Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 


MAY 2001 



This Fact Sheet, inspired by an article in Transit Australia by G Mac Sebree (1), is an attempt to produce a full and concise account of North America's surge forward with its modal transit developments, developments that should give confidence to those places which so far have lacked boldness in this particular direction. This point assumes a certain amount of importance when it is realised that trends emanating in USA have an uncanny knack of spreading.

Britain's "clean-sweep" approach of the late 1950s was not fully replicated in North America, probably because surface bus routes would have been poor substitutes for underground tram routes and/or PCC cars on segregated tracks. Also, what was not fully understood at the time but now appears as a force to be reckoned with, was the public's euphoria for heritage developments. There is little doubt though that underground tram tracks helped to save such systems as Boston, Philadelphia and Newark whereas the sheer efficiency of PCC cars, often on segregated tracks, kept the "axe" at bay in Toronto, Pittsburgh and on the Shaker Heights service into Cleveland. New Orleans in Louisiana recognised the tourist potential of its heritage trams and has recently produced some replica trams to historic patterns.


Although there has been a certain amount of debate as to when the revival of light rail in the USA actually occurred it has now been generally conceded that San Diego (California), in a role not unlike that of King Canute, succeeded where that famous king did not. Aided by light rail's versatility, (now taken for granted throughout North America), but facing a challenge from federal indifference towards light rail, it proved it could be accomplished on a "shoe-string" budget.


At about the same time (1981) Calgary in Alberta opened its light rail system which included street running through its CBD. Not unlike San Diego, its public appeal was reliability, helped by well-proven rolling stock, designed originally for Frankfurt in Germany and chosen also by San Diego. Edmonton, also in Alberta, actually opened its transit system before Calgary and although it chose the Frankfurt LRV, the fact that it has no street track tends to put it into a light rail metro category, often thought of as light metro. Toronto in Ontario has recently opened some important tram extensions and has managed to retain its easy access and down town convenience. Vancouver in British Columbia is continually extending its popular automated Skytrain metro system. Montreal in Quebec is currently showing interest in a two-line light rail system whilst Ottawa (Canada's Capital) is changing course by moving away from its busway system towards low floor diesel LRVs on former railroad tracks.


SAN FRANCISCO (California) could well be described as a "star" light rail attraction because, with the help of a regular cable car service, its severe steep gradients have been turned into a popular tourist attraction. The BART heavy metro system provides an electric interurban service to many parts of the region from a low-level subway under Market Street. The MUNI light rai1 system, also under Market Street, provides an urban tram service to many parts of San Francisco. A popular shopper and heritage service with trams operates also along Market Street but being on the surface provides an additional attraction for tourists. Many of these trams are either refurbished PCC cars or historic vehicles from overseas systems. A recent extension includes a tram route to Fisherman's Wharf along the Embarcadero and plans are being developed to build a light rail line to Bayshore. As for rolling stock, Breda is currently delivering a large order of light rail vehicles to Muni.

From SACRAMENTO's (California) humble start in 1987 with a loading of 6000 passengers per day (2) came quick expansion with passenger loading now standing at 28,500 per day and needing 4 LRVs to be operated in multiple unit. This loading far exceeds patronage predictions and results from a good reliability record with 99% on-time operation.

LOS ANGELES (California) opened the last stretch of its Red line heavy metro during 2000 attracting a healthy 120,000 passengers daily. Its Long Beach light rail Blue Line, opened during 1990, is now heavily patronised with a daily load of 63,000 passengers. The light rail Green Line, partly elevated and partly in the median of Century Freeway, opened in 1995 and now carries 28,000 daily. Because its median stations, convenient for park and ride users, are remote for foot passengers, it fails to attract such heavy patronage (3). Finally, a design and build contract for the bulk of the work on the 22km light rail line for Pasadena has now been awarded (4).

Following a USD0.05 Federal Gas Tax Grant in 1984 for its first light rail project, SAN JOSE in Santa Clara County (California) went ahead with planning for what could eventually become the longest light rail built in the United States in 50 years. Opened in 1987 with a modest 11km, it has been continually extended with the latest 12.2km to Tasman West in 1999. With each extension, patronage has increased spectacularly and now exceeds 31,000 daily, 35% up on 1999 (5).

PORTLAND (Oregon) opened its new light rail system in 1986 partly with the aid of funds partly diverted from their original purpose, that of motorway construction. Known as MAX or TRI-MET, its popularity was probably helped by a generous supply of park and ride sites, regularly full after only the second week of operation (6). Since then, TRI-MET in 1997 opened its 28.3km Westside line to Hillsboro, to be followed by an Airport extension during 2001 (7). The low-floor LRV's were introduced in 1997 and in so doing created a "first" in North America (8). The City Council of Portland are about to launch a new tramway system to be known as Central City Streetcar line. The initial 6.4km will be operated by 5 low-floor trams and although not part of MAX, it will connect with it (9).

The transit position in SEATTLE (Washington) is very confused indeed with light rail's "wind of progress" continually blowing both "hot and then cold". A decision will soon have to be made because the city's constrained street and freeway system has become badly congested making it increasingly difficult for the bus network to meet the demand (10). Although a 40km light rail system is planned for the Puget Sound which will eventually link important locations in and around Seattle, a short 2.6km tramway/light rail link, along with three Czech-built trams is about to open through neighbouring down-town Tacoma. Although not given a lot of publicity, a short tourist tramway operates a Seattle waterfront service with former Melbourne trams.

SALT LAKE CITY (Utah) is battling hard to complete a 4km eastern leg in time for its 2002 Winter Olympics. This will be as a branch to its original 24km starter line which opened in late 1999 and is now reported to be. carrying 20,000 daily. The business community also has reason to be pleased because the turnover in its shops is now up by 16% (11).

The mile-high city of DENVER (Colorado) opened its 8.5km light rail system during 1994 and soon reached a patronage level of 18,000 daily. The opening during 2000 of the 22.4km South West Corridor light rail line increased its daily patronage to 30,000. One very serious problem with this success is an immediate shortage of rolling stock which in turn forces the operator to continually press for funds to purchase additional LRV's (12).

PHOENIX (Arizona) produced a plan after a long study for a 38.4km light rail system and, with voter approval, will build it mostly with street running. An earlier plan to build a Vancouver-style Skytrain was rejected by voters.


DALLAS (Texas) is another of light rail's success stories. To add to the initial lines opened during 1996, DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) will shortly almost double its length which will coincide with a prediction that the daily patronage figure of 44,000 will double also. Some years earlier, in 1989, some former tram tracks were repaired and put back into service using refurbished historic trams. This successful heritage line (Mc-Kinney Avenue Transit Authority) is currently being extended to provide an integrated connection with DART.

METRO LINK in ST LOUIS (Missouri), another successful light rail line, opened in 1993 became another example of a disused railway being utilised to provide a light rail service. Of particular interest is the use of EADS BRIDGE across the Mississippi River. Patronage has been spectacular; almost double predictions, 79% of which were former motorists.

FORT WORTH (Texas) took advantage during 1963 of some surplus PCC cars from Washington DC by introducing a park and ride facility that terminated below a down-town Department store. A 300-metre subway section permitted this operation and some recent studies have been looking at possible extensions.

Ground breaking took place during January 2001 in MINNEAPOLIS (Minnesota) to build a 19.5km light rail system with its opening planned for 2003 (13).

HOUSTON (Texas) experienced some judicial delays early in 2001 when a legal challenge brought a ground breaking ceremony to a halt. A short court hearing subsequently permitted it to proceed and this March 2001 event is expected to lead to a completed light rail project in 2004 (14).

KENOSHA (Wisconsin) opened its 3.2km streetcar loop as a heritage line during 2000 using ex-Toronto PCC cars.

The 7.5km diesel electric light rail loop that opened in GALVESTON (Texas) during 1988 was later extended to serve the "Harborside". A further extension is being considered.


A major US light rail event during 1999 was the opening of the initial 12.8km of the HUDSON-BERGEN (New Jersey) line along the Hudson River waterfront serving Jersey City and Hoboken. When complete it will be 32km in length.

Federal funds from a cancelled motorway project enabled MEMPHIS (Tennessee) to open a 4km heritage tramway known as "Main Street Trolley" during 1993. A significant extension followed during 1997 and present plans include converting it to a light rail system during 2007.

A major light rail project with low-floor diesel units is the TRENTON-CAMDEN (New Jersey) scheme. This 51.2km scheme is being built on the bed of an existing ex-Conrail freight line. When passenger operation starts in 2002 it will share the line with freight trains but operate at different times.

A 44km light rail system in BALTIMORE (Maryland) opened during 1992 with LRV's wider that the accepted normal, almost 2.9 metres as against 2.65 metres. Early passenger loadings were light but with subsequent extensions the system now carries 26,000 daily (15).

Designed as a metro line, BUFFALO (New York) actually changed its plans to street operation along a mall in the CBD but remains in tunnel elsewhere. Opened in 1985, a section of its mall operation is fare-free.


The seven tram-type systems in USA that escaped the proverbial axe (only Blackpool escaped in Britain) were for a number of years fighting an uphill battle to retain passenger numbers and maintain efficiency. In Britain there was a somewhat poignant atmosphere as the efforts to modernise in Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow and Aberdeen were brushed aside and the systems subsequently closed. Many in Britain who remember the tram readily admit that this was a major error of judgment, an opinion reinforced by the successes recorded by the few new systems that have currently slipped through a very tight financial restriction.

The large number of Tourist or Heritage tramways in USA (too many to fully record in this fact sheet) tends to eclipse the importance of the short line recently opened in Birkenhead. A need for heritage revivals in Britain is probably stronger now than it has ever been but without a reliable source of funding and corresponding public interest, tramway-type tourist revival is unlikely to follow America's lead.

Although every effort has been taken to ensure accuracy in this report no responsibility can be accepted for any errors.


  1. LIGHT RAIL IN NORTH AMERICA by G Mac Sebree, a US- based transport historian, writer and former publisher of transport books and magazines - reported in TRANSIT AUSTRALIA - March 2001.
  3. LIGHT RAIL & MODERN TRAMWAY - November 1995.
  5. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - December 2000.
  6. MODERN TRAMWAY - May 1987.
  7. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - November 1998.
  8. RAILFAN AND RAILROAD - January 1998.
  10. William D Middleton in RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL - January 1998.
  11. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - April 2001.
  12. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - April 2000.
  13. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - March 2001.
  15. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - April 1999.
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