What is Light Rail Transit?

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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2019
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Light rail transit (LRT) is a type of mass transit system that uses rail cars that are generally of lighter weight than typical rail cars and is usually operated by electricity. The rails of such a system may also be narrower than that of standard railroad gauge. The system is not necessarily a new technology, but rather an update of street car technology that used to run in some cities. There are a few important differences.

One of the major differences is that the light rail transit system is able to carry far more people than the older technology. Often, one or two other cars are connected to the lead car, making it like a small train. Though there is no rule setting a maximum amount of cars a light rail train may have, usually there are three or less per train.

Though there are more than 20 light rail transit systems in the United States, and others scattered throughout the world. More than a dozen are in various stages of planning, especially in cities where traffic has become a major problem. Many believe a light rail transit system could significantly alleviate the problems of traffic congestion in some areas. Many run along the right of way of major highways, thus mirroring the routes many commuters take on a daily basis.


The speed of light rail transit systems in the United States average just slightly more than 20 miles (32 km) per hour. The fastest in Denver, Colorado and Los Angeles, California can go nearly 40 miles (64 km) per hour, but most are significantly slower. While that type of speed may not impress anyone, it may be comparable to the average speed of traffic during rush hour. On days when the congestion is particularly bad, it may even be faster than rush hour traffic. Further, with all the stops that buses make, the average speed of light rail is almost twice as fast.

In addition to running on a right of way for an existing highway, light rail can also be put in many other areas. In some areas, it may run as an elevated train. In others, it may run for a short distances as a subway. In general, the systems tend to run on the same level as a highway.

Another improvement made for light rail transit is in the accessibility for those with disabilities. The light rail transit station will generally provide a platform that is on the same level as the floor of the train. This allows those with mobile problems to get on and off the train with minimal disruption.


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