North America Drives the Light Rail Boom

29 July 2007 (Last Updated July 29th, 2007 18:30)

Throughout the US light rail is fighting congestion and isolation as it joins communities with the rest of the rat race. Howard Johnston takes a look at how the tram system is evolving in North America.

North America Drives the Light Rail Boom

It is a remarkable turnaround for a mode of transport once thought to serve little purpose in the busy, car-obsessed cities of the US and Canada – taking a tourist attraction and turning it into what is now one of the most efficient ways of getting from A to B.

But that is exactly what cities across the continent have started to do as the benefits of a well-thought-out light rail system start to prove too good to be true.

It wasn't that long ago that there were just nine aging light-rail networks on the continent – all of which, like the bohemian city of San Francisco's network, were used as tourist attractions.

Today, 21 modern light rail systems have joined the network, with more planned or under construction.

So popular are these new systems that passenger growth is considered to be somewhere in the order of 8.5% by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a figure well ahead of commuter rail, heavy rail and bus routes.

In part, this growth is due to a recognition that light rail can fill the niche between buses and full-blown heavy metro systems such as the New York Subway, both in terms of cost and, crucially, capacity. A number of examples illustrate this success.

DENVER, COLORADO

Denver's 8.5km rail system opened in 1994 after years of lobbying and developments. It used leased but standard Siemens vehicles, existing rail formations and bus interchanges to keep costs down.

By its second anniversary, passenger numbers were 20% above even the most optimistic predictions and park-and-ride facilities were at capacity.

"It wasn't that long ago that there were just nine ageing light-rail networks in the US."

Residents and businesses in this previously automobile-based city all wanted extensions to the light rail, and they got them. Denver's light rail system is now 25.3km long and the $879m T-REX (transportation expansion) project designed to link two areas of high unemployment together) will add a further 31km of double-track line and a massive extra 13 stations. Weekday passenger numbers are expected to rise by up to 38,000.

But the story doesn't end there as there are already advanced plans for further extensions. The FasTracks project is a $4.7bn plan to add 190km of light rail along with expanded bus services. Six corridors, radiating in all directions, are planned and the Central, Southwest, and Southeast lines are due to be extended – though the programme is not scheduled for completion until 2017.

DALLAS, TEXAS

Another US city enjoying the benefits of light rail is in one of the most car-obsessed states in the country: Texas.

The Dallas DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) system has expanded gradually since its launch in 1996 as a 17.6km network. It is now 72km long and has 35 stations. However, such has been DART's success that plans are now afoot to double it in size by 2016.

"Already, DART has gone from carrying 1.4 million passengers in 1996 to 17.5 million in 2005."

Already DART has gone from carrying 1.4 million passengers in 1996 to 17.5 million in 2005, and the numbers are still increasing. Expansion had been stifled though by relatively low levels of revenue, but a $700m grant from the Federal Transport Administration has provided enough momentum for expansion plans to be brought forward, backed by studies which suggest the regeneration benefits of extending DART could be gigantic, and certainly well in favour of future expansion.

A number of extensions and new lines have been planned between 2009 and 2018 – the most significant is the construction of the 34km Green Line on a northwest-southeast alignment, and the Orange Line to Las Colinas and Dallas Fort Worth Airport.

HOUSTON, TEXAS

Another city in Texas going down the light-rail route is Houston, which opened a 12km line linking Downtown, Midtown, the museum district, Hermann Park, the Texas Medical Center and a new American football stadium in 2004. Within three years it was carrying 40,000 passengers a day – more than the planned figure for 2020.

By planning it on a main arterial route, Houston hopes this initial line will become the key axis of a regional rail network. Seven corridors around the region in need of high-capacity public transport, either now or in the future, have been identified: it will be down to voters to decide which lines get the green light. Initial indications are good, as a 14.4km extension has been sanctioned, and more will surely be on the cards.

As with Dallas and other cities, Houston is hoping for significant regeneration benefits to accrue from its investment. New shopping areas and other facilities around the busiest stations seem likely if other cities' experiences translate to Houston.

Houston uses a fleet of 18 Siemens Avanto light-rail vehicles, of which 70% of the floor area is low-floor. The vehicles have a modern European feel which has helped draw extremely positive feedback from passengers.

CANADA OPTS FOR DIESEL

In places like Canada, there is an increasing trend towards systems that owe more to conventional US streetcar operations than the traditional European-style light rail.

"New York's Hudson-Bergen light rail system has proved a major hit, regenerating the Hudson Country area."

This style of vehicle is smaller than conventional light-rail vehicles though often larger than streetcar equivalents. They can use the latest technology to increase efficiency, reliability and safety.

Diesel multiple unit (DMU) systems are also beginning to gain acceptance in the country, though it must be said that US experience of DMU operation, combined with exceedingly high structural integrity standards, means take-up so far has been limited.

DMU operation allows provision of rapid transit-style rail links without the startup costs associated with provision of overhead electrification. The trend was set by Ottawa, which started operation of three-car Bombardier Talent DMUs on an 8km lightly-used Canadian Pacific line in the west of the city. The cost per kilometre was about $3.75m – low compared with building a full light-rail system from scratch.

Ottawa's model mirrors that of Denver, Houston and Dallas, with ridership approaching double the originally predicted levels. However, despite plans to extend it, a failure to secure funding meant that the planned north-south route was terminated in December 2006.

Yet if Ottawa has balked at extending its light rail services, that certainly isn't the case elsewhere.

NEW YORK, HUDSON-BERGEN

New York's Hudson-Bergen light rail system has proved a major hit, regenerating the Hudson Country area and cutting road traffic levels to boot. A 10km extension is planned to open in 2010.

A 15-year design, build and operate contract has been awarded to the 21st Century Rail Corporation, a consortium comprising Raytheon Infrastructure Services, the American arm of Japanese rolling stock builder Kinki Sharyo and Itochu Rail Car. The line is an important part of the regeneration plans for the Hoboken area bordering the Hudson River, and runs close to the important New York Trading Center.

"Many cities across the US and Canada are preparing bids for light rail systems."

The service was initially operated by a fleet of 29 articulated light-rail vehicles, supplied by Kinki Sharyo, of which 11 were needed to maintain the phase one service. The cars were assembled at Harrison, New Jersey, and two pre-production vehicles were used for test running prior to full opening. Each is 27.4m long and has four sets of double opening doors on each side. The units seat 68 passengers each with room for a further 122 standing. Each vehicle is air-conditioned.

A further batch of 28 new cars was introduced in 2004/2005 to meet the demand of the new extensions to Lincoln Harbour and Port Imperial. They were also built by Kinki Sharyo.

The system will expand in two stages, subject to NJ (New Jersey) Transit securing further funding, and some stages of the second phase have already been completed – the extensions to 22nd Street, Lincoln Harbour and Port Imperial. The system once done will cover 32.8km and serve 32 stations. Daily ridership is estimated to reach 94,500 by 2010 – at present the light rail line carries 24,000. At the end of the 15-year contract it will be handed back to NJ Transit.

LOS ANGELES AND SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

Los Angeles, which once had one of the most extensive tram networks in the world, is again looking at light rail to cut its road congestion problems. The city has a 140km light rail and subway system, and extensions of the Metro Gold Line are underway. A fourth light rail route, the $640m, 3.6km Exposition Line running between Pico and Washington / National, is due to open in 2010.

Of cities planning light rail systems, one of the most ambitious is San Diego, also of California. The city is building a 35km line due to open at the end of 2007. This line will use Siemens Desiro trains – already proven in tough commuter and regional duties across Europe – and ridership levels of 16,000 a day are predicted by 2020, though if experience already gained in other cities is anything to go by, this figure could be reached well before then.

"Light rail systems help
to cut road congestion, regenerate urban areas and clear the air."
LIGHT RAIL'S BRIGHT FUTURE

The USA in particular, after years of closing tram and light rail systems, is turning back to the light rail with vigour. Despite extremely high levels of automobile ownership, virtually all new and modernised systems have proved highly popular with the public. As pressure grows on cities to cut carbon dioxide emissions and road congestion, light rail has a more convincing argument than ever before.

Cities across the US and Canada are preparing bids for light rail systems, many using existing alignments – but all aimed at achieving the things light rail does well: cutting road congestion, regenerating urban areas and helping clear the air. It's a trend which shows every sign of growth over the long term.