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Darmstadt tram
Darmstadt tram
[Photo: C. J. Wansbeek]


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Rapid Streetcar:
Rescaling Design and Cost for More Affordable Light Rail Transit

Lyndon Henry · June 2004/February 2007

NOTE: The Rapid Streetcar concept has been attracting greater attention within North America's public transit industry, and, most recently, was highlighted as a promising urban transit approach in Street Smart – Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century, the new book published last year (2006) by Reconnecting America. A light rail design innovation launched several years ago by Lyndon Henry, a professional transportation planner, data analyst for a major transit agency, and technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, the Rapid Streetcar concept was initially formalized in a paper presented to the annual Rail Transit Conference of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), held in Miami, Florida in June 2004. This article is a slightly revised, expanded, and annotated version of that paper. Reference numbers in [brackets] refer to reference materials cited at the end of the paper. The original document is also contained in the conference proceedings, available in a CD-ROM from APTA.

The relentless escalation of design features, infrastructural requirements, and project costs for new-start light rail transit (LRT) systems has been a matter of increasing concern to transportation professionals and decision-makers pursuing viable public transport options for North American cities. In a paper titled "Are We Pricing Light Rail Transit Systems Out of Range?" presented to the 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit in Dallas, Texas in November 2000, Richard D. Pilgrim of URS/BRW, Inc. asked that very question, pointing out that:

Capital costs for light rail transit (LRT) systems are showing a wide range of variability as well as rapid increases. System planners are now using planning estimates for costs that often exceed $22 to $28 million/km ($35 to $45 million/mi) for new LRT lines. With costs at these levels, many agencies are faced with a significant problem to identify adequate sources of funds early in the planning process. An especially difficult problem is encountered in pre-New Start cities, where study data from other cities is used to estimate costs during planning studies.[1]

Pilgrim went on to caution that "Conclusions of some of those studies may result in LRT alternatives being set aside because expected costs appear to be too high."

In that same conference, Kenneth G. Sislak of Wilbur Smith Associates pointed out that the increasingly higher cost of LRT projects was making it increasingly difficult for some smaller cities, with lighter projected ridership volumes, to justify LRT.[2] in "Bus Rapid Transit as a Substitute for Light Rail Transit: A Tale of Two Cities", Sislak noted that

the cost-effectiveness of constructing expensive new start LRT lines is being questioned by local officials in many smaller cities now engaged in studying the feasibility of such investments. The costs of constructing LRT have spiraled upward, whereas estimated levels of future transit system ridership in smaller cities are relatively low compared to larger cities. Can public transportation services in smaller cities be dramatically improved without the extraordinary capital expenditures required of LRT system construction? Bus rapid transit (BRT) may be a rational and cost-effective way to implement significant transit improvements in smaller cities, and it may cost 40 to 70 percent less than current LRT construction estimates.

Rapid Streetcar concept

An innovative approach to the planning of new LRT systems – the Rapid Streetcar concept – may offer some potential for reducing LRT system project costs, while retaining operational cost efficiencies. This concept draws upon already proven, existing LRT and streetcar (tramway) practices and technology currently used in many European cities and in North American systems such as those now operating in Portland, Tacoma, and New Orleans.

In some respects, Rapid Streetcar is a reversion to the original roots of the LRT concept – such as what, for example, the LRT pioneer Stewart F. Taylor proposed in his landmark article "The Rapid Tramway: A Feasible Solution to the Urban Transportation Problem", published in Traffic Quarterly in 1970.[3] Taylor was particularly interested in northern European streetcar transformations and developments, and was convinced that these held substantial promise for urban areas in North America.

This same interest in European streetcar evolution had also been exhibited by H. Dean Quinby about eight years earlier.[4] in "Major Urban Corridor Facilities: A New Concept", also published in Traffic Quarterly, Quinby focused on what he perceived as a basically new form of transit evolving in a number of West German, Swiss, Belgian, Netherlands, and Swedish cities – what Gregory L. Thompson has described as the efforts of transit agencies in these cities "to upgrade their historic streetcar systems during the post World War II period …."[5]

Thompson notes that rebuilding had been taking different forms in the various northern European cities, but Quinby

discerned two attributes common to most of the rebuilding efforts that together constituted … the emergence of a new transit concept. One was capacity enhancement with emphasis on larger cars, operation of cars in trains, and much greater door capacity with new fare systems to make use of that capacity. The result was that for the first time surface transit could engorge and disgorge large volumes of passengers at intermediate stops quickly. The other was speed enhancement, achieved through traffic engineering and light infrastructure investments, with short applications of heavy infrastructure investment in critical areas.

Melbourne tram In the Rapid Streetcar concept, a refocus on modern streetcar technology appears to have some potential for achieving the original aims of these researchers in terms of providing predominantly surface-routed rail service at modest cost. Electric streetcar or tram-type rail vehicles, rather than being consigned solely in street configurations to relatively slow circulator, shuttle, or feeder-type services, would be deployed in some types of alignments and operating practices currently envisioned for higher-level, interurban-type light rail vehicles (i.e., the current standard). Streetcars operating up to 40-45 mph (65-75 kph) in reserved lanes, median reservations, or exclusive rights-of-way, as well as in mixed traffic, could provide modestly faster service attractive to shorter-distance commuters, while rendering operational cost savings (compared with bus service) through multiple-unit (MU) entrainment of cars or extended articulations. Somewhat less costly infrastructure and vehicles, and various cost-saving techniques, have the potential of lowering system costs and improving affordability of LRT in lower-traffic corridors, while retaining many of the advantages of rail transit that have proven attractive to the public. A cursory, preliminary analysis suggests that Rapid Streetcar might be a viable modal alternative to meet corridor-type travel needs for new starts in smaller, medium-sized, and/or lower-density urban areas.
[Photo of Melbourne tramway: John Wayman]

LRT streetcars typically have less total capacity and lower speeds than larger, more powerful light rail vehicles (LRVs) designed for faster interurban/suburban (mainly suburbs-to-CBD) services. However, as discussed below, for some fixed-guideway applications, appreciably higher speeds are not absolutely essential.

Streetcar rolling stock

Most designs for LRT systems have been predicated on the assumption that the service must compete with private motor vehicles travelling at freeway speeds – thus, LRVs capable of achieving speeds in the range of 55-70 mph have been assumed. For longer-distance routes, catering to longer trip lengths, this is probably a valid assumption. However, starter systems serving lighter-traffic corridors, especially in smaller cities, may not require such high speeds to attract ridership adequate to meet cost-effectiveness criteria.

This is especially true when one realizes that many alignments of new LRT systems are increasingly placed in public thoroughfare rights-of-way. For example:

· Portland – over 28%
· Sacramento – nearly 23%
· San Jose – nearly 56%
· Dallas – over 20%
· Salt Lake City – nearly 19%
· Tacoma – 100%
· Houston – 100%
· Minneapolis – nearly 22%
· Phoenix (planned) – over 95%
· Seattle (planned) – over 32%

(See "Light Rail Use of Surface Streets and Arterials – On the increase?" Light Rail Now website:

In many cases, where operations are in the right-of-way of streets or major arterials, speeds higher than 40-45 mph (65-75 kph) are inappropriate (or illegal). Furthermore, projected ridership volumes may not require vehicular capacities comparable to those of the heavier system model typical of most recent previous major LRT installations (e.g., Dallas, Salt Lake City, Houston, Minneapolis). This would allow planners to take advantage of smaller, slower, and generally less costly streetcar rolling stock

An increasing variety of rolling stock in this category is becoming available. Some examples can be viewed, for example, in the LRT: LRV Options for Medium-Capacity Applications section of the Light Rail Now! website at:

It should be clear that, for streetcar development, LRT planners are finding a growing array of options available to them. In the U.S.A., two interesting extremes – modern and "historic" – are represented by the inekon/Skoda streetcar for Portland and Tacoma, built in the Czech Republic, and the 21st-century version of the Perley Thomas traditional streetcar being built by New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in partnership with Brookville Equipment Corp. A cursory examination of these vehicles gives an idea of typical rolling stock choices that could be suitable for a Rapid Streetcar installation.

blue star inekon/Skoda modern-style streetcar

· Size and appearance: Length 20.1 m (66 ft), width 2.46 m (8 ft 1 in), double-articulated body with modern styling
· Capacity: 29 seats with up to 127 standees (6/m2)
· Doors: 3 per side
· ADA accessibility: One middle door lift per side
· Propulsion: Asynchronous motors, four X 85 kW in two trucks
· Maximum gradient: 9%
· Maximum speed: 70 kph (43 mph) design; 50 kph (31 mph) governed
· Acceleration: Average 1.3 m/s/s (3.0 mph/s)
· Minimum turning radius: 18 m (60 ft)

Portland streetcar Figure 1. Skoda/inekon streetcar in Portland.
[Photo: L. Henry]

This vehicle (see Figure 1) costs substantially less than a larger, "standard" LRV. As of February 2003, the cost for 7 cars was [US] $14,630,977. In 2004 dollars, the unit cost would be about $2.2 million each. This is significantly lower than the $3.5-4.0 million per unit price common for larger LRVs – albeit, of course, for less passenger capacity per car. [informational packet distributed by Portland Streetcar Project at "Portland Poster Session", 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, Experience, Economics & Evolution – From Starter Lines To Growing Systems, Portland, Oregon, 16-18 November 2003.]

blue star New Orleans RTA/Brookville streetcar

· Size and appearance: Length 47 ft 6 1/4 in, width 8 ft 5 3/4 in, with rigid-body "historic" styling for compatibility with existing fleet of original Perley Thomas cars; however, car can be modified in dimensions and fitted with modern-styled body
· Capacity: 40 seats with up to 70 standees (crush) or 32 (average)
· Doors: 3 per side
· ADA accessibility: One middle door lift per side
· Propulsion: Four 60 hp DC electric motors in two PCC-type articulated trucks with regenerative braking; AC motors an option
· Antilock braking with automatic sand drop
· Maximum speed: computer-limited to 35 mph (45 mph for Riverfront line); higher speed possible
· Acceleration: Average 2.5 mph/s (computer selected)
· Minimum turning radius: 28 ft in yard, 50 ft in service

PT2000 streetcar Figure 2. New Orleans RTA/Brookville streetcar at carbarn.
[Photo: L. Henry]

This car (see Figure 2) is also less costly than a more commonly deployed LRV, but for less capacity and somewhat lower performance. The marginal cost per RTA/Brookville streetcar is stated as $1.2 million in both the Canal St. Line Final Environmental impact Statement (EIS) and the Desire Line Draft EIS. In terms of actual costs (2004), the Canal streetcars are costing approximately $1.5 million each for 24 vehicles. One should also note that the RTA/Brookville car is being built to exceptional standards of durability and longevity. (information from Elmer von Dullen, Superintendent of Vehicle Assembly, RTA, September 2003.)

[NOTE: Almost all of New Orleans' RTA/Brookville streetcars were heavily damaged as a result of flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a major rehabilitation program is currently in progress.]

It can be seen that, while each vehicle is somewhat smaller than a "standard" LRV (such as has been deployed in most recent North American new starts), capacity is still substantial compared with even an articulated bus. Furthermore, either streetcar option is capable of MU operation. Therefore, capacity could be increased with no increase in platform labor cost.

What this means is that lighter-traffic corridors and smaller cities have an option for lower-cost, lighter-capacity, somewhat slower cars which offer higher capacity than buses and, under stop-and-go conditions, somewhat better performance.

Rescaling system design

Another aspect of the Rapid Transit concept is a rescaling or reframing of traditional notions of the performance expectations and investment magnitude of LRT. in some recent planning studies, designing for the "worst case scenario" seems to have become a norm. Furthermore, in terms of an array of amenities and attractive features, the incorporation of "maybe nice to have" in some cases seems to have become "absolutely must have". There is also a kind of "snowball" effect, alluded to by Richard Pilgrim's observation, quoted above, that "An especially difficult problem is encountered in pre-New Start cities, where study data from other cities is used to estimate costs during planning studies." in other words, any higher costs incurred in previous LRT projects often tend to become incorporated in the basis for estimating costs for the next project.

An example of this is what appears to be the almost total elimination of consideration of single-tracking (or gantlet-tracking) as an option in system design to attenuate cost in many planning studies (such as Alternative Analyses and DEIS studies). Many systems-level designers typically seem to assume fully double-tracked starter systems, with fullsize, "interurban"-style LRVs, high-level performance expectations, and other major features.

The use of features such as single-tracking and gantlet-tracking – certainly, operational compromises – in appropriate situations undoubtedly was an important factor helping hold down the initial startup costs of earlier "bare bones" new LRT starts in the U.S.A., such as those San Diego and Sacramento. Baltimore and Denver likewise incorporated single-tracking segments in their "starter system" designs. All of these new-start projects had severe budget constraints, but also a "get the job done" attitude which focused on a "foot in the door" approach to establishing rail transit, at least at a very basic level of service.

Portland streetcar Another consideration for in-street alignments is curbside vs. street-center (or median) operation. With a few exceptions, planners have tended to avoid curbside running, mainly because of problems with right-turning traffic and driveway conflicts. However, curbside routing has cost-saving advantages – particularly the ability to use sidewalks as passenger waiting and boarding areas, and elimination of costly traffic-control and pedestrian-safety techniques associated with station platforms located in the center of streets. Curbside routing is working well in such LRT installations as Denver and Portland (both the MAX "interurban" LRT and the Portland Streetcar), and should be considered more seriously for Rapid Streetcar projects.
[Photo of Portland Streetcar curbside alignment: Darrell Clarke]

A "minimalist" approach to project scope is also useful. LRT transportation projects seem to inspire ancillary urban-redevelopment or urban-rehabilitation projects that often tend to become merged with the LRT project, raising its ostensible cost. Certainly, it is laudable that LRT tends to stimulate such additional efforts for community improvement. But planners and decisionmakers must examine whether such projects are truly integral with and essential to the mobility improvements intended by the transit project.

As much as possible, construction methods and practices which have significant potential for lowering costs should be considered. For example, in the case of the Portland Streetcar, the shallow-slab construction method (see Figure 3) proved to be a major cost-saving technique for in-street construction. instead of digging three and four feet deep, disrupting utilities, and rebuilding much of the street in the process, builders use a quick "cut and cover" European-style track system that goes down between 12 and 18 inches and is 6 to 7 feet wide. A pad is laid down, followed by a light layer of gravel, and then a special dual rebar side frame is laid into this shallow trench.

Construction Figure 3. Shallow slab construction.
[Photo: L. Henry]

Each running rail is encased in a "rubber extrusion rail boot" to provide electrical isolation as a corrosion control measure. This covers the rail entirely wherever there is ground contact, and is then attached to the specially shaped rebar frame with dielectric fasteners. The boot also provides some basic level of noise/vibration attenuation. The boot-encased rails are held only by the concrete between anchor plate assemblies, which are placed at 3.0-meter intervals on straight track and broad curves, or at 1.5-meter intervals on curves sharper than 300 meters in radius. The fastener assemblies remain separated from the running rails by the rubber boots to maintain electrical isolation of the rails. There are no gauge bars.

A major advantage is the minimization of subsurface utilities relocation. Instead, a kind of "bridge" (the slab, carrying the guidance rails) is installed over utilities. This enables utilities workers to make an adjacent excavation, as necessary, to access understreet utilities for repairs or other servicing.

Slab depths are 300 mm (about 12 in) for the RI 52 girder rail used on streetcar construction for cars weighing about 30 tons empty, and 360 mm (14 inches) for RI 59 girder rail used where streetcar and "interurban" tracks cross. Prudent planning would suggest designing and building for future use of heavier, interurban-type vehicles, since these might ultimately be needed if the original system is successful. It's far more difficult to upgrade underdesigned trackage than to upgrade stations and procure larger vehicles. To accommodate the possibility of heavier, "interurban"-style LRT in the future, a slab depth of 18 inches should be sufficient.

Another benefit is faster installation time. Depending on location, shallow-slab track has been installed in lengths from as short as 3 blocks up to 6 blocks at a time. The work duration is from 2 to 3 weeks per section. The contrast with conventional, "heavier" construction is striking. in Portland, for example, Portland Streetcar construction in the city's downtown was able to avoid substantial utility relocation and building-to-building reconstruction. This enabled in-street streetcar installation to proceed relatively quickly and with minimal disruption.

Cost savings were dramatic. Portland streetcar track installation costs were found to be one-half to one-third those of the usual, deep-excavation, heavier method of construction. (Technical and cost information from discussions with representatives of LTK Engineering, 2000, and "Faster, Cheaper Construction for Austin's Light Rail System?" Light Rail Progress (fact sheet), 7 June 2000.)

For a smaller city, with lower ridership expectancies and greater budget limitations, as well as lighter-traffic corridors in major cities (even those already with some form of rail transit), some of these design and construction considerations may be useful. A budget-conscious, "bare-bones" design approach, centered on streetcar rather than heavier LRT technology, may represent a more cost-effective option for providing higher-quality service at reasonable cost. The Rapid Streetcar concept is intended to help facilitate a kind of reform in the whole approach to installing LRT – a downscaling, in effect, to provide additional options for different applications where appropriate.

Rapid Streetcar station design

In Europe, simpler LRT station or stop designs are widespread. LRT surface stations in a number of European cities, representing minimal design and cost while still providing a high degree of functionality, can be viewed, for example, in the LRT: Surface Stations section of the Light Rail Now! website at:

Some downscaling of station/stop design may also be useful in rendering more affordable, cost-effective LRT projects better scaled to the needs of smaller cities or lighter-traffic corridors. The concept involves rescaling many stations to become more like transit stops rather than elaborate structures or civic monuments.

blue star Station amenities

Greater consideration should be given to minimizing amenities such as passenger waiting shelters and station furniture. Instead of elaborate roofs over platforms, simple bus-stop-style waiting shelters may be adequate to meet the needs of the transit service and its passengers. And, while support of the local artistic community is a noble practice for any public agency, heavy investment in "station art" which drives heavier station design and diverts funds from more cost-effective mobility-related investments, is a pratice which merits thoughtful re-examination.

The stations for New Orleans' new Canal Line represent excellent examples of a minimalist approach. In Figure 4, a river-bound Canal car passes a simple car stop (station), with waiting shelter, on the opposite track (far right).

New Orleans streetcar Figure 4. New Orleans streetcar and simple station on Canal St.
[Photo: L. Henry]

blue star Onboard vs. station-located TVMs

Passenger-proof-of-purchase (PPOP) fare collection (also known as "self-service" or "honor system") has proven to be cost-effective in enabling passengers to board through multiple doors or all cars of a train. However, this method, widely used in Europe and now the standard for new LRT systems in North America, requires ticket vending machines or TVMs that are readily accessible to passengers. Traditionally, these have been located exclusively on station platforms.

TVM on Portland streetcar A case can be made for placing TVMs aboard LRVs (and streetcars) for user-friendliness and convenience to passengers. This could be done in addition to having on-platform TVMs. However, consideration should be given, in lower-traffic situations (to which the Rapid Streetcar concept is particularly applicable) to placing TVMs almost exclusively aboard the vehicles. In this scenario, station-located TVMs would be kept to a minimum, perhaps only at the busiest stations.
[Photo of TVM on Portland streetcar: L. Henry]

TVMs in stations invoke additional infrastructure to protect the machines from weather, and security measures. Placing them aboard vehicles would enable substantial downscaling of station design in most cases (although it is obvious that there is a cost tradeoff in having a TVM aboard every vehicle vs. having them at every station).

Onboard TVMs are used with success on the Portland Streetcar. in addition, they are widely used in major cities abroad. The following, while not an exhaustive list, indicates some of these cities:

· Berlin
· Düsseldorf
· Köln (Cologne)
· Munich
· Vienna
· Amsterdam
· Lisbon
· Melbourne

Evidently, the PPOP system with onboard TVMs works smoothly in virtually all deployments, in these and other cities of various sizes and levels of public transport traffic. (Author's personal experience. 1978-1985, and discussions with participants of the Eurotrams and LRTA [online] discussion lists, 2003-2004.)

blue star Boarding accessibility and ADA compliance

Station boarding platforms, especially in compact central areas, present a major issue of expense. Traditional, standard design of LRT stations includes a platform intended to accommodate the full length of the longest trains operated. Also, these platforms are typically built to the lowfloor standard of 350 mm, or about 13 3/4 in.

While certainly less than the high platforms intended for highfloor level boarding, this design still entails substantial investment. In addition to the cost of the platform itself, the approximately 14-in-high slab of concrete presents an obstacle to traffic and pedestrian movement. In addition, it invokes drainage problems, especially when it is incorporated into sidewalks.

There are possibilities for minimizing platform design for lowfloor boarding which could dramatically reduce the cost of providing stations, especially in central areas where design issues are most difficult and cost tends to be highest. First, the platform does not necessarily have to be built to a full 350-mm (c. 14") height.

Compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a critical consideration. According to Title 49 CFR Part 38, "ADA Accessibility Specifications for Transportation Vehicles Subpart D - LRVs". Para. 38.83(b)(8), "Platform Entrance Ramp": "The entrance ramp, or loading-edge barrier used as a ramp, shall not exceed a slope of 1:8 measured on level ground, for a maximum rise of 3 inches, and the transition from the station platform or roadway to ramp may be vertical without edge treatment up to 1/4 inch. Thresholds between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch high shall be beveled with a slope no greater than 1:2."

The use of movable bridgeplates between the car floor and the platform or sidewalk results in a situation where a platform or sidewalk only about 10.5-in (267-mm) is required. This is the method of access and ADA-compliance used in Portland, on both MAX LRT and streetcar systems. Bridgeplates deployed from the railcar doors provide a compliant 1:8 rise for 3" over a 24" length, up to the car floor.

Darmstadt tram Furthermore, while floor-level boarding is required for compliance with ADA, it is not necessarily required for all doors of all cars in a train. In Europe, many LRT tramway operations expect ambulatory passengers to board from street level, and this is possible in lowfloor cars, with a single step. With some provision for ADA-compliant level boarding, a street-boarding option for fully ambulatory passengers could be considered within the Rapid Streetcar concept.
[Photo of Darmstadt tram boarding passengers: C. J. Wansbeek]

In curbside alignments, such as in narrow inner-city streets, to minimize station or stop construction cost, consideration should be given to building out a 10.5" to 14"-high "bulb" from adjacent sidewalks, to serve only the first door of the first car of each train. Another advantage of this procedure is that it could minimize impacts such as elimination of parking. Passengers not needing level boarding would have the option of boarding through other doors of the car/train simply by stepping up from the street, as in Europe (and on some CBD segments of the San Diego Trolley).

Similarly, to reduce platform construction and associated costs at outlying and suburban stops, 10.5" to 14"- high platforms might be provided only at the ends of station platforms (e.g., each end of an island platform), rather than throughout a 200-ft or 300-ft platform. This would form a short platform to provide ADA compliance for boarding a lowfloor vehicle – somewhat comparable in function to the high-pedestal boarding used with highfloor cars in Sacramento, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, etc. in effect, this method of ADA access would blend boarding techniques used in those LRT systems with the lowfloor, short bridge method used in Portland for both the MAX and streetcar LRT systems. It would provide, in effect, a "mini-mini-high" platform at each end of the station, but it would not require special placement of the car/train, or special deployment of traps, ramp, or other hardware.

It should be noted that lowfloor cars with level boarding are not the only option for streetcar operation. Onboard lifts – used on some systems – are another possibility for ADA-compliant access. For example, this method has been used with success for over two decades by the San Diego Trolley. In addition, the new RTA/Brookville cars for New Orleans provide onboard lifts which seem to provide a viable means of wheelchair access and ADA compliance. Figure 5 shows Elmer von Dullen, supervisor of RTA's carbuilding program, operating the lift from inside the streetcar.

New Orleans streetcar lift Figure 5. New Orleans streetcar onboard lift operation.
[Photo: L. Henry]

The onboard lift eliminates considerable onsite additions to station construction and costs (albeit adding, of course, cost per vehicle). Depending on the application, the net benefits may outweigh the costs and liabilities. One major advantage is that (unlike level-boarding systems) stops or stations can be placed at curves – a huge advantage in some circumstances.

A major drawback is that operation of the lift requires train operator assistance and consumes time. While operation of the RTA/Brookville car lift seems impressively fast, safe, and efficient, in a system with heavy traffic and frequent wheelchair boardings, lift deployment and operating time could become a problem.

Another drawback is that current lift designs monopolize an entire car doorway. In the case of the RTA/Brookville car, each car has 3 doors on each side, with the center door allocated to the lift. This eliminates several additional seat positions with relatively little operational deployment.

However, another advantage of the onboard lift approach is that it has some flexibility. it can be used with station platforms of varying heights, as well as on curves. Thus this method of ADA access, despite its drawbacks, needs to be given a very serious re-look by planners. It should be noted that even lowfloor buses typically use some form of lift to board wheelchair passengers, and if buses can do it, why not LRT?

Benefits of Rapid Streetcar development

blue star Lower LRT capital cost

The Rapid Streetcar concept appears to hold serious potential for very significant reductions in the implementational capital costs of LRT projects. As of early 2003, the capital cost of the Portland Streetcar – including rolling stock and maintenance and operational facilities as well as trackage, power system, and traffic control/signal system, totalled $56.9 million for a 2.4-mile (3.9-km) bidirectional route. (informational packet distributed by Portland Streetcar Project at "Portland Poster Session", 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, Experience, Economics & Evolution – From Starter Lines To Growing Systems, Portland, Oregon, 16-18 November 2003.) in 2004 dollars, that calculates to approximately $24.5 million per mile, or $15.1 million per km – an astoundingly low cost for a rail system installed entirely in city streets (usually by far the most expensive form of surface construction). Certainly, this cost will vary from area to area and among different route configurations and levels of scale, but the Portland data suggest that some of the procedures suggested in this discussion could bring down LRT costs dramatically.

blue star Potentially lower unit operating costs

Rapid Streetcar systems would seem to have potential for lowering the unit operating costs of transit service by converting appropriate bus corridors to LRT. Because of lower platform labor costs per passenger and particularly per passenger-mile, LRT has demonstrated that these unit costs can be reduced in many cases – see, for example, the analysis in "How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses" on the Light Rail Now! website.[6]

blue star Multiple benefits of rail transit

The Rapid Streetcar concept seems to hold promise for providing other benefits of rail transit, thus attracting higher ridership compared with bus service.[7] Both the Portland Streetcar and the Tacoma Link streetcar have met their ridership goals. (informational packet distributed by Portland Streetcar Project at "Portland Poster Session", 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, Experience, Economics & Evolution – From Starter Lines To Growing Systems, Portland, Oregon, 16-18 November 2003; and [8].) Some of these additional benefits include:

· Totally zero-emission vehicles
· Quieter operation
· Greater compatibility with pedestrianized urban environments
· Spacious interior accommodations with a generally smoother ride quality
· improved transportation safety
· More understandable, consistent route structure
· More reliable, dependable service
· Potentially faster service speed compared with similar bus service configurations

Transit-Oriented Development

From all reports, TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) has been the preeminent driving force behind the Portland Streetcar project and is considered its major success. Gary Cooper of the City of Portland and Thomas B. Furmaniak of LTK Engineering Services discussed the Portland Streetcar's impact on TOD in "Portland Streetcar: A Two-Year Report Card", presented to the 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Portland, Oregon in November 2003 [8]. They noted that, in addition to achieving impressive ridership growth,

the streetcar line continues to serve as an important element of the city's plans to strengthen existing neighborhoods, create new ones, and reduce dependence on automobile travel. Anecdotally, new housing and commercial developments along its path are thriving in what is an otherwise lackluster local economy; people are making lifestyle choices in which the streetcar is one of their choices for travel, including their work and school trips; and they are reducing use of their automobiles. Likewise, existing businesses along the line and new business locating there are advertising their proximity to it.

The streetcar line has been a catalyst for development. Initially, this was focused on the Pearl District, an urban renewal area of former railroad yards and abandoned warehouses near the middle of the line and now the scene of explosive housing growth and neighborhood development. However, there have been numerous buildings and land parcels elsewhere along the line which have capitalized on the line's popularity. Through the first quarter of 2003, more than 40 new construction or renovation projects valued at over $1 billion have been started along the line, with more on the drawing board.

Likewise, Tacoma's streetcar (Tacoma Link) appears to be having a major impact on adjacent development. in "Tacoma Link: The Little Tram That Could", the Light Rail Now! website [9] reports that

Improving mobility options and reducing street and parking congestion have been only one of the major goals of the Tacoma Link streetcar system. Another critical objective has been to stimulate vigorous real estate development and contribute to the ongoing revitalization of downtown Tacoma. This strategy apparently has been meeting with overwhelming success.

Tacoma streetcar Helped substantially by the streetcar construction project and the advent of regional "heavy" rail passenger service, Tacoma's downtown had been experiencing a kind of rebirth even before the Tacoma Link service started. But since the LRT service began in late August, things have really been booming for businesses that managed to endure the long wait.
[Photo of Tacoma streetcar and development: Dick Eacker]

The article concludes that Tacoma Link is

Another clear example of the amazing and unique power of rail transit – even a tiny tramway or streetcar system – to pull motorists out of their cars, and to pull in new business development as transit-oriented development to help achieve urban revitalization goals.

The evidence appears clear that streetcar systems can have a significant impact in terms of influencing urban development and attracting TOD.


In making use of new developments in streetcar technology, and offering a minimalist approach to LRT installation with an array of simple, workable, cost-reducing approaches and procedures, the Rapid Streetcar concept appears to represent an avenue for lowering the cost of LRT new starts in smaller cities and lighter-traffic corridors. Rapid Streetcar also seems to offer a substantial array of potential benefits which, combined with lower costs and an ability to attract significant ridership, suggests that appropriate projects may be cost-effective. The Rapid Streetcar variant of LRT may also prove to be substantially more competitive with modal alternatives such as Quality Bus ("Bus Rapid Transit" or "BRT").


1. Richard D. Pilgrim , "Are We Pricing Light Rail Transit Systems Out of Range?" paper presented to 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit, Light Rail: investment for the Future, Dallas,Texas, 11–15 November 2000.

2. Kenneth G. Sislak, "Bus Rapid Transit as a Substitute for Light Rail Transit: A Tale of Two Cities", paper presented to 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit, Light Rail: investment for the Future, Dallas,Texas, 11–15 November 2000.

3. Stewart F. Taylor, "The Rapid Tramway: A Feasible Solution to the Urban Transportation Problem", Traffic Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Oct. 1970, pp. 513–529.

4. H. D. Quinby, "Major Urban Corridor Facilities: A New Concept", Traffic Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, April 1962, pp. 242–259.

5. Gregory L. Thompson, "Defining an Alternative Future: Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America", 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, Experience, Economics & Evolution – From Starter Lines To Growing Systems, Portland, Oregon, 16-18 November 2003.

6. Light Rail Now! website editors, "How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses", Light Rail Now! website (, March 2001.

7. Light Rail Now! website (various articles), March 2004.

8. Gary Cooper and Thomas B. Furmaniak, "Portland Streetcar: A Two-Year Report Card", 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference, Experience, Economics & Evolution – From Starter Lines To Growing Systems, Portland, Oregon, 16-18 November 2003.

9. Light Rail Now! website editors, "Tacoma Link: The Little Tram That Could", Light Rail Now! website: (, Feb. 2004.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2007/02/02

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