What is Light Rail, Anyway?

I’ve been asked on Twitter about the differences between various kinds of urban rail transit. There is a lot of confusion about the term light rail in English, since it can be used for urban public transport typologies that have little to do with one another. The best way to think about urban rail (other than regional rail) is to use the following schema:

Slow in center Fast in center
Slow in outlying areas Tramway Subway-surface
Fast in outlying areas Tram-train Rapid transit


In American parlance, all four have been called light rail: subway-surface and tram-train lines are always called light rail, and officially so are tramways; then one full rapid transit line, the Green Line in Los Angeles, is called light rail as it runs light rail vehicles (LRVs) rather than subways. Nonetheless, in this post I will ignore what things are called and focus on their speed.

In this context, fast and slow refer to right-of-way quality. A tramway in a low-density city with little traffic and widely separated stops may well be faster than a rapid transit line with many stops, such as most Paris Metro lines, but relative to the local urban typology the tramway is still slow while the metro is fast.

The two hybrid forms – subway-surface and tram-train – differ in where they focus higher-speed service. On a subway-surface line, the city center segment is in a subway and then the line branches farther out, for examples the Boston Green Line, San Francisco Muni Metro, Philadelphia Subway-Surface Lines, and Frankfurt and Cologne U-Bahn networks. On a tram-train, the train is fast outside city center, where it runs in a dedicated surface right-of-way, but then in city center it runs in tramway mode on the street at lower speed; the Karlsruhe tram-train is one such example, as are virtually all postwar light rail systems in the United States and Canada.


The 2*2 typology simplifies the situation somewhat. There exist lines that don’t fully obey it, and instead change between metro and streetcar mode haphazardly. Some of the Cologne lines go back and forth. Buffalo has a single light rail line without branches, dubbed the Buffalo Metro Rail, running on the surface in the center and in a greenfield tunnel farther out toward Amherst and the university campus. Frankfurt’s U1/2/3/8 trunk is the opposite of Buffalo, running in a tunnel in the center and on the surface farther out even downstream of the branch point. The Los Angeles Blue Line is underground at Metro Center but then runs on the surface, transitions to a grade-separated right-of-way later, and finally drops back to streetcar mode in Downtown Long Beach.

The most fascinating case is that of the Boston Green Line D branch. It is technically rapid transit, since the trunk line is in a tunnel alongside the other branches whereas the branch itself is a former commuter rail line; it is called light rail because it runs LRVs, like the Los Angeles Green Line, and shared the trunk with the B, C, and E branches, all of which have surface segments. But conceptually, it presages most proper American light rail lines: it was built in the 1950s as suburban-oriented rapid transit, with park-and-rides and downtown-focused service, creating a paradigm that postwar metros like BART and the Washington Metro would sometimes follow and that light rail systems from the 1980s onward (San Diego, Portland, etc.) always would.

Nonetheless, such aberrations are uncommon enough that the 2*2 simplification works when explaining what cities should be building.

Right-of-way availability

Cities are more likely to build fast trains when there is preexisting right-of-way for them. The Karlsruhe Zweisystem is based on using the area’s extensive legacy mainline network, on which LRVs run in train mode, and then diverging toward city center in streetcar mode. Jarrett Walker has a good post about Karlsruhe specifically: there is no good right-of-way with which to drag the Stadtbahn into city center in train mode, and thus the alternative to a tram-train is an expensive tunnel; such a tunnel is under construction now, at the cost of about €1 billion, but as Karlsruhe is a small city, it comes a generation after the tram-train system was put into place.

North American light rail systems often use mainline rail corridors as well, but thanks to federal regulations as well as weak regional rail systems, they almost never use mainline tracks; the Blue Line in San Diego, the first tram-train in the United States, is one of very few exceptions, and even then it shares track with a very lightly-used freight line, rather than with a frequent S-Bahn as in Karlsruhe. It is more common for North American tram-trains to run in disused corridors, on new tracks parallel to the mainline, or even in highway medians.

Reusing legacy rail lines and running in freeway medians are not unique to tram-trains. Rapid transit does both outside city center; the first subway network in the world, the London Underground, makes extensive use of branches of former commuter lines, and even shares track with a still-active one on a portion of the Watford DC Line. New York, likewise, connected former excursion lines in Brooklyn to the subway, forming most of the Coney Island-bound system, and later did the same with the LIRR in the Rockaways, now carrying branches of the A train. It is usually easy to spot whether an urban rail line descends from a legacy branch line – if it does then it is very unlikely to follow a single street (none of the lines serving Coney Island does), whereas if it doesn’t then it is usually a subway or el on a major arterial (such as Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn).

The upshot is that cities are likelier to build tram-trains and rapid transit in preference to tramways and subway-surface lines if they have high-quality right-of-way. New York and London were unlikely to build subway-surface lines in the early 20th century either way, but the high density of their metro networks in Southern Brooklyn and West London respectively can be explained by the extent of preexisting legacy lines in these areas. Comparable areas that did not have such good connections, for example Queens, have much less rapid transit coverage.

While this issue in theory affects tram-trains and rapid transit equally, in practice it is especially relevant to tram-trains. Rapid transit is more expensive, so it is likely to be built in larger and denser cities, where it is more acceptable to just tunnel under difficult segments. Tram-trains are present in smaller cities – Calgary, Edmonton, Karlsruhe, and so on – as well as in American Sunbelt cities that are so auto-oriented that they have the public transport of European cities one third or even one tenth their size. In those cities, tunneling is harder to justify, so the train goes where it can go cheaply. Downtown transit malls like those of Portland and Calgary are the least bad solution for connecting fast lines from the suburbs to provide better city center coverage and connect to lines on the other side of the region.

Subway-surface branching

Subway-surface lines are fast in city center and slow outside of it. Moreover, in city center their right-of-way segregation (in a tunnel in all of the American cases) means there is more capacity than on the surface. This makes branching especially attractive. Indeed, in all three American cases – Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco – the subway-surface line has four to five branches.

Outside the United States, subway-surface branching is more complicated. In Frankfurt, the U4/5 and U6/7 lines work as in the United States, but with only two branches per trunk rather than four or five; but the U1/2/3 line has a surface segment on the mainline. In Cologne, there is extensive reverse-branching (see map), and while most of the system runs in subway-surface mode, one line runs in tramway mode through city center but then drops to a tunnel in Deutz and splits into two surface branches farther east.

Tel Aviv is building a subway-surface line from scratch, without any branching. The Red Line is to run underground in Central Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, and Bnei Brak, and on the surface farther east in Petah Tikva as well as at the other end in Jaffa and Bat Yam. At the Petah Tikva end, an underground connection to the depot is to enable half the trains to terminate and go out of service without running on the surface; at the Jaffa/Bat Yam end, a loop near the portal is to enable half the trains to terminate and reverse direction without running on the surface.

The American way works better than the incipient Israeli way. The main advantage of branching is that the greater expanse of land in outer-urban neighborhoods and suburbs means more lines are needed than in the center to guarantee the same coverage. Thus Downtown San Francisco has just one line under Market Street, serving not just Muni Metro but also BART on separate tracks, but in the rest of the city, BART and the five branches of Muni serve an arc of neighborhoods from the Mission to the Sunset. The lack of branching on the Tel Aviv Red Lines means that it will not be able to serve Petah Tikva well: the city is not very dense or very central and has no hope of getting the multiline crisscross pattern eventually planned for Central Tel Aviv.

One implication of the fact that subway-surface lines should branch is that they are more appropriate for cities with natural branching than for cities without. Boston in particular is an excellent place for such branching. Its street network does not form a grid, but instead has arterials that are oriented around the historic city center; the Green Line makes use of two such streets, Commonwealth Avenue hosting the B branch and Beacon Avenue hosting the C branch. A light rail line following Washington Street could likewise branch to Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue and potentially even branch farther out on Talbot Avenue to Ashmont, effectively railstituting the area’s busiest buses.

In contrast, cities whose street networks don’t lend themselves well to branching should probably not build subway-surface lines. North American cities with gridded street networks have little reason to use this technology. If they are willing to build downtown tunnels and have the odd right-of-way running toward city center diagonally to the grid, they should go ahead and build full rapid transit, as Chicago did on the Blue Line of the L.

Speed and range

Tramways are the cheapest variety of urban rail and metro tunnels are the most expensive. The reason cities don’t just build tramways in lieu of any grade separation is that tramways are slow and therefore have limited range. Berlin’s tramways average around 16 km/h; they run partly in mixed traffic, but I don’t think they can cross 20 km/h even with dedicated lanes and signal priority.

What this means is that tramways are mainly a solution for city centers and near-center neighborhoods. The tramways in Berlin work okay within the Ring, especially in U-Bahn deserts like the segment of East Berlin between U2 and U5. But in suburban Paris, they’re too slow to provide the full trip and instead work as Metro and RER feeders, providing circumferential service whereas the faster modes provide radial rail transport.

Tramway-centric transit cities can work, but only in a constrained set of circumstances:

  • They must be fairly small, like Karlsruhe, Strasbourg, or Geneva.
  • They should have a network of sufficiently wide streets (minimum 20-25 meters including sidewalks, ideally 30-35) through city center as well as radiating out of it.
  • They should have a supplementary regional rail network for longer trips.

Tramway-and-regional-rail is a powerful combination. Zurich is based on it, having rejected a subway network in two separate referendums. However, once the city grows beyond the size class of Strasbourg, the regional rail component begins to dominate, as there are extensive suburbs that are just too far away from city center for streetcars.

Upgrading to rapid transit

It’s common for cities to replace light rail with rapid transit by building new tunnels and burying the tracks. Historically, Boston and San Francisco both built their subway-surface networks by incrementally putting segments in tunnel, which would later protect these lines from replacement by diesel buses. Stockholm and Brussels both incrementally upgraded streetcars to metro standards, calling the intermediate phase pre-metro. Karlsruhe is building a tunnel for its Stadtbahn.

However, in the modern era, not all such tunneling projects are equally useful. Subway-surface lines stay subway-surface indefinitely: they have so much surface branching that the cost of putting everything underground would be prohibitive. San Francisco activists have flirted with a plan to replace one Muni Metro surface line with rapid transit and then reduce the rest to tramways with forced transfers; this plan is both terrible and unlikely to happen. Tel Aviv might eventually come to its senses and bury the entire Red Line, but this is possible only because the current branch-free layout is already more suited for a subway than for a subway-surface system.

Tram-trains are easier to convert to rapid transit. All that’s needed is a short tunnel segment in city center. Thus, in addition to the Karlsruhe tunnel project, there are serious discussions of city center tunneling in a variety of North American cities, including Portland and Calgary (in the near term) as well San Diego (on the 2050 horizon).

Finally, tramways can be upgraded to full rapid transit more easily than to either of the two intermediate forms. A good tramway is rarely a good subway-surface system, because the subway-surface system ideally branches and the pure tramway ideally does not. Moreover, a good tramway is unlikely to go very far into the suburbs because of its low speed, whereas a tram-train’s ability to leverage high speed in train mode allows it to go deep into the suburbs of Karlsruhe, Calgary, or San Diego. The optimal place for a tramway – dense city neighborhoods following a single line – is also the optimal one for a metro line, making the upgrade more attractive than upgrading the tramway to a hybrid.


  1. Herbert

    Nuremberg famously went against professional advice in the 1960s and decided to build a full flesh metro instead of converting their system to subway surface as virtually all other German cities were doing at the time. The end result is a system with tons of forced transfers and an awkward branching mess with U2 and U3. Oh and the amount of rail (tram alone in the sixties versus tram plus subway today) has barely increased.

    Care to offer an opinion?

    • Alon Levy

      Do you know what the operating expenses are? Because the driverless trains may be cheap to run…

      The ridership in Nuremberg is kind of weird. It’s 410,000/weekday per Wikipedia, which isn’t exactly Berlin, but also Nuremberg is a small city. Ridership in the Verkehsverbund is pretty respectable for an area that’s mostly not urban.

      The comparison for me is Stockholm, which was told in the 1950s that it was too small for a subway but built one anyway and thanks to subsequent growth has one of the highest public transport usage levels in Europe; the mode share for work trips looks like it’s in the mid-40s, so similar to Paris or even a hair higher (Berlin proper looks like high 30s to low 40s).

      • Herbert

        The single ticket is among the most expensive in Europe at over 3€. One of the frequently given justifications are the high operating expenses of a full flesh metro

  2. threestationsquare

    Time to nitpick!

    > one full rapid transit line, the Green Line in Los Angeles, is called light rail as it runs light rail vehicles (LRVs) rather than subways
    St Louis Metrolink is also effectively full rapid transit. Seattle Link comes close; the initial line has an outlying street-median-running section (so subway-surface if anything) but the future plans are grade-separated. San Diego’s Green Line also only street-runs at its outlying end (though Blue and Orange are tram-trains).

    > London Underground, makes extensive use of branches of former commuter lines, and even shares track with a still-active one on a portion of the Watford DC Line
    London Underground also shares track with National Rail trains on the line to Amersham and the line to Richmond.

    > It is usually easy to spot whether an urban rail line descends from a legacy branch line – if it does then it is very unlikely to follow a single street (none of the lines serving Coney Island does)
    The ex-PP&CIRR (excursion railroad) segment of the F train to Coney Island runs entirely above McDonald Avenue (though the railroad may have predated the street in some sections).

    > New York and London were unlikely to build subway-surface lines in the early 20th century
    London *did* have subway-surface lines in the early 20th Century. In the New York area there was an elevated-surface system just across the river, along with the still existing Newark City Subway (which used to have more sufrace branches), and the Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges (also the Brooklyn Bridge 1944-1950) had dedicated rights-of-way (including underground Manhattan terminals) fed by multiple streetcar branches and serving a similar function.

    > Tram-trains are present in smaller cities – Calgary, Edmonton, Karlsruhe, and so on
    Edmonton’s “light rail” is actually rapid transit (though the planned Valley Line won’t be).

    > Beacon Avenue
    Beacon Street.

    > Finally, tramways can be upgraded to full rapid transit more easily than to either of the two intermediate forms. A good tramway is rarely a good subway-surface system, because the subway-surface system ideally branches and the pure tramway ideally does not. Moreover, a good tramway is unlikely to go very far into the suburbs because of its low speed
    Where do you think the subway-surface systems in Köln, Ruhr, Bielefeld (so es denn existiert), Wien, Bruxelles etc, or the tram-train lines in Karlsruhe, Köln, Melbourne etc, came from in the first place? Den Haag was a tramway-centric city until it opened a subway-surface tunnel in 2004 (subsequently adding tram-train lines as well); Düsseldorf opened a brand new subway-surface tunnel in 2016. Tramway-centric cities that come to mind that might benefit from subway-surface tunnels include Bratislava, Zagreb, and Hiroshima?

    • Untangled

      Apart from a short section of the 96 and 109 (and possibly 86 and 75 if you want to count post-war suburban road median reserved ROWs), Melbourne’s tram system isn’t really much of a train-tram system.

    • Pokemon Black Card

      I attended many Sound Transit public meetings in the 1999-2006 timeframe. The Rainier Valley street-running segment exists because Seattle had “Portland Envy” and wanted the specific aesthetic of median-running LRT serving as a catalyst for redevelopment. The BART-like nonstop running between Boeing Field and Tukwila happened completely by accident. The line was supposed to run in the median of International Boulevard, with an initial stop at 144th and a potential infill stop at 130th, pending upzoning. But Tukwila had recently convinced WSDOT to upgrade International with sidewalks/etc, and they DID NOT want median LRT. Much FUD was cast about Foster High School students being run over by the trains, and the high-level route above SR 599 and 518 was eventually inserted as a kludge to get Tukwila to buy in. ST (correctly) figured that if they can’t get surface built in Tukwila, they’ll never get it built in Bellevue or Lynnwood, and so all future planning has been elevated metro.

      • Mike

        Sound Transit originally envisioned a much more surface-based system to keep capital costs low, following the precedent of of previous American light rails that were 99+% surface (Portland, San Diego, and San Jose). Seattle couldn’t have 99% surface because of hills and waterways, but it would have been at least 50%. Light rail was chosen because it’s street-compatible.

        There are multiple explanations for Rainier Valley: different factions wanted different things. One wanted underground or elevated for speed, avoiding collisions, and frequency potential. Another faction wanted surface to make the stations close to the sidewalk and avoid visual and noise impacts of elevated. A third faction didn’t want any trains. Sound Transit said a tunnel was too expensive, and elevated was unjustified because the area was flat, so it built surface.

        Tukwila was also going to be surface but suburban politics intervened and it became elevated. Then as other segments went through design one by one, all neighborhoods preferred grade separation and insisted they were willing to pay for it. So everything after that ended up being grade separated, except in one case where it reversed. Bellevue wanted a short tunnel in front of City Hall and asked Sound Transit to economize elsewhere to pay for half of it. This led to a couple elevated segments in Bel-Red and Redmond becoming surface.

  3. Jacob Manaker

    Can you explain why “[You] don’t think [Berlin’s tramways] can cross 20 km/h even with dedicated lanes and signal priority”? What distinguishes a dedicated rail line (lane) with no cross traffic (due to signal priority) from a rapid transit line?

    • Alon Levy

      A light rail line in a dedicated lane never actually has absolute priority at intersections. Signal priority steals a few seconds at stoplights, but isn’t the same as crossing gates, and crossing gates on an on-street line-of-sight system are not the same as a fenced off (or elevated, or underground) right-of-way. Even in Berlin, a city where I’m just about the only jaywalker, I see people dash across the tramway tracks on sections where they are separate from all other traffic.

      Getting from 16 to 20 km/h requires squeezing about an extra minute per kilometer. In New York, dedicated lanes are worth 30 seconds per km on buses. Berlin can’t hope to match that, for three reasons:
      1. The tramways already have segments with dedicated lanes.
      2. Berlin has less traffic congestion than New York.
      3. Even when they run in mixed traffic the trams have higher ROW quality, for example they run in the center lanes, which offer better protection from turning cars.

      • Herbert

        The tram has close stop spacing to serve as many people as possible.

        If you rant to go more than twenty kilometers, there’s the S-Bahn and regional trains

  4. df1982

    Why shouldn’t a good tramway have branching? Most legacy systems have substantial amounts of branching without this being too much of a problem (unless things get overly complex with reverse-branching, etc.), and many of the reasons why branching is not a good idea for metros do not apply to tramways.

    The limits on headways are much lower due to line-of-sight operations (and thus depend on traffic light cycles and stop capacity more than signalling limits). And because tramlines can viably run in lower-density neighbourhoods, it can make sense to have these lower-frequency lines converge on a single city-centre line with much higher frequencies (and without having to worry about being timed to hit a pre-assigned slot in the schedule of the core lines as much as branched metro lines do).

    I know Paris and some other new-build tram systems have followed the model of a largely unbranched network, but this is precisely, as you point out, because they tend to function as feeder lines for the metro/regional rail system, rather than as networks in their own right. For smaller cities a reasonably comprehensive branched tramway network might make the best sense as the cornerstone of their transit offerings, much the way they did in many cities in the first half of the 20th century.

    • Alon Levy

      Wait, which legacy systems are you thinking of that have a lot of branching? Berlin has some, but not really in any way that facilitates subway-surface conversion. The most crowded tramways here, M2 and M4, share maybe a block’s worth of terminal around Alexanderplatz. There’s the M5/M6/M8 track-sharing, but evidently trains only run every 10 minutes inside of Landsberger Allee/Petersburger Strasse (vs. every 5 minutes at rush hour farther out). BVG doesn’t seem to think it can run streetcars on the same trunk more often than every 3 minutes.

      • df1982

        Err, all of them? Or at least all the sizeable networks I’m familiar with: Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt (both its tram and “U-Bahn” networks), Brussels, Prague, Milan, Melbourne, etc. Even Toronto has some branching, although its street grid tends to minimise this. Berlin has tons of branching on the outer segments. I’m not saying any of these are candidates for surface-subway, but it’s not for lack of branches.

        As far as I’m aware this is how large tramway networks were traditionally conceived: a web of tracks which could in principle offer anywhere-to-anywhere service, or near enough to it. Modern light rail networks have a tendency to produce self-contained lines that primarily interact with other lines on the network through interchanging. In a sense they are importing a metro model onto light rail/tramways, which is not entirely a positive development.

        • Diego Beghin

          There are a lot of tram lines sharing tracks in Brussels but I think there’s only two pure case of branching, as in sharing tracks in the core and diverging in outer neighbourhoods: the 92/93 and the 39/44. Otherwise there’s a lot of reverse-branching.

      • Brendan Samuel Dawe

        Looking at dead-legacies, an example that comes to mind from familiarity would be that the BCER in Vancouver was quite extensively branched with surface tramway branches feeding into the two parallel trunks on Main/Hastings/Granville/Richards/Powell/Cordova & interconnections.

        But perhaps in a different world this simply implies that the surface network in Vancouver would have benefited from a subway-surface treatment

  5. Untangled

    A lot of the traditional Stadtbahn lines pre-Karlsruhe are what you would call subway-surface lines.

    Another line to put into the same category as LA Green Line is Vienna U6.

  6. Eric

    “In this context, fast and slow refer to right-of-way quality. A tramway in a low-density city with little traffic and widely separated stops may well be faster than a rapid transit line with many stops, such as most Paris Metro lines, but relative to the local urban typology the tramway is still slow while the metro is fast.”

    I think you should have just started off by calling it “separate right-of-way” or “mixed right-of-way”

  7. Diego Beghin

    The arguments here strengthen the argument for replacing the Brussels North-South subway-surface trunk to full metro, I think. Now there are two different high-frequency lines (trams 3 and 4) running the full length of the tunnel from Albert to the North Station. But there’s only one branch in the North, as tram 4 terminates at the North Station and one branch in the South, as tram 3 terminates three stops after getting out of the tunnel, with a forced transfer with tram 7 at the Churchill roundabout. The picture is actually a bit more complicated with tram 51 using part of the tunnel from Albert to Lemmonier, and tram 32, which runs only in the evening, using different branches in both the North and the South. Operating evening-only service (between 20:00 and midnight) is confusing for users, so let’s forget about tram 32 which shouldn’t exist anyway.

    The current plan is to convert the Albert-North Station tunnel to metro operations (the trickiest part here is rebuilding the section between the South Station and Lemmonier, which contains a flat junction now). Then a greenfield tunnel would be built from the North Station to Evere, going through the dense and underserved neighbourhood of Schaerbeek (the reason this neighbourhood doesn’t have a branch running into the tunnel is because the streets are narrow and the trams run in mixed-traffic and are thus unreliable). The current northern branch to Esplanade would be reduced to a shuttle with a forced transfer at Rogier, but that’s acceptable because for 1/3 of its running distance the branch is squeezed in between a canal and a railyard and after that half of its catchment area is the Royal Domain of Laeken, mostly closed to the public. The biggest destination it serves is a shopping mall which is right next to a mainline rail station anyway. In the South the tram 7 terminus would be moved from Churchill to Albert, so that’s just moving the forced transfer point three stops further in. What’s more problematic is the reduction of trams 51 and 4’s southern branches to shuttles. But tram 51 doesn’t actually go to the city centre, it gets out of the tunnel at Lemmonier and bypasses the centre, it’s a mixed radial-circumferential line. And as its southern part goes through quite dense neighbourhood and *should* get the southern extension of the metro if it’s ever built, so service would actually improve for people living there. As for tram 4, for most of its surface running, it’s serving areas close to other radial lines such as tram 92, mainline rail, and even tram 51 itself. So it wouldn’t be too much of a loss to eliminate it.

    In short: changing the North-South trunk to full metro operations is good because it would replace a weak northern branch by a much stronger one. In the south the current plan would be strictly worse, with an extra forced transfer for many people, but a southern extension of the metro would make a lot of sense and serve the area better.

    • Alex Jenkins

      When it comes to Lemmonier Station, I’ve read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that it’ll be by-passed, and a new station, called “Constiution” will be built to replace it, but route 51 will still serve the current Lemmonier station

      • Diego Beghin

        Yes, that’s what I’ve read as well. But Constitution will be very close to Lemmonier anyway.

        As for tram 51, how does it get there in the first place from Albert? Or does it just terminate at the South Station and doesn’t go beyond?

        • Simon S. (@simonschre)

          Sooo, I’ve just spent far too much time researching this, but from what I’ve found the plan is this:

          Tram 51 will be split in two, with the Albert station being rebuilt as a terminus for it (Métro on -2, both trams on -1). Albert will also be the terminus for trams 4 and 7, but later, these are supposed to connect with the trams in Avenue Wielemans Ceuppens via a new tunnel under Parc de Forêst, though that’s not yet approved. On the other site, Toots Thielemans station (originally planned to be called Constitution) will just be for the metro, and the current station Lemonnier will just be for the trams coming from Boulevard du Midi. I guess at first, tram 51 from the north will just terminate at Gare du Midi or maybe Avenue du Roi (there’s a depot there where trams could turn around), but in the long run, it might be combined with the 4 or 7, when the tunnel under Parc de Forêst is finished. Alternatively, maybe they will link the northern part of 51 with some other branches of 81 or 82; but in any case, one tram has to terminate in the Gare du Midi area.

          Sources: https://www.bruzz.be/samenleving/grondwet-wordt-compact-metrostation-2017-09-19
          https://arau.org/au/7958eba3f58d17450293698c4b5116d1b8c77e76.pdf and https://api.metro3.be/sites/default/files/2019-09/M3_Reunion_Publique_Albert_FR_20190917_V7_0.pptx

          • Diego Beghin

            Wow, thanks for the sleuthing.

            Now I don’t really think it’s necessary to connect the northern and southern branches of the 51. As I mentioned in my original comment, the line comes close to but bypasses downtown Brussels so it was never that great in the first place. The awful off-peak frequencies indicate STIB doesn’t believe much in it. I doubt this tunnel under the park is worth it.

            My preferred solution is still for the metro to be extended to take over the 51 southern branch. Tram 4 can be made redundant by bumping frequencies on the 92 & 97.

  8. Holgs

    “The reason cities don’t just build tramways in lieu of any grade separation is that tramways are slow and therefore have limited range.”
    No the reason is that the politics of running rail at the surface and especially the idea of taking away space or slowing down cars is politically difficult. This isn’t about vehicle speed. Most cities find it preferable to have lanes of low capacity cars moving very slowly than one lane of trams moving many more people faster. The’s politics, not engineering.

    Trams serve a different function to a metro, one that’s often neglected. Cities with modern street railways can achieve average speeds well over 16km/h (Berlin is currently at 19km/h not 16 by the way https://unternehmen.bvg.de/index.php?section=downloads&download=3567). Much of this is dependent on boarding speed – overcrowding slows things down, intersection priority and how much cars are tolerated blocking tramways. Berlin still has a problem with all 3.

    “The tramways in Berlin work okay within the Ring, especially in U-Bahn deserts like the segment of East Berlin between U2 and U5.”

    They also work just as well outside the ring, where most of them area actually found. Most of the expansion plans are for areas that in the Berlin context would be considered suburban.

    “Upgrading to rapid transit”
    Rapid transit isn’t an “upgrade”, especially if it’s done by switching to a full subway. It’s almost always a downgrade if a tramway is replaced with a subway if car access is left in place on the same routes. When cities did this ridership plummeted. Cities like Vienna tested removal of trams and found that it was a bad idea, so kept them in addition to its U-bahn in many places. In cities like Madrid, the subway often requires descending on 3 sets of escalators and many minutes lost just getting to the platform. You very rarely see people doing this with children in prams etc. On a modern tram these things are very easy.

    • Alon Levy

      [Rescued from spamfilter, sorry.]

      Outside the Ring, ridership is pretty low (link, p. 38), and even on M2 and M4 the ridership is a fraction of what the U-Bahn carries. Same thing in Paris – T3 is extremely busy for a tramway, but it’s still below the levels of M2 and M5, because there just isn’t as much ridership you can get on a tram that averages 17-18 km/h. It’s not even about cars – the tram has dedicated lanes in grassy medians and signal priority; it’s that on the surface, absolute priority like what railroads get at grade crossings isn’t possible.

      And Madrid has elevators at most stations, with plans for 100% conversion in the next decade.

  9. Benjamin Turon

    The 6.4 mi long (10.3 km) Buffalo Metro Rail runs down the center of Main Street through downtown from its maintenance facility (re-purpose Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal train-shed) for the first 20% of its length before running underground for the remaining 80% under Main Street to the South Campus of UB at the city line. It certainly is fast underground since from personal experience I know that passengers from the South Campus can reach downtown before car passengers driving down Main Street in light traffic. I went to school at UB on the South Campus and was a frequent rider of the Metro Rail — what New York City students derisively as a “trolley in a tunnel”.

    There is now however a expansion under study that would have the Metro Rail extended to the North Campus of UB — where the vast amount of majors and students are — 3 miles to the north in Amherst NY by running at street level down Niagara Falls Blvd. The original plan in the 1970s was for this segment to be elevated — but community opposition and budget problems stop the line at the south Campus. So now you will have a rail transit line with surface street running in the CBD and in the suburbs, with a subway tunnel in the middle.

    Metro Rail Expansion… http://www.nftametrorailexpansion.com/

  10. df1982

    Vuchic’s right-of-way categories (A for fully segregated, B for separate alignment but no grade separation, and C for mixed traffic) are probably pertinent here. A is definitely rapid transit and C tram/streetcar, but it’s the in-between cases where the terminology gets murkier.

    There are also geographical differences. In Australia, light rail is basically synonymous with tram, used to denote a rail-based system that is capable of on-street running, although it tends to refer to newly-built lines (Sydney, Gold Coast, Canberra), while legacy systems (Melbourne, Adelaide) use the word tram (the vehicles, however, are called trams regardless).

    In the US, there is a clear functional difference between light rail (high-capacity, no mixed traffic, with use of old rail alignments but usually little grade separation) and streetcar (on-street running with smaller vehicles circulating in mixed traffic), and even modern systems that conform to the latter specifications use the streetcar designation. E.g., Portland has both light rail and a streetcar, but the two are considered separate systems and definitely not interchangeable.

    In the UK, meanwhile, the term light rail tends to be reserved for what are actually light metro systems (Docklands Light Railway and the Tyne & Wear metro), and tram is used both for traditional tramways (Blackpool) and new systems (Edinburgh, Sheffield, etc.).

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, so I didn’t discuss light metro because that term doesn’t really mean much except “metro with shorter trains than we’re used to.” So for example I’ve heard people called SkyTrain light metro (and even light rail, but that’s rare) because the trains are shorter than in New York or Toronto, but they’re barely shorter than most trains in Paris and the frequency is so high the capacity per track is almost as high as in New York.

      • df1982

        It’s probably only a useful distinction in site-specific contexts. In London nobody really thinks of the DLR as a fully-fledged part of the underground because its profile is markedly different (lower capacity, smaller vehicles, lower frequency), but there’s no point in making the distinction in Copenhagen where that’s all there is. What I was pointing to more was that in the UK “light rail” is most often used to refer to systems with rapid transit characteristics, which is not the case elsewhere.

  11. Ben Ross

    The trend in US light rail is away from tram-train toward systems with downtown grade separation. It’s not just the Portland (also Dallas & Los Angeles) retrofits. The new Charlotte light rail is elevated in Uptown (their downtown). The Maryland Purple Line will have no grade crossings on its busiest section between Bethesda and Silver Spring. The canceled (for now) Baltimore Red Line tunnels through downtown, a plan that is in large part a reaction to the limitations of the city’s existing tram-train light rail.

    • Alon Levy

      Los Angeles isn’t strictly speaking a retrofit… there are no plans to bury the Blue Line’s surface segments, only plans to extend the downtown tunnel.

      But yeah, there’s definitely a trend toward full subways, like the Baltimore Red Line, or what Seattle’s doing nowadays.

      • AJ

        LA would be a retrofit for the Gold line? Extension of the Blue/Expo tunnel, but brand new tunnel portals for the Gold heading both north and east.

        I’m curious if Seattle will return to more at-grade running once it gets further into the suburbs, particularly for the alignments that don’t have a freeway ROW to leverage. For example, in the Paine Field industrial area (where Boeing builds the 747s & 777s) ST may be able to run at-grade for only a minor degradation in speed/reliability, as Airport Road is very wide and the factory super-blocks make for infrequent intersection. Another future line may be a good candidate for a subway-surface alignment with grade-separation in Bellevue but surface running in the secondary suburbs of Kirkland (old rail ROW) and Issaquah.

    • Pokemon Black Card

      80’s light rail relied on a lot of Boomer and Silent nostalgia to get built. San Diego called its Frankfurt derived LRVs the “trolley”; Portland built cutesy pomo signal boxes with parapet gables and green scrollwork; all this while North American heavy rail architects were still pushing brutalism. Subway tunnels just didn’t fit the aesthetic.

    • Marc

      Plus one of the many original handicaps of the Baltimore Light Rail – the surface running on Howard Street* – won’t be resolved for the foreseeable future now that it looks like the Howard Street Tunnel double-stacking project will be moving forward with a combination of federal, state, and CSX funds. That locks out the ability to reuse a rehabbed tunnel for the Light Rail.

      *The Light Rail does actually have dedicated lanes on Howard Street, but only modest signal priority at a few of the many unsynchronized intersections with long cycles prioritized for east-west traffic, including many frequent bus lines.

  12. yuuka

    Where would you put suburb-only light rail, where connections to heavy rail are required to get to the city centre?

    I’m thinking London’s Tramlink and HK’s MTR Light Rail.

    • Alon Levy

      I think of Tramlink as a tram-train because it runs in streetcar mode in one of the central areas (namely, Croydon) and in railway mode elsewhere.

  13. Onux

    In San Francisco, making the ‘M’ Muni line a subway from West Portal to Park Merced isn’t a terrible idea, its a great one. The stops along those 3 km of track see approximately the same number of riders as the 10 km of track making up the rest of the branches from West Portal (the L, the K and the tail of the M to Balboa Park). In fact, riders per km along this segment is approx. the same as riders/km of the 38 series busses on Geary, a corridor everyone recognizes should have a subway. This section serves a major mall, SF State University, and Park Merced, the only high rise housing outside the NE core of the city. Park Merced is set to gain approx. 6,000 units as part of a high rise expansion, so ridership is going to grow. Those other branches serve areas zoned single-family only.

    Muni Metro is currently a mess. Demand on the branches is unbalanced, limiting capacity on Market St because there will never be three car trains on the J or the KT; delays from merges (particularly at Church where J meets N right before they go in the tunnel) increases travel time for both those on branches and in the tunnel. It would be faster for almost all riders to have surface lines transfer to a high-speed, high-frequency, high-capacity subway, particularly if surface headway is increased when not limited by other branches.

    San Francisco is dense enough that it could support a subway network with lines on several major corridors (Geary, Van/Ness-Mission, Central Subway to the Presidio). In that case there is no reason not to give the most important corridor (Market) the best service possible, which means a full subway, not subway surface. In my crayons for San Francisco no subway lines branch; SF is compact enough due to geography that you don’t need branches to serve an expanding area the farther you get from the core. Better to have stand alone lines with the best reliability and maximum frequency.

    Note: my ridership numbers come from the TEP data of 2007 when ridership was 110,000 less than now, however it is the most detailed line-by-line and stop-by-stop dataset, and the patterns of relative ridership have not changed. Also, my ridership analysis of West Portal-P Merced includes boardings on L and K trains where they share stations with the M or are close enough someone would walk to a subway, not just boardings on the M proper.

    • Alon Levy

      The busiest Muni Metro branch isn’t even the M, it’s the N, and it’s unreliable because it doesn’t have dedicated lanes, unlike nearly the entire Boston Green Line surface system. The second busiest is the L. The J is the weakest, sure, but you can separate it from the mainline and connect it to the F and make people in the Mission who want something faster take BART.

      • Onux

        The busiest Muni *Line* is the N, but comparing lines isn’t very relevant because all of the lines share the Market St Subway, and each line has between 40-60% of its boardings in the subway. Someone riding the N from Van Ness to Montgomery doesn’t care which branch their train originated on; on a different day they will take the the KT or the L for the same trip. If you are going to convert Market St and the Twin Peaks or Sunset Tunnel to a full subway, the question becomes which branch (or set of branches) has the highest ridership per km.

        For the N, there are 19,422 boardings from the Sunset Portal to La Playa (I am not counting surface boardings at Church because they could easily become riders at Church St station), a distance of 7.08 km, or 2,775 riders/km.

        For the *path* of the M, there are 15,927 boardings from West Portal to Park Merced (19th & J. Serra). This includes boardings on the M plus boardings on the KT & L at shared stations or stations within a few hundred feet of a possible M subway station (Like J. Serra and Ocean). As I noted before, this is a distance of only 3 km, or 5,309 riders/km, 90% more. For comparison, ridership on the whole of Geary (38, 38R, 38A/BX) over 10.46 km is 5,399/km. Ridership on BART as a whole is 2,413/km, for BART within SF is 12,417/km.

        The path of the M to Park Merced has a passenger density seen nowhere else on the Metro system except Market St. Converting it to a subway gives those 16k riders a much faster trip and gives the 70k riders on Market St a faster trip from better frequency and more reliable service (no cascading delays from branches). It gives the 17k riders on the tails of the M, L, KT combined a faster trip downtown, with a transfer at W. Portal to a reliable ride in the subway. It may even give the 19k riders on the N branch a faster trip downtown, because a reliable transfer should be faster than the current situation where a N train can be held by a J entering the tunnel at Church, and then held again joining the main subway by another line. It is the all around best solution, and should have been SF’s first priority for new construction ahead of the Central Subway.

        Note that replacing the N with a subway under Ingram (one block from Judah, and where all of the business are) continuing under 16th is a good long term solution, although with poorer ridership metrics based on existing bus service.

        Same disclaimer, my precise riders-per-stop data is from the TEP in 2007. You can increase the Muni figures by 19% to account for growth since then, assuming it is equal across all services. It may not be, and ridership is more likely to have grown in places like Market St or SFSU rather than branches like the L or N that have seen no real development. I note again, 6,000 new units (9-12k new residents) coming to Park Merced in the next 20 years.

        • Onux

          The N replacement would go under Irving, not Ingram, not sure why my brain was thinking there.

        • threestationsquare

          There’s some case for tunnelling the outer end of the M and running longer trains on that branch (which could mix with shorter trains from the N), for diverting the J to the surface F tracks, and for tunnelling all or part of the N along Duboce/Irving/Judah, but diverting the N away from downtown to a subway under 16th is a mind-bogglingly stupid idea, the worst example of mixed radial and circumferential transit I’ve ever heard of. Duboce Junction is already grade separated, the N should remain a branch of Market Street for the foreseeable future (conceivably in the very distant future being diverted to Mission St).

          The fact that Muni Metro is currently a mess is an orthogonal issue; subway-surface systems in Boston, Philadelphia, Köln, Frankfurt, Wien, Den Haag, and many other cities all run substantially better service under similar circumstances. The existing physical infrastructure can support frequent longer trains shuttling back and forth between West Portal and Embarcadero; Muni should demonstrate their ability to run those reliably before any money is spent on additional tunnels.

          • Alon Levy

            I’m slowly obtaining updated ridership data, pending confirmation that what I got was data from 2016 and not 2006 (there was a typo so I’m not sure which, but I suspect 2016). The M does not look good in this count. West Portal is not a high-density neighborhood, and for all the development-oriented transit plans around Parkmerced, the Sunset is more open to development if you count ADUs (and of course by far the most development is in SoMa anyway).

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Concrete before operations!
      San Francisco — and Bay Area transit “advocates” who are always such dependable useful idiots fronting for the construction mafiosi — is a total basket case.

      • Onux

        Alon, the TEP ridership data collection began in 2006 and ran to 2007, so you might want to check that it isn’t a typo. If there is data from 2016 of the same detail (ridership by each individual stop, inbound/outbound boardings, by time period) I would be interested in seeing it. For reference the 2006-07 data is here: https://archives.sfmta.com/cms/rtep/tepdataindx.htm

        In any event, to fully evaluate my plan you cannot look at M ridership alone. The M and KT share tracks from West Portal to Sloat, plus both the K and L have a few stops (i.e. Forrest Side on the L) so close to the current M path that if you cut direct L service everyone would just walk from that stop to the subway entrance. You need to incorporate all of these riders to evaluate the route. In any event the stop at Holloway sees several multiples as many riders as any stop on any line outside of the Market St, and the stop at Winston is one of the most frequented as well.

        West Portal isn’t high-density, but no where along any of these branches is – except Park Merced along the M. Looking at ADUs to drive density in the Sunset is a non-starter; even if they magically became over-the-counter permits tomorrow, not all homeowners would install them, and by nature and code ADUs only support 1 or 2 residents each. You won’t see huge density increases from them alone. Park Merced is currently about 14k/km2 compared to the Sunset’s 6k, and after full buildout may reach 40k/km2. Plus comparing total development potential over the 15km2 of the Sunset (covered by two lines) to potential in .61km2 at Park Merced and perhaps 4.5km2 along the M’s entire outer route is not apples to apples.

        Richard/threestationsuare: Yes Organisation vor Elektronik still applies, but the end of the phrase is not “kein Beton.” Muni has problems in many areas, but SF is a city that can support a trunk subway network of several key lines. Market St and the Twin Peaks tunnel is undoubtably one of those lines, so there is no reason not to plan to have it as a full subway. There are certain measures of speed and frequency that can only be achieved with tunnels. Zurich built the Zurichbergtunnel in the 80’s for the S-Bahn network, they didn’t just try to make things fit with organization and electronics.

        Re the N: the full route would be Irving,16th,Brannan,Beale, ending at Embarcadero Station, with the possibility to continue into the financial district and meet the Central Subway at Washington. This keeps the line as a radial serving downtown, while also meeting Caltrain at 4th and serving the SOMA neighborhoods which are seeing huge high-density development.

  14. Poisson Volant

    What about the legendary Philadelphia and Western system (now rebranded by SEPTA as its Norristown High Speed Line)? The P&W currently runs ~13 miles / 21 km from just beyond the western edge of Philadelphia to the nearby city of Norristown. The line is double-tracked for almost all of its length and is totally grade-separated. Service is provided by a fleet of cars that operate either individually or in MU’ed pairs; the cars are capable of ~75 mph / 120 km/hr although in practice they’re limited to 55 mph / 90 km/hr.

    At this point the line has no branches although in the past its original route also served the PRR Main Line town of Strafford. There are now plans to build a branch to the rapidly-growing King of Prussia business area; however this is under threat from the Trump administration’s antipathy towards transit projects.

  15. Joseph Brant

    San Jose VTA seems to be a bizarre combination of tramway in the northern segments, which turns into tram-train in the downtown transit mall and the freeway medians of south SJ How much of the system’s failure can be blamed on the weak downtown core vs the design of the light rail system itself? Could a better system have been designed?

    • Alon Levy

      San Jose already has high-quality ROW. Caltrain uses it and VTA could, if it wanted, pay to beef up local frequency within the county (Elizabeth Alexis argues that with about $1 in direct operating subsidy per passenger, Caltrain has better financial performance than VTA’s own service). Instead, VTA has this horrendously circuitous route to Mountain View.

      The weak downtown core means that a tram-train is unlikely to work. Jarrett makes this point re Karlsruhe: tram-trains are pretty fast if you’re getting from the suburbs to city center, but they’re much slower if you’re traveling between different suburbs through city center, and therefore the technology works better in cities with stronger centers, like Karlsruhe or for that matter Calgary.

      • Gok (@Gok)

        I have to put the blame almost entirely on the route combined with station locations that make no sense. I don’t think any technology could have made the current VTA route successful.

      • Onux

        I think San Jose’s ridership is a result of two factors:
        1) As they say in Vancouver, the best transportation policy is land use policy, and SJ land doesn’t support transit. Job centralization is important for transit ridership (cf. Calgary) but SJ/Silicon Valley is very decentralized. Plus the layout of job centers (office parks with parking) facilitates driving, not transit.
        2) Poor route choices. VTA light rail is essentially a single line with long, circuitous branches. VTAs highest ridership bus is the 22, which accounts for almost 10% of systemwide ridership, with a little less than half of light rail ridership including the rapid overlay 522. It runs on El Camino Real, through Diridon and downtown, then along Santa Clara/Alum Rock. This is an obvious E-W corridor to match the first light rail phase running N-S on 1st. Instead of making this the second line, VTA kept extending the first line in various directions, finally reaching Alum Rock from the north, leading to a 13.7 mi light rail ride for what should be a 3.6 mi straight shot to reach downtown.

        Regarding Caltrain and subsidy, Caltrain charges $6 to go from DJ to Mountain View and $12 for a day pass, while VTA charges $2.5 for a trip and $7.50 for a day pass. If there were fare integration (a good thing) then Caltrain’s numbers wouldn’t look as good. Also, Caltrain keeps cost down by running hourly off peak. The cost to beef up that frequency (even if only to Mountain View or Palo Alto) would also balloon the subsidy.

        Regarding the availability of good ROW, regarding my #2 above, I think VTA’s problem is related to Jarret Walker’s concept of “be on the way” rather than ROW. Grade separated ROW does nothing for the system because it is in freeway medians and disused freight corridors far from jobs or population centers. For local and urban services (busses, light rail, subway/metro) being along major arterials is more important than ROW quality (although quality ROW on the same corridors is better). For commuter/regional services such as Caltrain, ROW is more important. The major corridors in SJ are 1st/Monterrey, El Camino/Santa Clara/Alum Rock, and Stevens Creek/San Carlos. VTA rail serves 1/2 of one of those (1st); it doesn’t even follow Caltrain to run along Monterrey, instead wandering off toward Almaden and Blossom Hill along 87 and 85.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        Caltrain doesn’t function as any form of San Jose transit. It is operated for San Francisco commuter transit. There are zero/nada/zip morning trains headed southbound south of downtown San Jose. Just as there are no northbound trains from Gilroy to downtown San Jose after the morning commute. Caltrain would have to completely re-balance its schedule to provide transit for San Jose itself.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m talking north of Diridon, not so much south of it. The most offensive part of VTA Light Rail is the squiggle to Mountain View, not the segment south of Downtown San Jose.

          • Eric

            I don’t think that “squiggle” is *so* bad. In theory it could serve as a circumferential feeder to Caltrain and ACE services.

            The real most offensive part is the giant loop back to Alum Rock.

          • Alon Levy

            Aren’t they about to shut down the Alum Rock branch since its ridership is exactly what one would expect from its layout?

            (Also, lol at “feeder.” Or, really, “circumferential.”)

          • Joseph Brant

            They’re shutting down the Almaden to Ohlone/Chynoweth shuttle. It’s three stops and a forced transfer if you are going anywhere other than Oakridge mall from the Almaden station. Previously they had plans of turning it into a direct line to downtown San Jose, but it appears they’ve been scrapped.

          • Onux

            In defense of the squiggle, it does technically hit two of the larger job concentrations in Santa Clara County (N Tasman and 1st, and N Mathilda), its just that the rest of the network to bring people from where they live to these jobs isn’t there.

            Almaden-Ohlone is certainly the worst, Alum Rock not far behind. I don’t find south of Diridon to be great because as I noted where Caltrain’s ROW goes back to Monterrey and follows the natural main route south, VTA deviates to freeway medians to not much of anywhere (included the Ohlone shuttle).

            Instead of shutting down Alum Rock there are plans to continue it along Capitol back to the N-S route as a true circumferential (sort of). There have also been plans to put a line on Alum Rock/Santa Clara to downtown providing the start of an actual E-W trunk, but somehow those plans always keep being dropped while short, underperforming extensions to Vasona from Winchester or the previously mentioned Capitol extension keep going forward.

          • Reedman Bassoon

            VTA Light Rail east from First Street to Alum Rock is actually a busy connection for the Levi’s Stadium events. The biggest problem is that people park at the Great Mall (in Milpitas) for free, and then hop on Light Rail for their final leg. When BART finally starts operating trains to its Great Mall/Milpitas station (sitting unused for two years now ….), there will be even more use of the east San Jose piece of Light Rail. [reference Metcalfe’s law ….][also remember: Amtrak/ACE/Capitol Corridor trains stop at the Great America Station/Santa Clara, which connects with Light Rail at Lick Mill]

  16. Max Wyss

    The Zürich situation is insofar interesting that the voters first rejected a Subway Surface solution (aka Tieftram), and then the project for one single subway line (not even a network).

    However, they did approve a first part of that subway, as part of the construction of a highway tunnel (yeah, at the time, they wanted to get the highways from all direction into the city center, called “the Y”). That tunnel was built and ready to be fitted. Some years later, a first tram network extension (after the U-Bahn rejects) was built, using that tunnel for two lines, branching at the outer end of it.

    Interesting featurelet: Zürich trams are unidirectional, and the tunnel stops have island platforms. Instead of buying expensive specialized vehicles for those two new lines, they built crossovers (one just on the ground, protected with signals, the other grade separated as part of the access to the tunnel), and operate on the left hand side through the tunnel.

    In the meantime several other radial and partly tangential lines got built within the city limits, but also a line to the airport through new business developments. Part of the airport line is also used for a new circumferential line, making contact with several S-Bahn stops. New lines are are mainly on their own right of way (because they are in the outskirts, and going beyond the city limits); such lines use the term “Stadtbahn”.

    So, after those “defeats” for a “real subway”, Zürich committed to the two-level system: S-Bahn (Rapid Transit, built to “mainline standards” (and one tunnel with station at Hauptbahnhof is also used by mainline trains)) plus an extensive Tram/Stadtbahn network (plus on a third level a sizeable trolleybus network, using either single- or double-articulated vehicles).

    • Max Wyss

      One more about the Zürich tram network: branching (or pseudo-branching, meaning that the end station of one line is some stops before the the end point of the line (and at peak time they run that line all the way to the end station). The other end of these lines will be completely different, so, if you look over the whole line length, there is extensive branching.

  17. Max Wyss

    The Bruxelles subway surface lines also used to be called “Pré-Métro”, as apparently the civil engineering was done to subway standards, and a future “upgrade” to subway (aka Métro) would be possible.

  18. Mikel

    Madrid has 4 “Metro Ligero” (light metro) lines which, confusingly, run the whole gamut:
    ·ML1 is subway-surface
    ·ML2 is rapid transit
    ·ML3 is (esentially) a tram-train
    ·ML4 is a tram

    Elsewhere in Spain, there are only two other subway-surface systems:
    ·Alicante, which is highly branched (but only on one side)
    ·Granada, which is a self-contained line (I don’t really get why no branches are planned – I think the shape of the city and the nature of the system strongly suggest two branches on each end, unless they want to go all-in with a second north-south trunk). It’s also called “Metropolitano”, which seems like a PR trick to make it sound more like rapid transit.

    • Herbert

      Spain has the sad distinction of having “the only modern tramway shut down”. Apparently they built a lot of trans during the boom which either never went online or were sit down shortly after opening. You got any background on this?

      • Mikel

        Yeah, so virtually all Spanish trams were bustituted in the mid-20th century, and after Valencia brought back its trams in the 90s there was a tram boom of sorts. Some were pretty succesful (Barcelona, Zaragoza, Vitoria); others, not so much…

        The one you mention is probably the Vélez-Málaga tram, which was built to link the towns of Vélez-Málaga and Torre del Mar (both ~30 km from Málaga) to each other. The ridership was very weak (1,800/day) and nobody wanted to fund the operations so it was indefinitely shut down. It might make sense to reopen it in the future if the Costa del Sol regional line between Algeciras and Nerja is ever built, which is very necessary but also very expensive.

        There are two other trams which were built but still have not opened, both also in Andalusia. I don’t have local knowledge of that part of the country, but this is what I know from newspapers and railfan forums:

        ·In Jaén, an urban tram was built by the regional government, but there is still no deal between the administrations regarding how to fund maintenance and operations.

        ·Cádiz Bay: this case might be the most relevant to the topic of Alon’s post, since it’s a kinda bizarre system. The city of Cádiz is very dense and sits on a narrow strip of land, so the tram shares the only available ROW with suburban and intercity trains, then branches out in a normal urban tram ROW towards San Fernando and Chiclana. So the rolling stock is really big since it must match the loading gauge of suburban rail platforms, while also having low-floor sections for the tram platforms… seems like a nightmare for accesibility. Anyway, this time the funding part is more or less solved; the problem appears to be about signalling and safety systems (which also have to match full mainline standards), but the local media has been reporting that this is also almost solved and the trams might start running soon.

        • Herbert

          Apparently the Jaèn system did run for a hour second. At least Wikipedia claims it did.

          Of course Andalusia is an “interesting” part of Spain being home to the Felipe Gonzalez wing of PSOE (now ousted by its former member Pedro Sanchez) legendarily corrupt and now the “ground zero” of Spain’s “peculiar” PP Vox Cs coalitions of which the one that’s taken over Madrid has made pro-car populism central to their agenda…

          So much so that even the New York Times covered it…

  19. Untangled

    Another thing to think about: request stops vs stops compulsory.

    Light rail will typically have all stops compulsory. Traditional tramways and streetcars will have request stops like bus services.

    Some modern tramways will be more like light rail in having all stops compulsory. That said, a small detail compared to RoWs.

    • Alon Levy

      I think the trams here have push-button stop request, but I’ve never seen them skip a stop, passengers always request the next stop.

      • Max Wyss

        FWIW, Zürich had tram stops on request, but they gave up on that. Now the “stop next stop” button is, of course, an indicator that the tram will stop at the next station, and the doors will be unlocked. In low traffic hours, on low traffic stops, and nobody waiting at the stop and nobody wanting to get off, the driver will stop, maybe unlock, and immediately relock the doors, and depart.

        If the stop request button of or at a door is pressed (as opposed to one somewhere in the vehicle), it will also open the door when it gets unlocked.

  20. Matthew

    Pittsburgh is a funny example. They have a subway-surface system currently with a couple of branches that loop around in the southern suburbs. Some of the right-of-way is street-running, some is I believe former railway line.

    Historically, there was no tunnel downtown. The city was extensively covered by tramway networks in the 20th century. Most of the tramways were wiped out in the 60s and replaced with buses. Yet, the southern suburbs kept their tram.

    Then in the 80s the city decided to put the trams underground Downtown. The tunnels follow the street grid, so you have to go around sharp corners in tunnels!

    They also created three major busways on old railway lines in the suburbs starting in the 70s. Quite a bit of unusual public transport activity for an American city!

    Of course there is also quite a bit of transport history tied up with racial politics there. That could fill books…

  21. Pingback: Stadtbahn Systems | Pedestrian Observations
  22. Pingback: N-S MetroLink Plan Flops - The Kirkwood Gadfly

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