What is Light Rail Transportation?

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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Light rail transportation is a type of rail system that often uses existing road right of way and light rail cars that run either as single units, or connected in pairs. In some ways, the cars are very similar to streetcars popularized during the early part of the 20th century. Light rail transportation is faster than traditional streetcars, and generally offers a higher passenger capacity. Its power source is often electricity, provided to the cars by overhead lines.

Most light rail projects currently run along major highway systems. This provides some relief from traffic congestion in larger cities. It should be noted, however, that light rail transit systems are credited for not only relieving traffic bottlenecks, but also being a more environmentally friendly form of travel. Many cities are now considering projects that would either add light rail transportation for the first time, or add to existing lines.

In addition to using road right of way, light rail systems can be put in other places as well. Their ability to use subway tunnels or elevated train lines for all or part of a route gives more options to traffic engineers. This versatility means they are able to get places many other modes of transportation cannot, by utilizing both roads and existing rail lines.


The majority of light rail transportation systems run on a fixed loop route. Some routes may be as small as a simple circuit of a downtown area, allowing those parking on the fringes of the downtown area to quickly move into the city. Other routes may run from a major downtown or work area to locations in the suburbs. In cities with more extensive networks, lines may connect or cross each other, offering the chance for travelers to transfer, similar to what is done on a subway or city bus system.

The power source for a light rail transportation system is often a network of electrical lines running just slightly above the top of the cars. The use of electricity means no harmful emissions are produced by the system. Therefore, many see this is a cleaner way of traveling. Those not using this method may instead use personal automobiles, which burn fossil fuels, and often produce harmful emissions.

Despite the advantages of light rail transportation, some communities have resisted efforts for new projects in their areas. Many have complained about the expense necessary to install light rail infrastructure, much of which is often paid for by local taxpayers. Others wonder if the usage will warrant the project, and complain about the potential traffic lanes it could take up. If the system uses electricity from coal-fired electrical power plants, some say the environmental benefits are over-rated.



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