Light rail in the United States is a mode of rail-based transport, usually urban in nature. When compared to heavy rail systems like commuter rail or rapid transit (subway), light rail systems are typically are designed to carry fewer passengers and are capable of operating in mixed traffic (street running) or on routes that are not entirely grade-separated. Systems typically take one of four forms: the "first-generation" legacy systems, the "second-generation" modern light rail systems, streetcars, and hybrid rail systems (light rail with some commuter rail features). All of the systems use similar technologies, and some systems blur the lines between the different forms.
The first-generation legacy systems are typically vestigial elements of sprawling streetcar systems that were were decommissioned from the 1950s onward through approximately 1970 as the popularity of the automobile increased. These systems were spared that fate due to these systems having high ridership and some form of exclusive right of way. Many of these streetcar systems have been at least partly upgraded to more closely resemble the more modern second-generation light rail systems.
The second-generation of modern light rail systems began in 1981 with the San Diego Trolley, which ushered in several systems that generally feature large multi-car trains that travel larger distances, and make fewer stops, on exclusive rights-of-way. These systems were inspired by the German Stadtbahn (English: city rail) systems.
The modern streetcar era started in 2001 with the Portland Streetcar, which inspired several other systems that generally feature smaller single-car trains that travel on short routes, with frequent stops, in lanes that are shared with automobile traffic (street running). There are also some heritage streetcar lines, which operate in the same manner using vintage vehicles or historic vehicle replicas, which have been built before and after the modern streetcar movement.
Hybrid rail systems were introduced in 2004 with New Jersey's River Line, which operates light rail-type vehicles as diesel multiple unit trains (DMU's), but like commuter rail run on unelectrified tracks that can be shared with freight trains (which typically only operate overnight, when passenger service has stopped). Unlike most commuter rail systems which only operate during the weekday peak travel periods, hybrid rail systems operate all-day, every day.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, of the roughly 30 cities with light rail systems in the United States, the light rail systems in six of them (Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), San Diego, and San Francisco) achieve more than 30 million unlinked passenger transits per year.
The United States, with its 27 systems (as counted by the Light Rail Transit Association), has a much larger number of "true" light rail systems (not including streetcar systems), by far, compared to any other country in the world (the next largest are Germany with 10 and Japan with 9).
From the mid-19th century onwards, horse-drawn trams (or horsecars) were used in cities around the world. The St. Charles Avenue Line of New Orleans' streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835.
From the late 1880s onwards, electrically powered street railways became technically feasible following the invention of a trolley pole system of collecting current by American inventor Frank J. Sprague who installed the first successful electrified trolley system in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. They became popular because roads were then poorly surfaced, and before the invention of the internal combustion engine and the advent of motor-buses, they were the only practical means of public transport around cities.
The streetcar systems constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries typically only ran in single-car setups. Some rail lines experimented with multiple unit configurations, where streetcars were joined together to make short trains, but this did not become common until later. When lines were built over longer distances (typically with a single track) before good roads were common, they were generally called interurban streetcars or radial railways in North America.
Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with a variety of gauges common in many early systems (e.g. the broad Pennsylvania trolley gauge, etc. used by New Orleans' streetcars and by the light rail systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). However, most modern second-generation light rail systems now operate on standard gauge rail.
After World War II, six major cities in the United States (Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco) continued to operate large first-generation streetcar systems, although most of them were later converted to modern light rail standards. Toronto in Canada marks the other city in North America with a continuing first-generation streetcar system. Additionally, a seventh American city, Cleveland, maintained an interurban system (e.g. the Blue and Green Lines) equivalent to what is now "light rail", that opened before World War I, and which is still in operation to this day.
When several of these cities upgraded to new technology (e.g. San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh), they called it "light rail" to differentiate it from their existing streetcar systems since some continued to operate portions of both the old and new systems.
In the United States, most of the original first-generation streetcar systems were decommissioned from the 1950s onward through approximately 1970 as the popularity of the automobile increased.
Although a few traditional streetcar or trolley systems still exist to this day the term "light rail" has come to mean a different type of rail system. Modern light rail technology has primarily German origins, since an attempt by Boeing Vertol to introduce a new American light rail vehicle was a technical failure. After World War II, the Germans retained their streetcar (Straßenbahn) networks and evolved them into model light rail systems (Stadtbahn).
The renaissance of light rail in the United States began in 1981, when the first truly second-generation light rail system was inaugurated in the United States, the San Diego Trolley in California, which adopted use of the German Siemens-Duewag U2 light rail vehicle. (This was just three years after the first North American second-generation light rail system opened in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta in 1978, and which used the same German Siemens-Duewag U2 vehicles as San Diego).
As of March 2020[update], there are a total of 53 operational light rail-type lines and systems (noting that some cities, such as Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, have more than one light rail system) that offer regular year-round transit service in the United States: 26 modern light rail systems, 14 modern streetcar systems, and 13 heritage streetcar systems (including the San Francisco cable car system).
"First-generation" legacy systems
|Location||System||Year originally opened||System length||Lines||Current type||Comments|
|Boston||MBTA Green Line||1897||22.6 mi (36.4 km)||4||Light rail||While changes were made to the original 1897 Tremont Street subway in 1962 and 2004, and to some of the line routes over the years, and the Green Line's streetcar A branch was closed in 1967, both systems have run intact with mostly uninterrupted service since their opening dates.|
|Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line||1929||2.6 mi (4.2 km)||1|
|Cleveland||Green Line / Blue Line||1913||15.3 mi (24.6 km)||2||Light rail||Aside from line and station renovations in the early 1980s, and the Waterfront extension in 1996, these lines have operated essentially uninterrupted as light rail (interurbans) from their opening.|
|Newark||Newark Light Rail||1935||6.2 mi (10.0 km)||2||Light rail||Outside of an extension in 2002, and the switch to modern LRT vehicles in 2001, this line still operates essentially unchanged since the 1930s. A second, modern LRT line, called the Broad Street Extension, opened in 2006.|
|New Orleans||New Orleans Streetcars||1835||22.3 mi (35.9 km)||4||Heritage streetcar||The St. Charles Avenue Line of the New Orleans streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835; the line was electrified in 1893. The Canal Street Line dates to 1861, and was electrified in 1894; however, the line was closed in May 1964, and was not re-inaugurated with restored service until 2004. The Riverfront Line and Loyola Avenue Line are "new", and did not open for service until 1988 and 2013, respectively.|
|Philadelphia||SEPTA subway–surface trolley lines||1906||19.8 mi (31.9 km)||5||Light rail / Streetcar||The Subway–Surface Trolley Lines began operation as a mixed subway/streetcar system in 1906, and have continued operation essentially unchanged, including the use of single-car trolley vehicles, since that time. Three of the original eight lines were replaced by buses in the 1950s.|
|SEPTA Routes 101 and 102||1906||11.9 mi (19.2 km)||2||Light rail / Streetcar||SEPTA Routes 101 & 102 (aka. the Media-Sharon Lines) began operation as rail lines in mostly exclusive rights-of-way (light rail) in 1906, and have also operated mostly unchanged since then.|
|SEPTA Route 15||1859||8.4 mi (13.5 km)||1||Heritage streetcar||SEPTA Route 15 (aka. the Girard Avenue Line) dates to 1859 as a horse car line, and was electrified in 1895; it was replaced with buses relatively late, in 1992, but service on the line was resumed with heritage streetcars in 2005.|
|Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh Light Rail||1903||26.2 mi (42.2 km)||2||Light rail||Began as a streetcar network, but was converted to light rail. By the 1970s, most routes were converted to bus, and the remaining streetcar lines (all of which still used the 1904 Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel) were converted light rail. This included the construction of a new 1.1 miles (1.8 km) downtown tunnel. The converted light rail system partially opened for service in 1984, with the downtown tunnel opening in 1985, and the rest of the system opening in 1987. An extension of the downtown tunnel opened to the North Shore in 2012.|
|San Francisco||Cable cars||1878||5.2 mi (8.4 km)||3||Heritage cable car||World's last manually operated cable car system. Of the 23 lines established between 1873 and 1890, only three remain. While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, the vast majority of their seven million annual passengers are tourists.|
|Muni Metro||1912||35.7 mi (57.5 km)||7||Light rail / Streetcar||Began as a streetcar network, but was partially converted to light rail. While most of San Francisco's original streetcar lines had been converted to buses, five lines that had dedicated rights-of-way or used narrow tunnels could not be converted. The streetcars were partially converted to light rail in 1980, sending the lines into the newly constructed Market Street subway. The lines still operate as streetcars on surface streets. The T Third Street and S Shuttle lines added later are true light rail.|
|E Embarcadero / F Market & Wharves||1982||7.7 mi (12.4 km)||2||Heritage streetcar||Established in 1982 during a closure of the cable car system for refurbishment, to provide an alternative tourist attraction. Streetcars operated on the Market Street tracks recently abandoned by the streetcar lines that became the Muni Metro. Service proved popular and was retained and expanded.|
"Second-generation" modern systems
|City/Area served||State||System||Year opened||System length||Stations||Lines||Year last expanded||Ref.|
|Baltimore||Maryland||Baltimore Light Rail||1992||33.0 mi (53.1 km)||33||3||2006|||
|Buffalo||New York||Buffalo Metro Rail||1984||6.4 mi (10.3 km)||14||1||1986|||
|Charlotte||North Carolina||LYNX Blue Line||2007||19.3 mi (31.1 km)||26||1||2018|||
|Dallas||Texas||Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART)||1996||93 mi (150 km)||64||4||2016|||
|Denver||Colorado||RTD Light Rail||1994||47 mi (76 km)||53||7||2017|||
|Houston||Texas||METRORail||2004||22.7 mi (36.5 km)||39||3||2017|||
|Jersey City||New Jersey||Hudson–Bergen Light Rail (NJ Transit)[note 1]||2004||17 mi (27 km)||24||3||2006|||
|Los Angeles||California||Metro Rail A, C, E, & L Lines[note 1]||1990||88.1 mi (141.8 km)||71||4||2016|||
|Minneapolis–Saint Paul||Minnesota||Metro: Blue & Green lines||2004||21.8 mi (35.1 km)||37||2||2014|||
|Norfolk||Virginia||The Tide||2011||7.4 mi (11.9 km)||11||1||—|||
|Phoenix||Arizona||Valley Metro Rail||2008||26.3 mi (42.3 km)||35||1||2016|||
|Portland||Oregon||MAX Light Rail||1986||60 mi (97 km)||97||5||2015|||
|Sacramento||California||Sacramento RT Light Rail||1987||42.9 mi (69.0 km)||53||3||2015|||
|St. Louis||Missouri||MetroLink||1993||46 mi (74 km)||37||2||2006|||
|Salt Lake City||Utah||TRAX||1999||44.8 mi (72.1 km)||50||3||2013|||
|San Diego||California||San Diego Trolley||1981||53.5 mi (86.1 km)||53||4||2005|||
|San Jose||California||Santa Clara VTA Light Rail||1987||42.2 mi (67.9 km)||62||3||2005|||
|Seattle||Washington||Line 1 (Link light rail)||2009||20.35 mi (32.75 km)||16||1||2016|||
|Tacoma||Washington||Line T (Link light rail)||2003||1.6 mi (2.6 km)||6||1||—|||
|City/Area served||State||System||Year opened||System length||Stops||Lines||Year last expanded||System type||Ref.|
|Atlanta||Georgia||Atlanta Streetcar[note 2]||2014||2.7 mi (4.3 km)||12||1||—||Modern|||
|Charlotte||North Carolina||CityLYNX Gold Line||2015||1.5 mi (2.4 km)||6||1||—||Modern|||
|Cincinnati||Ohio||Cincinnati Bell Connector||2016||3.6 mi (5.8 km)||18||1||—||Modern|||
|Dallas||Texas||Dallas Streetcar||2015||2.45 mi (3.94 km)||6||1||2016||Modern|||
|McKinney Avenue Transit Authority||1989||4.6 mi (7.4 km)||40||1||2015||Heritage|||
|Detroit||Michigan||QLine||2017||3.3 mi (5.3 km)||20||1||—||Modern|||
|El Paso||Texas||El Paso Streetcar||2018||4.8 mi (8 km)||27||1||—||Heritage|||
|Kansas City||Missouri||KC Streetcar||2016||2 mi (3.2 km)||16||1||—||Modern|||
|Kenosha||Wisconsin||Kenosha Streetcar||2000||2.0 mi (3.2 km)||17||1||—||Heritage|
|Little Rock||Arkansas||Metro Streetcar||2004||3.4 mi (5.5 km)||15||1||2007||Heritage|||
|Memphis||Tennessee||MATA Trolley||1993||6.3 mi (10.1 km)||25||3||2004||Heritage|||
|Milwaukee||Wisconsin||The Hop||2018||2.5 mi (4 km)||18||1||—||Modern|
|Oklahoma City||Oklahoma||Oklahoma City Streetcar||2018||4.6 mi (7.4 km)||22||2||—||Modern|||
|Portland||Oregon||Portland Streetcar||2001||7.35 mi (11.83 km)||76||2||2015||Modern|||
|Salt Lake City||Utah||S Line||2013||2.0 mi (3.2 km)||7||1||—||Modern|
|Seattle||Washington||Seattle Streetcar||2007||3.8 mi (6.1 km)||17||2||2016||Modern|||
|Tampa||Florida||TECO Line Streetcar||2002||2.7 mi (4.3 km)||11||1||2010||Heritage|||
|Tucson||Arizona||Sun Link||2014||3.9 mi (6.3 km)||22||1||—||Modern|||
|Washington, D.C.||District of Columbia||DC Streetcar||2016||2.4 mi (3.9 km)||8||1||—||Modern|||
"Hybrid rail" systems
|City/Area served||State||System||Year opened||System length||Stations||Lines||Year last expanded||Ref.|
|Austin||Texas||Capital MetroRail||2010||32 mi (51 km)||9||1||—|||
|Contra Costa County||California||eBART||2018||10.1 mi (16.3 km)||3||1||—|||
|Camden–Trenton||New Jersey||River Line (NJ Transit)||2004||34��mi (55 km)||20||1||—|||
|Denton County||Texas||A-train||2011||21 mi (34 km)||6||1||—|||
|Fort Worth||Texas||TEXRail||2019||27.2 mi (43.8 km)||9||1||—|||
|North San Diego County||California||Sprinter||2008||22 mi (35 km)||15||1||—|||
Systems under construction
The following table lists entirely new light rail or streetcar systems under heavy construction. LRT systems that are in the planning stages but not yet under construction (e.g. Glassboro–Camden Line, MARTA Clifton Corridor, Austin Capital MetroRail Blue and Orange Lines), are not listed; expansions of existing LRT systems are also not listed here.
|City/Area served||State||System||Planned opening||System length||System type||Ref.|
|Tempe||Arizona||Tempe Streetcar||2021||3.44 mi (6 km)||Streetcar|||
|San Bernardino County||California||Arrow||early 2022||9 mi (14 km)||Hybrid rail|||
|Orange County||California||OC Streetcar||2022||4.1 mi (7 km)||Streetcar|||
|Dallas||Texas||Silver Line||March 2023||26 mi (42 km)||Hybrid rail|||
|Maryland||Maryland||Purple Line||after 2024||16.2 mi (26.1 km)||Light rail|||
- List of United States light rail systems by ridership
- List of rail transit systems in the United States
- Light rail in North America
- Streetcars in North America
- Public Transportation in San Diego
- Transportation in Dallas, Texas
- Transportation in Houston
- Transportation in Portland, Oregon
- Transportation in San Francisco
- Transportation in Salt Lake City
- Transportation of St. Louis, Missouri
- Rail transit in metropolitan Denver
- Rail transit in Boston
- Transportation in San Jose, California
- Transportation in Hudson Country, New Jersey
- Rail transit in Kenosha, Wisconsin
- Transportation in New York City
- This system also has a heavy rail rapid transit/metro portion (see List of metro systems), and connections to a commuter rail system; the figures and statistics presented here represent the light rail portion of the system only.
- This system also has a heavy rail rapid transit/metro portion (see List of metro systems); the figures and statistics presented here represent the light rail portion of the system only.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Light rail in the United States.|
- American Public Transit Association (APTA)
- Table of Light Rail Transit Agencies in the United States (from APTA)
- Federal Transit Administration (U.S.)
- Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the U.S. National Research Council
- Commuter Rail, Light Rail & Rail Transit News
- Light Rail Central photos & news
- A movie of Armour's electric trolley, circa 1897 from Library of Congress