Light Rail Transit, LRT or Tram-Train

Tram and train used to be two entirely different public transport systems. Tram served shorter (read: urban) distances. Train served longer (read: regional) distances. But the difference between city and region has disappeared in much of Europe. The difference between tram and regional rail is blurring as well. A new generation of light rail transit vehicles can play the role of both tram and train. By doing so LRT offers an important breakthrough in the thinking on sustainable urban and regional mobility.

Light Rail Transit, LRT or Tram-Train

Tram-train | FranAi??ais
Regiotram | Deutsch
Light Rail | Nederlands

Ai?? From the Connected Cities web site:

The Karlsruhe model


Karlsruhe’s Stadtbahn

The German city of Karlsruhe is where it all began. In the early nineties the municipal public transport authority or KVV managed to claim the right to use a number of regional rail lines, owned by the state. The use of these regional lines enabled the rapid expansion of the local light rail network. By that time such a move was unheard of. Transport theory told that tram and train systems were incompatible. Vehicles could not cross over from the one to the other network. It were the users of these systems that had to bridge the gap. But transferring between systems meant walking, waiting and too often loosing connections. The Karlsruhe model showed that technical differences and differences in management could be overcome. It also showed that combining the two networks in one operation leads to a significant increase of its use.

The regional tram

Some have interpreted the ‘Karlsruhe Model‘ mainly as a technical advance since the Karlsruhe Stadtbahn vehicles were adjusted to both low and high voltage systems as it combined both light and heavy rail. Some saw in the Karlsruhe example evidence that an above ground light-rail system could be a preferable alternative over an underground metro or S-Bahn. But its true significance is that Karlsruhe showed there is a regional future for the tram. The ‘Karlsruhe model’ showed that a tram can successfully operate over far greater distances than the 5-10 kilometre that most textbooks considered to be the maximum.


So, LRT started with a light rail vehicle called Stadtbahn in the German city of Karlsruhe. The Stadtbahn started to use parts of the national rail infrastructure to expand its reach. It was a small revolution: a municipal transport authority being allowed to use national infrastructure. It was a clear innovation also that a light rail vehicle could operate using both alternating current and direct current, depending on the part of network it used. Since then the Karlsruhe model has resulted in new examples of LRT. In some of these cases the ownership of the national infrastructure was transferred to the municipal or regional transport authority. This allowed bypassing the need for technical or management solutions. In other cases the LRT vehicle combined the use of diesel fuel with the use of direct current. Even combinations between regional rail and metro also emerged.


Dutch experts refer to these LRT systems as light rail or light train. Germans call it regiotram. And the French use the term tram-train. Sometimes these systems are named after the region where they operate: SaarBahn, RijnGouweLijn or RandstadRail. Three major producers of rail vehicles supply this growing market with targeted products. Bombardier developed the FLEXITY Link. Alstom delivers the Regio CITADIS. Siemens produces the AVANTO, in the US marketed as S70. These vehicles have in common:

  • a modern tram-like look
  • a low floor providing easy access
  • a cruising speed slightly above 100 km/h


Siemens AVANTO in the Paris region


In the end it doesn’t matter how you call LRT. More important is what it does. LRT shows there is a regional future for the tram. Or, arriving from the opposite direction: LRT shows there is an urban future for regional rail. LRT means that existing tram or regional rail infrastructure can be used much more efficient if only we put aside the idea that tram is a tram and a train is a train. Tram and train can merge into one seamless public transport system. It can bridge distances up to 60 kilometre depending how much tram or how much train LRT combines. A LRT line that is 95% train and 5% tram reaches further than a line that is 50% train and 50% tram. So much should be clear.


LRT operates currently in several European and American cities:

The best of two worlds

Cities and regions struggling to find suitable mobility solutions might want to look at the LRT-option, especially when these cities or regions have already one or more urban tram or regional rail lines. LRT combines the best of two worlds. Let’s take full advantage of it.


2 Responses to “Light Rail Transit, LRT or Tram-Train”
  1. Evil Eye says:

    It is so sad to see BC at the bottom of the barrel, with their SkyTrain/metro planning, when the rest of the world is light years ahead of us.

  2. the Ragnore brothers says:

    Unfortunately the BC government & TransLink are very Vancouver focused, SkyTrain suits their model for the urban plan and the rest of the Province has to make do with the bus or more normally the car.
    The Candadian public are judged as prefering to drive everywhere, which suits the politicians policies for not investing in fixed rail transport.
    The Liberals views on the Environment are well known as this link to the Sun shows:
    Europe, many Asian countries & the US have seen the POSITIVE ADVANTAGES that Light Rail as well as Metro systems in denser populations brings to their communities in the form of ECONONOMIC REGEGENERATION.