recently as 2016 and continue to be constructed, including a second line east to the suburb of Redmond.