Streetcars and LRT, A Quick Primer

First published in the RftV blog in 2011, it is still pertinent today.

Updated to August 2014.

The silly season continues in the Vancouver region, with TransLink desperately trying to persuade regional mayors to levy more taxes to mainly pay for the Evergreen SkyTrain light-metro line and a SkyTrain subway under Broadway.

The following is a quick primer on streetcars, LRT and SkyTrain.

Question: What is the difference between LRT and a Streetcar or tram?

Answer: Today the difference between LRT and a streetcar/tram is the quality of rights-of-way, where a streetcar operates on-street in mixed traffic, light rail operates on a reserved rights-of-way (R-O-W), such a boulevard or a streetcar/tram only HOV lane on-street, which gives LRT an unimpeded transit route and faster commercial speeds. Today, there is little difference between a tram/streetcar and light rail vehicle except for motor size.

Q: What is SkyTrain?

A: SkyTrain is a proprietary unconventional light-metro system system first marketed by the Urban Transit Development Corporation of Ontario, which is now marketed by Bombardier Inc. , with one half of the patents held by SNC Lavalin. SkyTrain is considered an unconventional railway because it is powered by Linear Induction Motors and is incompatible to operate with any other transit system, save itself. The Canada Line metro and SkyTrain are incompatible in operation. There are only 7 “SkyTrain” type systems in operation around the world, despite being first marketed in the late 1970′s and the number will be reduced to 6 when the TTC will soon replace the Scarborough RT, with either LRT or a subway.

Q: What is light metro?

A: Light-metro was originally supposed to bridge the gap of what old streetcars could carry and what ridership would justify a heavy-rail metro. Modern LRT has made light-metro almost obsolete by bridging the bus – metro gap at a far cheaper cost. Automatic (driverless) light-metros, with its higher construction and operating costs just can’t compete against modern LRT.

Q: Is SkyTrain cheaper to operate than LRT?

A: No, SkyTrain costs about 40% to 60% more to operate than comparable LRT operations. Also the provincial government subsidies SkyTrain at about $250 million annually.

Q: How fast can LRT operate?

A: Generally speaking, LRT can operate as fast as its R-O-W will permit. Streetcars or trams, with stops every 300 to 5oo metres generally have smaller motors giving maximum speeds of 60 to 70 kph, while LRT has larger motors, giving speeds of 80 to 110 kph.

Q; TransLink claims that Skytrain is faster than LRT?

A: SkyTrain seems to be faster than LRT because TransLink has designed SkyTrain to be faster by having fewer stations per route km. Fewer station on a transit route attracts fewer customers.

Q: How much does LRT cost to build?

A: Light rail can be built as cheaply as $5 to $7 million/km using TramTrain; $15 to $25 million/km. for a streetcar; $20 million/km + for light rail. TransLink has always gold-plated light rail with all sorts of added costs to drive up the cost of construction to be as close to Skytrain it can.

Q: What is the capacity of a light rail vehicle (LRV)?

A: Today, the capacity of a transit vehicle in North America is put at 5 persons per metre length of vehicle. In the past a transit vehicles capacity was put at all seats filled and 4 persons per metre/sq., but this calculation doesn’t address the fact that in North America people are bigger, that there is a constant movement of people entering and exiting the vehicle and that most customers demand seats.

Q: What is the capacity of LRT and/or streetcar line?

A: The capacity of a tram/streetcar line is dependent on vehicle size and headways. In Karlsruhe Germany, the main tram route through the city was seeing peak hour capacities in excess of 35,000 persons per hour per direction, which is 5,000 more than the maximum theoretical capacity of SkyTrain! The line is now being relocated in a subway, but it does show the threshold that demands a subway today.

Q: What is TramTrain?

A: TramTrain is a tram/LRT vehicle that has the ability to both operate on mainline railways or streetcar track. Since being introduced in 1994, there are now 3 times as many TramsTrains in service that SkyTrain type systems.

Q: What is BRT?

A: BRT or bus rapid transit is a bus that operated on its own guideway or bus way, either guided or not. True BRT costs about 30% less to build than modern LRT, yet has not demonstrated any real advantage over LRT. BRT lines mainly seem the political way of tarting up express bus service and trying to sell it to the public as rapid transit. in most cases, the public are not fooled.

A reserved rights-of-way enables LRT to obtain commercial speeds of that of a metro.


One Response to “Streetcars and LRT, A Quick Primer”
  1. NungGuanze says:

    I actually have heard this was a psloibse plan. Surrey would invest in its own transit expansion. Since living next to the most greedy city in the west isn’t helping.Vancouver is the LA of Canada its thinks its all about itself.

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