What is Light Rail?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Light rail is a form of transit which is most often used in urban areas as part of a mass transit system. Like other types of transit with “rail” in their titles, light rail consists of trains which run along tracks. The trains used in a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system are most often electric, although some LRT systems use diesel as well. As a general rule, this form of rail transport is designed for humans, rather than manufacturing goods.

A light rail is part of the mass transit system in a large city.
A light rail is part of the mass transit system in a large city.

Several things set light rail aside from other types of rail transit, such as subways, heavy rail, and rapid transit systems, all of which use trains. The most important difference is that light rail usually shares the public right of way. For example, the tracks for many light rail trains are run in public streets sharing space with traffic. In other cases, a light rail train runs on a dedicated area of the street, but it will still have to comply with traffic laws. The second is that light rail is designed for speed and reasonably light loads, and it usually features very basic cars for passengers, not intended for the long haul.

Light rail planners must consider the potential for expansion and shifting landscapes when choosing a light rail route.
Light rail planners must consider the potential for expansion and shifting landscapes when choosing a light rail route.

Since light rail shares space with regular traffic, it may be slower than subways and rapid transit, which are on so-called “grade separated” tracks. These tracks run independently of the public right of way, either above or below ground, so that they are not delayed by traffic or subject to surface traffic laws. However, because light rail is above ground, it is easy to move stops around as needed, making it very convenient for passengers.

Often, electric trains are used in a light rail system since they are fast, quiet, and non-polluting. These trains may be powered with overhead cables, or through the use of a third rail. Due to safety concerns, the electric rail used in a light rail system is usually buried or otherwise secured, to ensure that people are not injured.

As with other systems which collectively make up a mass transit system, light rail is often networked with commuter rail, subways, and buses. It usually runs at set intervals or times which are often designed to mesh with other transportation systems. In most cases, the payment and fare system is also interlinked with other methods of mass transit, so that frequent riders can purchase a transit pass which covers all of the mass transit options in the city. This encourages people to use public transit, rather than personal vehicles, reducing the amount of traffic in an urban area.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ PelesTears- The biggest problem with expanding Phoenix light rail is the sheer size of the metropolitan area. Phoenix is a huge sprawling city (5th largest metro in the country) and it is built around cars, not rail. Light rail construction is very disruptive, and the amount of track that would need to be laid would be cost prohibitive all at once. You will be glad to hear though that the rail line will expand to many more areas in Phoenix MSA. The only downside is that the time line for all phases of the light rail project is somewhere around 15 to 20 years.


@ Cougars- I ride the Phoenix Light rail too. I like the idea, but I wish that there were more routes to choose form. I only take the light rail when I am going to big sporting events and concerts because it saves me the hours of waiting to leave a stadium at rush hour. The rail doesn't really stray form the center of downtown though.

Very few of the places that I visit are on the light rail line, so for me to take it regularly, I would need to take my bike (taking my chances on Phoenix's nonexistent bike lanes) or take multiple bus interchanges to my location. This would take me longer than it would to drive, and is the opposite of convenience. I think that Phoenix light rail ridership would increase if the system had more track.


The city of Phoenix recently completed its first phase of the light rail project. The light rail is great. I am a student at ASU, but I live in North Central Phoenix. I was driving my truck to campus every day, but after a few months, I realized I was spending almost as much on gas as I was on my truck payment and insurance every month. I now take the light rail, and I save a ton of money. I save almost $350 a month on gas, and $780 a year on parking. I can literally catch the light rail at the edge of campus where I would catch the campus bus. It is just a straight shot from Downtown Tempe to the Heart of Phoenix. I do not sit in traffic, I do not spend a ton of money on gas and vehicle maintenance, and I am saving the atmosphere at the same time. Now if the city would only install solar panels to help run the trains.

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