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Worldwide Light Rail BOOM
-- © Light Rail Progress - Jul 6, 2000

Light rail transit (LRT) is experiencing intensive development and expansion worldwide. This activity is a testimonial to the fact that transportation planners, decisionmakers, and operators - in scores of cities across the globe - see LRT as a viable, cost-effective, and essential component of their urban transportation systems.

(Conversely, one could ask: if LRT is such a terribly unwise investment, as its opponents allege, then why are all these urban areas embracing it so enthusiastically?)

Light rail's development in Europe is particularly vigorous - and that's the focus of the following Fact Sheet, prepared by the British-based Light Rail Transit Association and its UK Development Group, and dated January 1999. The use of British terminology and spelling should be noted - particularly "tram" for what in the USA would be called a streetcar or trolley, and "tyre" for the American tire. Major excerpts are provided below.



    Although many Mainland European cities now operate light rail or modern tram systems developed over a period of many years from traditional tram operation, there has been one notable exception, that of France. Many cities in that country have virtually reinvented the tram by creating new and highly successful integrated transport systems. It is interesting to record that although a large number of medium sized German cities retained and then modernised their tram networks, some, like France, allowed them to disappear completely. With the passing of time this earlier and negative action has turned out to be a source of regret in most of them.

    Conversely, also in Germany, there was controversially some high levels of infrastructure spending with some cities constructing underground tram tracks in congested central areas. Underground operation, thought at one time to be the best way forward, has now become a source of anxiety because of personal security problems during the hours of darkness.


    Karlsruhe, with a city population of 273 000 and 1. 3m in the region, succeeded in 1961 in unifying its urban and interurban tram systems under one management. Some years later it embarked on a vast expansion plan which involved experimenting with the joint operation of just one vehicle over railway high voltage tracks as well as tramway low voltage DC tracks.

    When the idea was first suggested the Deutsche Bundesbahn was horrified but by 1992 the technical problems had been resolved and for the first time from certain suburban railway stations passengers were able to access the shopping centre without a need to change vehicles. Public appreciation for this new joint service was demonstrated by a dramatic increase in ridership, from 2000 per day in 1992 to 14 000 by 1997.


    The 118 cities in France that operated a tramway system before the war had slimmed down to just three (Lille, St. Etienne and Marseille) by 1966. The feature that saved all three was a track section or sections that could not easily accept replacement buses. The oil crisis of 1974 caused a major rethink by the French Government which, from 1976 onwards, culminated in grants of up to 50% towards projects that promoted electrically powered public transport modes.

    Nantes in 1985 was the first beneficiary with a 10km long light rail line. From its first day of operation, and with the help of "Mother Nature", it proved itself conclusively to be a major benefit to the community. A fairly unusual occurrence for Nantes, a heavy overnight snowfall, had completely stopped all rubber-tyred traffic but it did not stop the opening of the new tramway which went ahead without a hitch.

    This revolution in electrified transport modes also generated some competition between the modes themselves with a very prominent example coming from the north of the country. The 1983 VAL (Vehicule Automatique Leger) system in Lille, consisting then of a 13.5km line, has been highly successful in attracting passengers, so successful in fact that daily patronage had grown to 115 000 by 1986 with one third of them claimed as new to public transport.

    Although the new light rail system in Nantes made a sensational start in that particular city, the somewhat later Grenoble system created an even bigger impression. This was because, for the first time, disabled people were specifically catered for with 70% of the vehicle being provided with an "easy-to-access" low floor. Introducing this new type of tram, then a novelty, permitted the whole of the city centre to be altered to a much higher quality design. New transit malls for the trams added to distribution convenience for passengers with the former delays from traffic jams eliminated. An added bonus was that town centre changes permitted former pedestrian areas to be expanded about 6 fold.


    This French city was caught-up in the intense competition that existed at this time between VAL (a rubber tyred and fully automated transit mode) and Light Rail Transit and its first 1974 plan emerged as an underground tram system. This was changed in 1983 to a VAL system. New elections in 1989 put the dispute back onto the political agenda with the high cost of VAL becoming a major issue. The election was won by a political party with pro-tram sentiments and a final decision was made to build a surface tram system. A mayor of one of the outside communes refused to accept this final decision and showed his disapproval by refusing to allow a tram route through the local authority that he controlled. Attitudes later changed and a 5km link was due to open during July 1998, four years after the system opened.

    For comparison purposes, a 1991 count of bus passengers was made along the proposed tram route, this was recorded as 17 000 per day. Just four years later the same corridor, now served by trams recorded 65 000 daily passengers and on a pre-Christmas Saturday recorded 125 000. The Strasbourg tram has been so successful that capacity limits have been reached. New trams have been ordered to a new length of 43 meters and a capacity of 280 people the initial fleet of cars are 33 meters long and 230 passengers.


    The Netherlands has a long tradition of operating trams and four of the largest cities have substantially modernised their networks. The Amsterdam system in fact is one of the largest in Europe with 20 tram routes operating over a route length of 178km. Utrecht built a completely new system in 1983 to connect a large satellite housing estate with the town centre. In 1987 the daily passenger figures were about 2000 higher than forecast. A 1986 survey showed that about 8% had switched from car to tram.


    Goteborg, a town of 433 000 inhabitants, is so far the only large place with a good light rail network in Sweden. This system is a 114km long network and consists of 9 routes. Swedish transport experts are divided into two camps (PRO & CONTRA). This appears to be at "odds" with the capital city of Stockholm where plans exist to shortly open some new light rail lines, some of which are expected to follow the "Karlsruhe" concept.


  • SPAIN : A new light rail line opened in Valencia in 1994 with Barcelona studying a completely new system.
  • PORTUGAL : Lisbon, with its narrow gauge, tight turning radii and steep gradients, is being modernised. A completely new light rail system is also planned for Porto.
  • SWITZERLAND : The larger cities have kept their trams and are continually extending them.
  • AUSTRIA : Tram extensions are planned in Linz and Graz.
  • BELGIUM : A number of modern tram lines have extensions planned. ITALY : The existing tram networks are still very effective.


    Light rail systems in USA take on a different character to the European networks. At the end of 1991 there were 14 light rail or tram systems operating. Several other US cities have tram lines which operate mainly as tourist lines. Most of the new systems use at-grade rights of way rather than tunnels. When at-grade in mixed traffic situations in downtown areas, the tracks are usually through car-restricted transit malls or clearly marked transit lanes, in some cases with barriers. On the outer portion of the system, the track is usually on a reserved right of way. All of the new light rail systems use the honour based, random inspection (European style) method of collecting fares. None of the seven older US systems currently use this system.

    Bus integration is common with all of the new US light rail systems. Some cities have re-routed existing bus routes to light rail stations when the new light rail services started.


  • Light rail is more expensive but can carry more passengers. European attitudes are that light rail is a superior transport mode to buses.
  • Modern trams have a smoother and more comfortable ride. Although trams are less likely to be delayed by parked cars (on reserved track), they can be delayed at junctions by turning cars.
  • Pedestrians and trams mingle well together.
  • Streets with trams can be designed to be much more attractive than streets with bus lanes.
  • The Europeans design their overhead wires to a higher standard than in Britain.
  • Surface trams have a strong marketing effect in favour of public transport.
  • Elevated systems are too intrusive.
  • Trams are much cleaner than normal diesel buses.
  • Trams can be attractively designed.
  • High frequency generates patronage.
  • Modern tram systems have priority at traffic lights.
  • Speed is of less importance than short interchange times.

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