What is a Light Rail Train?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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Designed as a cost-efficient, low-emissions form of mass transportation, light rail systems are often found in urban areas. A light rail train is often considered an intermediary step between a tram or trolley system and heavy rail transportation such as traditional trains. Light rail is a flexible form of mass transportation that can run amidst street traffic on tracks or be separated entirely from roadways, allowing city planners ample room to maneuver routes around existing structures.

After the sweeping popularity of the automobile began to stabilize in the mid-20th century, planners and engineers began to pay more attention to the concept of efficient mass transportation. Although cars allowed personal freedom to travel, rising city populations quickly made evident the need for travel alternatives, particularly in urban settings. The term light rail was coined in the 1970s, to describe systems of transportation that would be free from road traffic, unlike buses, yet be easily integrated into city streets, unlike traditional railways.

A light rail train is meant to make travel both convenient and efficient for patrons. Typically, a light rail train has a lower capacity than a heavy rail passenger train, but can carry far more passengers than a bus or trolley, thanks to multiple train cars. The interior of a light rail train often resembles that of a subway, with both seating and standing room available to accommodate heavy crowds.


To ride a light rail train, passengers typically purchase a ticket or pass, depending on the rules of the transit system. Many light rail systems offer daily, weekly, or monthly passes at discounted rates, to encourage system usage and reward frequent travelers. In large cities, it is also common for discounted rates to be offered to students, seniors, and elderly patrons. For those who like to plan ahead for any trips by rail, many light rail systems offer an informational website that lists fare information as well as schedules and maps. In many cities, light rail co-ordinates stops and transfers with other public transportation methods such as buses, subways, and even airports, to provide customers with more destinations.

Across the world, light rail systems have risen in popularity since the mid-20th century as population increases have driven up the necessity for fast, reliable mass transportation. The city of Edmonton in Canada adopted one of the earliest light rail train systems in 1978, using cars originally designed for the Frankfurt subways in Germany. In the United States, light rail train system gained considerable popularity throughout the late 20th century, leading to the construction of more than thirty systems throughout the country.


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