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What is a Light Railway?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2017
    Conjecture Corporation
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A light railway is a train system built primarily for use in and around urban areas. Although usually somewhat slower and smaller than traditional trains, a light railway can run through main streets and heavy traffic corridors, allowing riders greater accessibility to stops and destinations. A light railway can provide a fairly safe and efficient form of mass transportation, and some experts consider them an environmentally friendly alternative to buses and car transportation.

Although a small network compared to the vast railways of Europe, many major American cities feature at least one light railway. Many go by different names, such as rapid transit, metro, and municipal transit lines. Many light railways in the US link urban areas to suburb or rural stations, serving primarily as a commuter device. Some also offer extensive connections with other mass transportation lines, such as subways and buses.

The oldest light railway in the United States is the Boston area Green Line. Established in the 1890s, this combination light rail and streetcar line operates through busy streets and manufactured tunnels, and is also the nation's most popular and well-used light railway. Experts estimate that more than 200,000 rides occur on every weekday.

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On the West Coast, light railways have been viewed with more trepidation and skepticism, particularly in the car-heavy state of California. As traffic congestion continues to rise with growing population, citizens have become more open minded and friendly toward mass transportation solutions. Currently, San Francisco's venerable Muni railway boasts the highest ridership on the west coast, although Los Angeles' metro system has gained considerable popularity since the turn of the 21st century.

Critics of light railways suggest they are largely expensive interim solutions to larger problems. As many of the great American cities exceed their population capacity, traffic becomes an unceasing nightmare, and parking can be even worse. As light railways tend to run in or along busy streets, some complain about the traffic delays caused by the construction of light rails, and suggest that low ridership will never allow the railways to be practical or profitable.

Proponents suggest that low ridership is due to the lack of good light railway lines, and their recent development. Environmentalists also tend to support mass transport devices such as light railways, as they cut down on overall traffic, which in consequence lowers pollution levels by having fewer cars and shorter traffic jams. Light railways cannot be expected to solve all the traffic problems of majorly overgrown cities, but they can do their part to provide better alternatives to sitting in a car all day.

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