Tram, Streetcar, LRT – Why The Confusion?

The big problem with light rail is that there are so many definitions that the public get confused.

In Metro Vancouver, unscrupulous politicians, planners, and academics deliberately confuse light rail and what is called a streetcar.

The article included is now seven years old or seven years and somewhat out of date, as what we call modern light rail transit is constantly evolving and reinventing itself.

In the 1980’s light rail vehicles (LRV’s) were large articulated cars operating on dedicated rights-of-ways, while surviving streetcar or tram lines mainly used non articulated cars, such as PCC cars operating on-street, in mixed traffic with little or no signal priority. In Europe many non-articulated trams hauled trailers. Indeed articulated trams were a rarity.

But, that was then.

Today, most on-street tram lines use articulated cars, some being larger than LRV’s. Budapest’s 56 metre long, CAF Urbos trams, nicknamed “Caterpillars” are 15 metres longer than the 41 metre long electric multiple units used on the Canada Line.

A budapest "Caterpillar".

A Budapest “Caterpillar”.

Today the distinction between a modern tramway or streetcar line is blurred, with many of today’s tramways having the characteristics of both. The advent of TramTrain (a modern tram that can operate on main line railways), has further blurred the definition.

TramTrain in Germany. Is it a tram or LRT or a railway train? No, it is all three!

TramTrain in Germany. Is it a tram or LRT or a railway train? No, it is all three!

The lack of any one definition for LRT has lead many unscrupulous politicians, especially in North America to build hugely expensive light-metro and call them light rail. Seattle and Ottawa come to mind.

The integral part of light rail is that it operates on a dedicated right of way, with priority signalling at intersections or important junctions, thus giving the tram operating characteristics of that of light and heavy rail metros.

The lawned R-o-W gives the tramway a park like atmosphere, yet retaining an almost metro like operation.

The lawned R-o-W gives the tramway a park like atmosphere, yet retaining an almost metro like operation.

A dedicated R-o-W can be as simple as dedicated lanes on a road or street or as complex as a lawned reservation. Once the tram operates on a grade separated R-o-W, either on a viaduct or subway it becomes a light metro.

A simple on-street reservation in Valencia.

A simple on-street reservation in Valencia.

In Europe the term LRT is not used and for good reason because only one style of vehicle is used, the tram or die strassbahn in Germany; le tram in France; el tramvia in Spain; il tram in Italy; tram in the Netherlands and so on.

The inherent flexibility of today’s tram enables it to operate as a streetcar, operating on-street; as light rail, on a dedicated right of way; as a metro on viaduct or in a subway; as a commuter train; and can even carry freight, operating on the mainline, all on one tram route.

No other transit mode in use today has such flexibility in operation, which is why the modern tram/LRT is the first choice of knowledgeable transit planners around the world.


A freight carrying tram that was in use in Dresden, Germany.

A freight carrying tram that was in use in Dresden, Germany.

How to tell the difference between streetcars and light rail

TransitBy Dan Malouff (Board of Directors, Editorial Board) January 13, 2015 56


There is much confusion over what separates streetcars from light rail. That’s because there’s no single easy way to tell, and many systems are hybrids. To tell the difference, one has to simultaneously look at the tracks, train vehicles, and stations.

San Francisco’s Muni Metro runs both in a dedicated subway and on the street in mixed traffic.Is it a streetcar or light rail system? Photos by Matt Johnson and SFbay on Flickr.


It’s hard to tell the difference because streetcars and light rail are really the same technology, but with different operating characteristics that serve different types of trips.

For the rest of the story, please click the title.


3 Responses to “Tram, Streetcar, LRT – Why The Confusion?”
  1. Haveacow says:

    The whole issue is that, we love our simple to spout labels with equally simplistic, definitions. When they are not easy to define, we critic them. The problem comes down to transit planning in the first place, it is a political process, it always was, it always will be. Simple labels for things allows us to skip a step and go right to the main part of the process and debate, what should we do, how do we do it and how much will it cost?

    A well or easily defined label mostly stops the early and most frustrating part of the planning debate, defining what we are talking about in the first place and whether that is a good idea at all. The problem with simple labels is that they are usually, too simple. For example, both LRT and BRT are labels, that support a dizzyingly huge array of potential final public transport options. It provides more than one picture. For most people this adds complexity, for most people, especially during anything remotely political, complexity is bad, it requires you to think about difficult issues and problems. Anyone entering this transportation debate usually comes out shaking their heads at the huge number of final products (mental pictures) that these “simple” technical labels hide. This is where technical and political distrust is born!

    You said often Zwei, that politics shouldn’t be involved in this planning process, that experts should only be involved and it should be a technical process. First, get real, it was always political. Second, technical processes aren’t liked either, due to the fact that for them to be extensive enough to get to an answer, they have to be long and complex. Exactly what people don’t like. The growing lack of trust, in many political and technical processes comes from a lack of understanding in the basic political and technical language used by politicians and technical people. But also the complexity that both languages reveal when you do know what it means. People get frustrated at complexity and the slow, considered response it requires.

    Modern rapid transit vehicles and systems are complex (even when they don’t look like it). Modern rapid transit projects take longer and cost more than they use to because there’s more things involved and the stakes (political, financial, legal and others) are much much higher than they use to be.

    The “Skytrain” is a simple easy to understand label with an easy to understand picture in every Vancouverite’s mind’s eye. LRT has lots of pictures but nothing locals can grasp, yet. So, it’s easy to spout inaccuracies about it because there aren’t enough locals who know. Change the mind’s eye picture, of LRT and or the Skytrain and half your battle is already won.

    The reaction to complexity has produced, easily confused, impatient and angry people, especially when problems aren’t simple and easy to fix. It can even create problems where one doesn’t really exist. That is how Trump got elected in the US, angry rhetoric, spouting simplistic (often violent) answers to highly complex problems, he had no intention of solving in the first place. This intolerance of complexity and the debate it creates is one of the things that forces the planning process around rapid transit systems, to take longer and cost a whole lot more.

  2. zweisystem says:

    Of course Mr. Cow is correct, transit projects are political projects, masquerading as technical projects.

    The Expo Line was a Social Credit politcal project to get the services of the then famed Ontario Blue machine, to win the next election. All extensions to the Expo line were based on the social Credit three year election cycle.

    The Millennium Line was an NDP politcal projects when Bombardier induced the Premier Glen Clark and premier wannabee Joy McPhail with a fabrication plant to build the ART cars for massive sales overseas.

    The Canada line was a BC Liberal politcal project to show case P-3’s.

    The Evergreen line was a politcal project because it was the unbuilt portion of the original LRT planning, as the millennium line cost far more than was budgeted for.

    The Broadway subway is a politcal project because the City of Vancouver firmly believes subways make a city world class!

    The Expo line extension to Langley is a politcal project because civic politicians want a SkyTrain just like Vancouver.

    The big problem of course, is the taxpayer and the taxpayer being taxed out because politcal projects, like the NDP’s FastFerries, may become albatrosses at election time if things turn sour.

  3. Haveacow says:

    Line #3 in Toronto (The Scarborough RT, Toronto’s Mk1 Skytrain clone) still isn’t running in full operation yet, more than a week after the same storm that hit both Ottawa and Toronto ended.

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