Transportation Deployment Casebook/2019/Light Rail

The chosen mode is light rail, which is a means of rail transport which uses infrastructure on the same route as cars, however it has the right of way. In particular I will be looking at the San Francisco network, in which the term Light Rail is defined as – “light rail operates primarily along exclusive rights-of-way and uses either individual tramcars or multiple units coupled to form a train that is lower capacity and lower speed than a long heavy-rail passenger train or metro system” (Wiki-Tram 2019). The use of light rail is commonly in support of commuter rail and rapid transit networks. Where there cant be light rail in all areas of the city, the light rail becomes a cost efficient means to access the rest of the city. An interesting note with regards to safety can be seen below:

  • Analysis of an American National Transportation Statistics, done by the US DoT (Department of Transportation), stated that deaths associated with light rail are second only to motorcycle travel which has a rate of 31.5 deaths per 100 million miles.

Light Rail AdvantagesEdit

  • Lower Capital Costs (infrastructure costs are minimal when compared to the Metro)
  • Increased reliability when compared to Metro rail, due to the simpler design and technology More comfortable ride
  • Cheaper fares due to lower operating costs per passenger
  • Less noise pollution both outside and inside.
  • Smoother ride – rail is smoother than pot-holes experienced by buses.
  • Pollution is minimised when compared to buses
  • Viewed as a positive influence/benefit to suburbs/districts due to urban renewal
  • Increase the price of land around the stations

Light Rail MarketsEdit

  • Public Transport
  • Cities that have experienced urban sprawl
  • Cities which cover a large area

Prior Modes of Transport & their LimitationsEdit

Buses – Buses were/are the most common substitution for light rail. However buses are limited by their smaller capacity when compared to trams. Further they are more likely to run into mechanical problems than trams

Trains – Trains are the first means of mass transport, with them still being a popular means. Trains are a more effective means of transport however, they require exorbitant capital investment and infrastructure to be used.

Cars – The car has preceded and is more popular to an extent (depending on which suburb you look at) than light rail. Cars are more costly per passenger and are a much more inefficient means of travel. This can be seen in high density population centres where the parking and general usefulness of a car is negated by the limited room.

Evolutions of Transport MarketsEdit

Markets for transportation reflect the demographics of a city, and a city is referred to be cause in rural centres there is a much lower reliance on public transportation. With population density increasing in the cities, it is inevitable that more efficient (both cost and space) means of transport are going to be explored.

The aforementioned factors have seen the rise of light rail, which is relatively cheap to install and has a high passenger capacity. The ability to use existing road corridors and combine car users and trams means that the need for specific infrastructure. This is extremely attractive for cities where there is simply no room or funds to build specific infrastructure.

Description of Light RailEdit

Research will indicate that the early development of the specific light rail, which is different to trams is can be found to have originated in West Germany after WW2. Where the German streetcars were turned into model light rail systems (stadtbahnen). This led to most medium cities in Germany with the exception of Hamburg to have light rail currently.

Further research also supports that there was an article called ’Major Urban Corridor Facilities: A New Concept” by H. Dean Quinby in 1962, which outlined the basic concepts of light rail. Some of his clarifications include:

  • Greater capacity to carry more passengers
  • Looking like a train, with a number of cars connected together
  • Having more doors to facilitate full utilization of the space
  • Faster and quieter in operation

The focus area of this page is the US and the combination of with 1972 being the notable year that the concept of light rail was first implemented. With 1978 the year the ‘Siemens – Duewag U2’ was added, as the name suggests it is a German technology and is a type of light-rail tram vehicle and superseded the original U1.

The light rail was not a specific German technology as it had been in the works for nearly a century, however it was the Germans that implemented the technology to full effect. Taking a step back to the horse-drawn wagons in New York in 1932, the routes that were originally used by these wagons have stayed as the main route of the modern day light rail. The light rail originated from horse tramways, and in 1970s the construction of these tramways was booming in the US. However the limitations of how power was obvious, where mechanical power was quickly advanced. The limitations of steam trams in the city were apparent, as well as compressed air, gas and petrol engines. Finally it was electric traction which became the most efficient and reliable form of drivetrain. There was a rapid transition from battery power, pioneered by German Werner von Siemens, who in 1879 demonstrated in Berlin, that a supply line overhead for electricity was the way forward. He partnered up with Halske and opened a public tramway in Berlin in 1881. By 1900, all US horse tramways were now electric.

There is also an argument that American inventor Frank J. Sprague promoted the electrically powered street railway by making to feasible. This was done through the invention of a trolley pole system, which was first don in 1888 in Virginia. This was popular due to the poor standard of road and were ahead of the internal combustion engines which powered buses. Further, it was common this system was in single-car setups, and it wasn’t until later that short trains were the norm.

Impact and Factors Impacting PolicyEdit

The role of public transport is to not only transport commuters and link communities, but to also stimulate the surrounding economy. This is one that drives the cooperation of councils, governments and private developers, with the terminology known as TOD (transit-orientated development). TOD is one of many goals of public transportation, however officials view Light Rail as a particularly potent tool for building economic development.

With the growth of suburbs outwards from the city centres, there is an aim of economic developers and officials to spur growth of the aforementioned city centres, where they are restored as the focus of a metropolitan area.

Transport policy can be examined in the 1970s, where American urban planners started to look to Europe for ideas on how to save their cities from sprawl and economic decline. With transportation companies now in public ownership, the introduction of better public transport could be achieved using a mix of city, state and national funding. At the same time, with the end of the Vietnam war, defence contractors were looking for alternative markets, and saw transportation as a growth area. This led to a decision by the surviving tramway cities of Boston and San Francisco to place orders with Boeing-Vertol for new articulated light rail vehicles, using a design that was intended to become the standard US LRV (Light Rail Vehicle). Unfortunately the resulting product was an expensive technical disaster, as Boeing tried to reinvent the wheel rather than learning from transit vehicle experience elsewhere.

The American approach to light rail and implementing it as a policy can be encapsulated through Los Angeles, since this was a city which threw away its trams and interurbans in the 1960s, and determined it could live with the automobile. The pollution which hangs over the urban sprawl proves differently, and two new light rail lines and an underground metro have been opened, with a third light rail line under construction in the 21st century.

Life Cycle of Light Rail USAEdit

Growth of Light Rail and InfluencesEdit

When looking at the US market, mass transit has made a modest comeback since the 1960s, when the federal government began to subsidize transit expansion on a broad scale. The push for federal funding originated from a coalition of railroad executives and mayors. In the late 1950s, rail companies with major freight operations cut many of their unprofitable commuter rail services that served large metropolitan areas. Together, the local government and rail companies fought for a national transportation policy from the federal government that recognized the importance of mass transit, not just highways and automobiles. Older cities worried that further decline of transit would diminish the competitive advantages of their central cores over more peripheral areas in terms of business services and manufacturing. And middle-class suburbanites who relied on commuter rail worried about the loss of a service that connected them to places of work, consumption, and leisure. A few precedents for capital funding from government existed, for example, municipal funds for subways in Boston and New York City, and federal funding for the Chicago subway during the Great Depression and World War II.

An example of the lobbying being successful is when in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act (UMTA). The legislation enabled capital grants from the federal government to cover a maximum of two-thirds the capital costs of equipment and facilities for transit systems. Over the next decade, Washington provided more than three billion dollars, which cities used to purchase private systems, improve existing vehicles and infrastructure, and build new systems. From 1965 to 1974, the number of publicly owned transit systems rose from less than sixty to more than three hundred. Yet federal funding alone did not solve transit’s woes, as ridership across the country continued to decline in the years following the passage of the act in 1964.

More dramatically, a few cities used new federal funding to construct rapid transit systems. The idea that transit operating in its own right-of-way could best compete with the automobile and the nation’s growing expressway network constituted a major impetus for such large-scale, expensive transit systems. Postwar rapid transit was often debated within the wider context of desires for regional government and planning. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), approved by area residents in a municipal referendum in 1962, took advantage of federal funding after 1964. Although the original push for BART came from downtown business interests, it was also supported by politicians, the media, and residents, who believed that rapid transit could improve the growing region’s traffic congestion, especially following the end of streetcar service across the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland during the mid-1950s. When BART opened in 1972, it made use of unproven, space-age technology designed by aerospace firms in an attempt to create a more modern transit riding experience. This reliance on unproven technology led to cost overruns and technical problems, but BART quickly became a key part of the San Francisco Bay area’s distinctive urban landscape.

The other new major system developed in the nation’s capital. The Washington Metro originated from ideas within planning circles during the 1950s to build a small rapid transit system in conjunction with a larger network of automobile freeways. Inner-city residents feared the damage that the controversial Three Sisters Bridge over the Potomac River as well as other freeway plans would have on their communities and the local environment. They pushed for a larger rapid transit system as an alternative to the expressway web. The eventual 100-mile Metro system faced challenges, including a period of stalled capital funding from expressway proponents before a congressional vote stopped the logjam. The first leg of the system opened in 1976 with subsequent sections opening during the next three decades. Despite initial ridership numbers that were lower than originally projected, Metro historian Zachary Schrag argues that the project embodied admirable goals of Great Society–era liberalism: the value of the public realm and the belief in the ability of government to improve the daily lives of its citizens.

Federal funding since the 1960s has had a mixed legacy. Both contemporary scholars and historians looking back at the program are critical. For example, they question UTMA’s endorsement of rapid transit systems, which often had ridership numbers far lower than initial projections that were used to promote such networks. An early articulation of this argument came from John Meyer, John Kain, and Martin Wohl in their The Urban Transportation Problem (1965). Published soon after President Johnson signed UTMA and based on quantitative analysis, the study criticized transit funding from an economic perspective.68 Promoters of the Washington Metro had naively argued that ambitious ridership projections would mean that fares alone could cover all operating and even some capital expenses, a belief that became untenable with inflation during the 1970s. But others, such as Schrag, believe that quantitative critiques overlook the more qualitative benefits that public funding for transit in general—and rapid transit more specifically—has given cities. Schrag cites the positive impact of the Metro on Washington, where rapid transit has reduced the city’s reliance on cars, freeways, and gasoline, created more sustainable developments, and improved the mobility of residents—especially those who choose or are unable to own a car because of personal finances, age, or disability.

The 1970s marked a turning point for transit in the United States. Transit historian Brian Cudahy has even suggested that the decade saw the beginning of a “transit renaissance” in the United States. In statistical terms, the long decline of annual passengers since the late 1920s (with the exception of World War II) ended in 1973, although per capita rides continued to decline. This resurgence arose from many factors: growing ecological consciousness from the environmental movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, revolts by citizens against the negative consequences of urban freeways, energy crises, and general disillusionment with the dominant car culture and other problems in American cities. To those searching for an alternative to the automobile, transit seemed like a viable solution to various urban issues, from redevelopment to social equity. Federal subsidies also influenced transit’s reversal of fortunes. By the 1970s, funding from Capitol Hill that began in the previous decade started to make its mark. Major rapid transit systems in San Francisco, Washington, and Atlanta opened for use. In 1973, Congress listened to expressway protesters and authorized cities to use funds for transit projects that had been earmarked for the Interstate Highway System. These funds failed to go as far as expressway dollars. Whereas federal funds covered 90 percent of expressway projects, Washington provided only four dollars for every dollar spent by local authorities for transit. Federal funds also began to provide operating subsidies for transit the following year, with passage of the National Mass Transportation Assistance Act.

Since the 1980s, numerous cities have built light rail transit (LRT) systems. With LRT, vehicles operate on lines with dedicated rights-of-way but power is supplied by overhead wires instead of a third rail. LRT requires lower capital costs and ridership levels compared to heavy rail systems, and LRT projects have become more common than capital-intensive heavy rapid transit systems such as BART and the Washington Metro. Escalating construction costs and a more restrictive environment of federal funding for capital projects is one motivation for LRT’s rise, which began in the early 1980s. In a development that has proved fascinating to the historian, nostalgia and heritage have also contributed to the popularity of rail transit developments since the 1980s. Cities have kept or built “heritage” streetcar lines (or cable cars in San Francisco) along downtown streets with tourist dollars in mind. When the first LRT line in the United States opened in 1981, it was called the “San Diego Trolley,” despite little similarity between the new line and the trolleys that served the city until the late 1940s. Most passengers today have no personal memory of riding streetcars, and so LRT and heritage lines are commonly associated with a vibrant urbanism of the early-20th-century American city rather than the more negative streetcar sentiments and experiences held by many people at the time. The place of the past within current transit branding demonstrates just one example of why the history of mass transit matters today.

Policy IssuesEdit

Light-rail systems also differ greatly in terms of the percent- age of operating expenses covered by fare revenue. This statistic reveals how closely the private benefits of light-rail transit (measured as the amount riders are willing to pay) approach the operating cost of such systems. Dallas has the lowest percentage at 13.3 percent, whereas Sacramento, California., has the highest at 62.3 percent. So, while some systems can cover more than half of their operating expenses with fare revenue, the private benefits to riders of rail transit in all cities are less than the cost of light-rail operation.

Is there a relationship between cost and service area size (as defined by the National Transit Database), as measured either by population, square miles or population density? This is an important question for cities thinking about starting or expanding light-rail service because it provides insights into the characteristics of cities that make light rail most cost-effective. To examine whether any relationship exists between service area characteristics and cost, a linear correlation was computed between each service area characteristic (size, density and population) and each of three cost measures (operating cost per passenger mile, operating cost per vehicle mile and fares as a percentage of the operating cost).

Demise of Light Rail - Mid 20th CenturyEdit

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to the closure of many streetcar lines in North America. The onset of World War II held off the closure of some streetcar lines as civilians used them to commute to war related factory jobs during a time when rubber tires and gasoline were rationed. After the war automobile use continued to rise and was assisted in the 1940s and 1950s by the passage of the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1948 and growth of provincial highways in Canada as well as the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 in the United States. Declining ridership and traffic jam crowding of city streets by streetcars were often cited as reasons to shut down remaining lines.  By the 1960s most North American streetcar lines were closed, with only the exceptions noted above and discussed below remaining in service. During the same time all streetcar systems in Central America were scrapped as well. The survival of the lines that made it past the 1960s was aided by the introduction of the successful PCC streetcar (Presidents' Conference Committee car) in the 1940s and 1950s in all these cities except New Orleans.

City buses were seen as more economical and flexible: a bus could carry a number of people similar to that in a streetcar without tracks and associated infrastructure. Many transit operators removed some streetcar tracks but kept the electric infrastructure so as to run electrified trackless trolley buses. Many such systems lasted only as long as the first generation of equipment, but several survive to the present.

Modern Light Rail in the USAEdit

The United States has a number of light rail systems in its mid-sized to large cities. As of October 2016, there are 26 modern light rail systems, 11 modern streetcar systems, and approximately 10 heritage streetcar systems (plus the San Francisco cable car system, and Morgantown's light rail-like Personal Rapid Transit system) offering regular year-round transit service, for a total of over 45 operational light rail-type systems in the United States. The United States has a much larger number of "true" light rail systems (i.e. not including streetcar and heritage streetcar systems), by far, compared to any other country in the world (the next largest are Germany with 10 light rail systems, and Japan with 7).

Seven of these systems are vestigial "legacy" first-generation streetcar systems that were spared the fate of the other streetcar systems that were closed in the United States during the 1950s-1970s due to their having some grade separation from other traffic (e.g. subway tunnels) and relatively high ridership. Of these seven surviving streetcar systems, two of these (Muni Metro in San Francisco and Pittsburgh Light Rail) have seen their service substantial revamped and modernised since the 1960s (e.g. by the construction of new subway sections), whereas the other five (Boston, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, and Philadelphia) have seen less drastic expansions or modernisations since their earlier eras.

The remaining examples are all second-generation light rail (and streetcar) systems, with the oldest being San Diego's which was opened in 1981. In the 1980s, this system was followed by new light rail installations in Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, and San Jose, and by a heritage streetcar line in Dallas. Many new systems followed in the 1990s, and approximately 20 more new light rail and streetcar systems have followed since 2000.

Three-parameter logistic functionEdit

S(t) = K/[1+exp(-b(t-t0)] where:

  • S(t) is the status measure, (e.g. Passenger-km traveled)
  • t is time (usually in years),
  • t0 is the inflection time (year in which 1/2 K is achieved),
  • K is saturation status level,
  • b is a coefficient.

Implementing the Three Parameter Logistic FunctionEdit

Analysing the Data from Tallied Passengers vs Predicted Passengers for Light Rail in the USA

The trending line for the tallied passengers and the predicted passengers both share an increasing demand. However the prediction is somewhat limited, compared to the relatively linear line for the actual passenger tally. Both data sets are consistent in their gradient, which identifies that there has been continual and even growth since data recording began in 1985. The disparity is quite large and can be put down to the assumptions for K & b in the formula. Further there looks to be an issue in the data set, as there prediction does not get over 600 thousand passengers in the modern 21st century which is hard to believe from a model. Data from before 1985 is limited with the US government data only going back to 1985, however from my research some emerging trends are as follows:

  • 1880 – Light Rail begins to be implemented in a primitive form
  • 1915 - Up until WW1 there is accelerated growth in the roll out of light rail
  • 1915-1945 – The recession and then WW2 causes stagnant growth for public transport projects
  • 1945-1985 – A 30 year period of downward growth, as the automobile comes into play and is far more influential in terms of transport.
  • 1985 – Onwards – There is sustained growth as a cost efficient method is need


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  • Daniel, S. (2019). Infrastructure: Mass Transit in 19th- and 20th-Century Urban America. [online] Infrastructure: Mass Transit in 19th- and 20th-Century Urban America. [Accessed 16 May 2019].
  • Luperdi, S. (2019). System Mileage Within the United States | Bureau of Transportation Statistics. [Accessed 16 May 2019].
  • Mollerstrom, D. (2019). A Time Series Analysis of Transit Ridership. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 2019].