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Understanding Rail Transit

Contrary to popular belief, all rail transit is not created equal. There are many different types of systems that serve many different purposes. Take a look at this rail transit guide to understand the differences in rail transit systems.

Published April 12, 2007 in Transit      4 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


Street Cars and Historic Trolleys

Trolleys are systems that historically ran mainly or completely along streets but are capable of running on any railroad track. With low capacity and frequent stops, passengers usually board at street- or curb-level (but low-floor trams and level boarding platforms may be used). These can be called trams, streetcars, or trolleys.

San Fransisco streetcar (similar to New Orleans'/Memphis' streetcar systems)


Monorail is a transit system with a track consisting of a single rail (actually a beam), as opposed to the traditional track with two parallel rails. Monorail vehicles are wider than the beam they run on.

Open since Summer 2004, the Las Vegas Monorail attracts over 18,000 riders a day. Jacksonville's Skyway is a peoplemover that makes use of monorail technology.

Light Rail

Light rail is a relatively new term, as an outgrowth of trams/streetcars. Speeds are usually higher, and articulated vehicles may be used to increase capacity. These systems can run either within the street or on their own dedicated right of way, and can be either electric or diesel. Light Rail can not be operated in conjunction with freight trains, which can increase the implementation costs.

Minneapolis Hiawatha light rail line (a light rail system is currently under construction in Charlotte).

Heavy Rail/Rapid Transit

Rapid transit typically runs grade-separated from all intersecting roads, in tunnels or on elevated structures, or in rail cuts in outlying areas. Trains typically run faster than light railways, and stops are less frequent. Platforms are usually level with the typically high floors of the trains, and trains can reach ten or more cars in length (with multiple-unit operation), providing more capacity than light rail at higher headways. Electricity is usually provided by a third rail, though overhead wires are sometimes used, particularly by systems such as the Tyne and Wear Metro which run extensively above ground. Fares are collected before boarding, and usually proof of payment is required to even enter a station's platforms. Systems of this type can be called metros, subways, undergrounds, elevated railways, or sometimes heavy rail, though this term is more commonly used to refer to mainline and regional railways

Metrorail - Washington, DC (similar to Atlanta's MARTA & Miami's Metrorail)

Commuter Rail

Regional rail, or commuter rail, runs on trackage often shared with intercity rail and freight trains. They typically provide rail service between a central business district and suburbs or other locations that draw large numbers of people on a daily basis. Commuter rail trains are typically built to higher standards, as they run at higher speeds are at risk of more severe crashes. This distinguishes commuter rail from interurbans, which use light-rail vehicles on tracks through lower density areas. The development of commuter rail services has become popular today, with the increased public awareness of congestion, dependence on fossil fuels, and other environmental issues, as well as the rising costs of owning and operating automobiles.

Rail Runner - Albuquerque, NM

Commuter Rail is the rail transit system that Metro Jacksonville encourages JTA to investigate, as it tends to be cheaper than light and heavy rail systems.

Editors Note: Several corrections were made to this article after initial publication.



April 12, 2007, 01:33:09 PM
I can't wait for the JTA to realize the skyway's full potential and invest in the necessary extensions to make it viable.  Link it with a commuter rail system and the proposed transportation hub and watch the people flock to it.


April 12, 2007, 06:06:05 PM
If Jason's idea of expanding the Skyway is to be viable, it needs to be more reliable & timely.  Often, from the Burrito Gallery it takes less time to walk to my office at the Southbank, across the river, than it does to ride the Skyway...  And, many people (myself included) have been "stuck" on it for at least 15-20 minutes mid-route.

It's not a reliable option now - even at $0.35.


April 12, 2007, 08:11:29 PM
This is the first time I have seen a report on this web that has several large errors.

1. Streetcars and Historic Trolleys: You state they almost always operate in the street, this is simply no longer true. These vehicles are Steel Wheel on Steel Rail technology which means they operate on Railroad Track, anywhere the tracks are bulit IE: Street, Curb, Median, Private RofW or a railroad without active freight operations.  Today these are called Ultra-Light-Rail and Heritage Streetcars. Data:Light Rail Now

2. Interurbans, were not and never have been "Streetcars or Trolleys", they were railroad size electric passenger and freight operations usually centered around a central City. The Oklahoma Railway  and Texas Electric Railroad  for example operated over 100 miles of trackage each. The ORY from OKC: reaching Guthrie OK, El Reno OK and Norman OK. The TERR from Dallas reaching Waco, Denton and FT. Worth. Modern heavy LRT applications have more in comon with Interurbans then with Heritage Rail, in fact Portlands MAX line to Gresham is over the trackage of the old Portland Traction Company. The Pacific Electric Railroad operated over 1,200 miles of freight and passenger service in the Los Angeles basin.
Source: Books: When Oklahoma Took the Trolley, The Texas Electric Railroad and Ride the Big Red Cars

3. Vancouvers SKYTRAIN is NOTHING like Jacksonvilles Skyway except for elevation and name. SKYTRAIN is a true rail car on steel rails. It is called Medium-Rail-Transit as it provides very close headways. Vehicle ride quality is considered equal to Portlands MAX LRT and while it´s individual car capacity is lower.

4. FRA Compliant Light Rail Vehicles can and do operate over freight railroad trackage. As long as there is a clear seperation of track occupancy times. The new proposed FRA/FTA policy: "It basically states that shared-track operation that temporally separates FRA-compliant and non-compliant rolling stock may be permissible, but is subject to FRA waiver application and approval. If the rail transit tracks are connected to the 'general railroad system' and the transit trains and railroad trains operate on the same tracks but in completely separate time windows, transit operators must apply for a waiver. It's not clear if San Diego and Baltimore-now operating temporally-separated joint use-would be grandfathered without waivers."  FRA data Railway Age Magazine (new)

5. Commuter Rail is a variation of a Standard FRA compliant rail passenger car, not unlike Amtrak. NTSB Data for 2006 shows railroad collisions are down 40.9% and derailments down 15.5%. NTSB data for 2003 shows Airlines had 2.25 deaths per 100 million passengers, Rail had 2.50 deaths per 100 million, Transit .33 per 100 million, Automobiles 1.48 per 100 million. Broken down differently in 2000, the same figures are Bus 2.4 per 100 million, LRT 1.0 per 100 million and rail .8 per 100 million.  Total deaths in 2004 equaled 380 Airline, 14 Commuter Flight, 63 Air Taxi, 636 General Aviation, 22,505 Automobile, 2,161 motorcycle, 9,932 Lt Trucks, 621 Over-Road trucks, 21 Bus, 1 monorail, 87 commuter rail, Heavy Rail 80, and 30 LRT.




April 12, 2007, 10:13:23 PM
Robert, you are correct about the Vancouver SkyTrain. Sources were incorrect on that topic.

Regarding all of the other details: This article was published for the benefit of several JTA and city officials that are confused about the different types of rail, and because of this, it was kept as short and simple as possible.

A more extensive version of this article is available here:
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