Innovations in Transit: Light Rail Systems - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Innovations in Transit: Light Rail Systems

Many industry experts consider light rail transit to be the modern day streetcar.

Light rail is a hybrid of heavy rail and express bus service. Like the former, light rail has stations, a train-like exterior, can carry more passengers than a bus, and runs on a fixed guideway. It operates like an express bus service because it can run on exclusive rights-of-way or along streets. Its ability to operate in a variety of traffic settings makes light rail a very attractive option for urban and dense suburban settings.

Photo Courtesy of Michael Patrick


Compared to the $50-$250 million per mile cost of heavy rail, light rail costs only $20-$60 million per mile. Eliminating the heavy track, mandatory right-of-way, and third rail construction significantly reduces the price of a light rail system. Traveling at an estimated 20-60 mph, light rail systems can move an average of 20,000 people per hour, while cars move significantly less – only 2,000 cars per lane, per hour.

Across the country, there are 33 light rail systems in place, with several more in the planning phases. A light rail system inSeattle, for example, expects to bring in over 20,000 jobs by 2020 because of the connectivity the system will provide. The Seattle Times described the impacts of light rail as a way to recharge “sleepy business districts.” 

In 1991, Monterrey, Mexico opened the country’s first light rail system outside of Mexico City – the Metrorrey light rail network. The initial line connected the city east to west and ran on a combination of underground and elevated independent track.  Its success allowed city officials to expand the system an additional 11 miles to service the University of Monterrey and other major job corridors. By 2007, more than 66 million passengers were traveling along the light rail line.

To create a renewable energy source to power the system, Monterrey converts methane from its landfills into electricity. As this region begins to look for alternative ways to power our transportation infrastructure, Monterrey provides new sustainable approaches to help reduce gas emissions and improve the city’s waste management.

Not only can light rail help meet the need for today’s growing public transit demands, it also can be the catalyst for environmentally sound and energy-independent initiatives. The investment in light rail is significantly less than heavy rail and light rail systems can provide greater access and mobility for residents in traditionally underserved transit areas.


This article was featured in Talking Transit, MPC’s bi-weekly e-newsletter. To receive the newsletter, email with ‘Subscribe’ in the subject line.

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