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.
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 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.