Committee Background

The Emergence of Light Rail Transit as a "New" Transit Mode

Light rail transit emerged as a discrete rail mode in the 1950s and 60s in northern Europe as metropolitan regions rebuilt their war-ravaged streetcar systems with the objective of achieving many of the qualities of heavy rail at lower cost. The new mode differed from traditional streetcars and interurbans in several respects. The new mode emphasized the separation of rail and auto travel lanes or alignments wherever possible. It also emphasized the operation of one-crew-member trains that were composed of several high capacity cars. Streetcars had been operating in these cities with small cars, sometimes formed into trains of two, or three cars, the lead car of which was staffed with two crew members, and the remaining cars with one crew member each. Light rail also emphasized the provision of more and wider doors on cars, and the utilization of all doors to board and alight large passenger volumes quickly. New fare systems, particularly barrier-free, proof-of-payment (POP) systems are often a part of this transformation. The intent of these attributes was to develop networks of intermediate capacity, higher-speed routes with lower operating costs that could function as backbones of regional transit systems in some cases, and to supplement traditional heavy rail systems in others. Multi-modalism involving seamless transfers thus was another attribute of light rail that set it apart from streetcars. (See Thompson, 2003: Experience, Economics, and Evolution From Starter Lines to Growing Systems)

The Birth of the Light Rail Transit Committee

This committee was founded within the TRB in 1974, initially as a subcommittee, to advance these ideas for application in North America. The committee branded the European ideas as, "light rail," in 1974 and expanded the definition of light rail to include traditional streetcars. It then organized a national conference that was sponsored jointly by the TRB, the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA), and APTA to promote study of the European concept. The conference took place in Philadelphia in June 1975. The first application of the European light rail ideas to an all-bus North American city opened in Edmonton, Canada in 1978 and in the US the first system opened in San Diego three years later. Subsequently, light rail has spread throughout the continent through new starts, the rebuilding of remaining streetcar systems to incorporate some if not all of the European ideas central to light rail, and through expansion of the original new start systems.

See detailed history TRB's Rail Transit Committees on National Transit Research  

S. David Phraner, Member Emeritus,

Committee on Rail Transit Systems, AP065