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JDC

"Light Rail" vs. "Streetcars"

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The Streetcar Surge

This was a great read. The columnist says how the term "light rail" affects the public's perception of streetcars/trolleys/trams.

It bugs me that such an awkward, engineering-specific term

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I think the mass majority believe streetcars are trolleys that run mixed with traffic like they see when watching the opening of Full House. Light rail has been distinguished to the mass public of being a train in its own ROW with overhead cabling. Of course given this when anyone speaks of streetcar they presumably scoff at it as a novelty and not a valid mode of transportation.

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Hey Neo (and other Charlotte folks - I know there's a lot of you here): what do people call the new light rail/trolley/tram/streetcar/train? Do they just call it LYNX, or has another generic term taken hold? Since you already had streetcars in the Queen City, I'm guessing folks aren't calling LYNX a "streetcar." I'm really excited to ride it this weekend. I'll be in town for the Thunder Road 1/2 marathon.

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There are no hard and fast definitions, but Streetcar usually denotes a single vehicle - for instance the old PCC Cars you still see in San Francisco or parts of Boston. A Trolley often is the same thing - I don't know many people in Boston who still call the Green Line a trolley anymore. Personally I like the word Tram for those really light weight lines that run mostly on the street.

Light Rail is a lot more encompassing. Yes it includes trams and streetcars, but it also includes heavier systems. Heavy rail technically refers to the big commuter trains. Light rail used to at one point include metro lines such as Boston's Red, Blue, and Orange lines. Today most people would call them specifically Metros. It seems the real definition is less size than the type of power it gets - overhead cantenary being a requirement of light rail. If light rail has become too technical or threatening (I doubt it is), then perhaps try Tram. But be aware that a lot of people will think you are talking about a totally street-running system.

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The Streetcar Surge

This was a great read. The columnist says how the term "light rail" affects the public's perception of streetcars/trolleys/trams.

I know just what he means. When I started getting into transit and planning, I kept reading about "light rail" but could never quite figure out what it was. Then I realized that the Green Line in Boston (which I'd been riding since I was a kid) was "light rail." We just called it a trolley.

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Interesting article, thanks for posting that link.

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Hey Neo (and other Charlotte folks - I know there's a lot of you here): what do people call the new light rail/trolley/tram/streetcar/train? Do they just call it LYNX, or has another generic term taken hold? Since you already had streetcars in the Queen City, I'm guessing folks aren't calling LYNX a "streetcar." I'm really excited to ride it this weekend. I'll be in town for the Thunder Road 1/2 marathon.

I'm not sure a definitive term has been coined yet. Those opposing light rail in Charlotte have coined the term "choo-choo" it seems, but actual riders and those that are nuetral have yet to really call it something in specific. Even I've referred to it as different terms. I have a hunch it will just end up with a generic term like "train" but the "South Line" or "Blue Line" may also catch on. I have doubt that LYNX will be used by the mass majority but I could be wrong.

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The writer neglects to mention that most modern "streetcar" systems also require overhead catenary, and really I have not seen a tremendous difference in cost between a street-running streetcar system and a dedicated ROW light rail system. They're both running in the $30 - $50 Million/mile range, which is not cheap "low hanging fruit" as he mentions.

To me, this is light rail:

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I would consider all three of those light rail. You could probably consider the Sydney line a tram, although it is stretching the definition. I think Boston's green line is really too heavy to be a real tram in the traditional sense. Trams are usually much lighter weight - I would look at cities in Europe such as Montpelier and Strasbourg.

A streetcar is a single train, although I have to admit it gets misused so much it might as well be anything running along the road. Keep in mind though that in a lot of cities Streetcar is also used as a term for electrified buses.

I know it sounds like a bunch of needless details. But it's these details where all the arguments for and against come up. Both the pro and and anti factions will conveniently misuse the term to get the statistical results they desire.

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I usually think of streetcars as almost always running on the street, at grade, in mixed traffic... similar to the Portland Streetcar. I think of light rail as tending to run in it's own right-of-way, but also being nimble enough to run in mixed traffic in certain applications. Portland's MAX also fits this definition nicely. Around the center city, it operates in it's own lanes, but runs directly on the downtown city streets at grade. When the line moves just outside of the center city area, it typically operates in an exclusive ROW.

Among the public, "light rail" definitely conjurs up a more modern image, rather than "trolley" or "streetcar," which dominated intracity American travel in the early 1900s. Probably for that reason, light rail has taken it's place in the lexicon of America.

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I usually think of streetcars as almost always running on the street, at grade, in mixed traffic... similar to the Portland Streetcar. I think of light rail as tending to run in it's own right-of-way, but also being nimble enough to run in mixed traffic in certain applications. Portland's MAX also fits this definition nicely. Around the center city, it operates in it's own lanes, but runs directly on the downtown city streets at grade. When the line moves just outside of the center city area, it typically operates in an exclusive ROW.

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