Los Angeles Metro Rail, the most heavily utilized light rail system in the United States.
Los Angeles Metro Rail, the most heavily utilized light rail system in the United States.

Light rail in the United States is a mode of rail-based transport, usually urban in nature. When compared to heavy rail systems like commuter rail or rapid transit (subway), light rail systems are typically designed to carry fewer passengers and are capable of operating in mixed traffic (street running) or on routes that are not entirely grade-separated. Systems typically take one of four forms: the "first-generation" legacy systems, the "second-generation" modern light rail systems, streetcars, and hybrid rail systems (light rail with some commuter rail features). All of the systems use similar technologies, and some systems blur the lines between the different forms.


San Francisco Muni Metro train inside an underground station on the underground portion of the route
San Francisco Muni Metro train inside an underground station on the underground portion of the route

The first-generation legacy systems are typically vestigial elements of sprawling streetcar systems that were decommissioned from the 1950s onward through approximately 1970 as the popularity of the automobile increased. These systems were spared that fate due to these systems having high ridership and some form of exclusive right of way.[1] Many of these streetcar systems have been at least partly upgraded to more closely resemble the more modern second-generation light rail systems.

San Diego Trolley in 1999
San Diego Trolley in 1999

The second-generation of modern light rail systems began in 1981 with the San Diego Trolley, which ushered in several systems that generally feature large multi-car trains that travel larger distances, and make fewer stops, on exclusive rights-of-way.[2][3] These systems were inspired by the German Stadtbahn (English: city rail) systems.[4]

A car of the Portland Streetcar system at near Portland State University.
A car of the Portland Streetcar system at near Portland State University.

The modern streetcar era started in 2001 with the Portland Streetcar, which inspired several other systems that generally feature smaller single-car trains that travel on short routes, with frequent stops, in lanes that are shared with automobile traffic (street running). There are also some heritage streetcar lines, which operate in the same manner using vintage vehicles or historic vehicle replicas, which have been built before and after the modern streetcar movement.

Hybrid rail systems were introduced in 2004 with New Jersey's River Line, which operates light rail-type vehicles as diesel multiple unit trains (DMU's), but like commuter rail run on unelectrified tracks that can be shared with freight trains (which typically only operate overnight, when passenger service has stopped).[5] Unlike most commuter rail systems which only operate during the weekday peak travel periods, hybrid rail systems operate all-day, every day.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, of the roughly 30 cities with light rail systems in the United States, the light rail systems in six of them (Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), San Diego, and San Francisco) achieve more than 30 million unlinked passenger transits per year.[6]

The United States, with its 27 systems (as counted by the Light Rail Transit Association), has a much larger number of "true" light rail systems (not including streetcar systems), by far, compared to any other country in the world (the next largest are Germany with 10 and Japan with 9).[7]


New Orleans streetcars, early 1900s
New Orleans streetcars, early 1900s

From the mid-19th century onwards, horse-drawn trams (or horsecars) were used in cities around the world. The St. Charles Avenue Line of New Orleans' streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835.[8]

From the late 1880s onwards, electrically powered street railways became technically feasible following the invention of a trolley pole system of collecting current by American inventor Frank J. Sprague who installed the first successful electrified trolley system in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. They became popular because roads were then poorly surfaced, and before the invention of the internal combustion engine and the advent of motor-buses, they were the only practical means of public transport around cities.[9]

The streetcar systems constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries typically only ran in single-car setups. Some rail lines experimented with multiple unit configurations, where streetcars were joined together to make short trains, but this did not become common until later. When lines were built over longer distances (typically with a single track) before good roads were common, they were generally called interurban streetcars or radial railways in North America.

Historically, the rail gauge has had considerable variations, with a variety of gauges common in many early systems (e.g. the broad Pennsylvania trolley gauge, etc. used by New Orleans' streetcars and by the light rail systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). However, most modern second-generation light rail systems now operate on standard gauge rail.[4]

After World War II, six major cities in the United States (Boston, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco) continued to operate large first-generation streetcar systems, although most of them were later converted to modern light rail standards.[1] Toronto in Canada marks the other city in North America with a continuing first-generation streetcar system. Additionally, a seventh American city, Cleveland, maintained an interurban system (e.g. the Blue and Green Lines) equivalent to what is now "light rail", that opened before World War I, and which is still in operation to this day.[1]

When several of these cities upgraded to new technology (e.g. San Francisco, Newark, and Pittsburgh), they called it "light rail" to differentiate it from their existing streetcar systems since some continued to operate portions of both the old and new systems.

In the United States, most of the original first-generation streetcar systems were decommissioned from the 1950s onward through approximately 1970 as the popularity of the automobile increased.

Although a few traditional streetcar or trolley systems still exist to this day the term "light rail" has come to mean a different type of rail system. Modern light rail technology has primarily German origins, since an attempt by Boeing Vertol to introduce a new American light rail vehicle was a technical failure. After World War II, the Germans retained their streetcar (Straßenbahn) networks and evolved them into model light rail systems (Stadtbahn).[4]

The renaissance of light rail in the United States began in 1981, when the first truly second-generation light rail system was inaugurated in the United States, the San Diego Trolley in California, which adopted use of the German Siemens-Duewag U2 light rail vehicle. (This was just three years after the first North American second-generation light rail system opened in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta in 1978, and which used the same German Siemens-Duewag U2 vehicles as San Diego).[1]

As of March 2020, there are a total of 53 operational light rail-type lines and systems (noting that some cities, such as Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, have more than one light rail system) that offer regular year-round transit service in the United States: 26 modern light rail systems,[10] 14 modern streetcar systems, and 13 heritage streetcar systems (including the San Francisco cable car system).

"First-generation" legacy systems

Location System Year originally opened[11] System length Lines Current type Comments
Boston MBTA Green Line 1897 22.6 mi (36.4 km) 4 Light rail While changes were made to the original 1897 Tremont Street subway in 1962 and 2004, and to some of the line routes over the years, and the Green Line's streetcar A branch was closed in 1967, both systems have run intact with mostly uninterrupted service since their opening dates.
Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line 1929 2.6 mi (4.2 km) 1
Cleveland Green Line / Blue Line 1913 15.3 mi (24.6 km) 2 Light rail Aside from line and station renovations in the early 1980s, and the Waterfront extension in 1996, these lines have operated essentially uninterrupted as light rail (interurbans) from their opening.
Newark Newark Light Rail 1935 6.2 mi (10.0 km) 2 Light rail Outside of an extension in 2002, and the switch to modern LRT vehicles in 2001, this line still operates essentially unchanged since the 1930s. A second, modern LRT line, called the Broad Street Extension, opened in 2006.
New Orleans New Orleans Streetcars 1835 22.3 mi (35.9 km) 4 Heritage streetcar The St. Charles Avenue Line of the New Orleans streetcar system is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, beginning operation as a horse-drawn system in 1835; the line was electrified in 1893. The Canal Street Line dates to 1861, and was electrified in 1894; however, the line was closed in May 1964, and was not re-inaugurated with restored service until 2004. The Riverfront Line and Loyola Avenue Line are "new", and did not open for service until 1988 and 2013, respectively.
Philadelphia SEPTA subway–surface trolley lines 1906 19.8 mi (31.9 km) 5 Light rail / Streetcar The subway–surface trolley lines began operation as a mixed subway/streetcar system in 1906, and have continued operation essentially unchanged, including the use of single-car trolley vehicles, since that time. Three of the original eight lines were replaced by buses in the 1950s.
SEPTA Routes 101 and 102 1906 11.9 mi (19.2 km) 2 Light rail / Streetcar SEPTA Routes 101 & 102 (the Media-Sharon Lines) began operation as rail lines in mostly exclusive rights-of-way (light rail) in 1906, and have also operated mostly unchanged since then.
SEPTA Route 15 1859 8.4 mi (13.5 km) 1 Heritage streetcar SEPTA Route 15 (the Girard Avenue Line) dates to 1859 as a horse car line, and was electrified in 1895; it was replaced with buses relatively late, in 1992, but service on the line was resumed with heritage streetcars in 2005.
Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Light Rail 1903 26.2 mi (42.2 km) 2 Light rail Began as a streetcar network, but was converted to light rail. By the 1970s, most routes were converted to bus, and the remaining streetcar lines (all of which still used the 1904 Mt. Washington Transit Tunnel) were converted light rail. This included the construction of a new 1.1 miles (1.8 km) downtown tunnel. The converted light rail system partially opened for service in 1984, with the downtown tunnel opening in 1985, and the rest of the system opening in 1987. An extension of the downtown tunnel opened to the North Shore in 2012.
San Francisco Cable cars 1878 5.2 mi (8.4 km) 3 Heritage cable car World's last manually operated cable car system. Of the 23 lines established between 1873 and 1890, only three remain. While the cable cars are used to a certain extent by commuters, the vast majority of their seven million annual passengers are tourists.
Muni Metro 1912 35.7 mi (57.5 km) 7 Light rail / Streetcar Began as a streetcar network, but was partially converted to light rail. While most of San Francisco's original streetcar lines had been converted to buses, five lines that had dedicated rights-of-way or used narrow tunnels that could not be converted. The streetcars were partially converted to light rail in 1980, sending the lines into the Market Street subway. The lines still operate as streetcars on surface streets. The T Third Street and S Shuttle lines added later are true light rail.
E Embarcadero / F Market & Wharves 1982 7.7 mi (12.4 km) 2 Heritage streetcar Established in 1982 during a closure of the cable car system for refurbishment, to provide an alternative tourist attraction. Streetcars operated on the Market Street tracks recently abandoned by the streetcar lines that became the Muni Metro. Service proved popular and was retained and expanded.

"Second-generation" modern systems

City/Area served State System Year opened System length Stations Lines Year last expanded Ref.
Baltimore Maryland Baltimore Light Rail 1992 33.0 mi (53.1 km) 33 3 2006 [12]
Buffalo New York Buffalo Metro Rail 1984 6.4 mi (10.3 km) 14 1 1986 [13]
Charlotte North Carolina LYNX Blue Line 2007 19.3 mi (31.1 km) 26 1 2018 [14][15]
Dallas Texas Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) 1996 93 mi (150 km) 64 4 2016 [16][17][18]
Denver Colorado RTD Light Rail 1994 47 mi (76 km) 53 7 2017 [19][20]
Houston Texas METRORail 2004 22.7 mi (36.5 km) 39 3 2017 [21][22][23][24]
Jersey City New Jersey Hudson–Bergen Light Rail (NJ Transit)[note 1] 2000 17 mi (27 km) 24 3 2011 [25][26]
Los Angeles California Metro Rail A, C, E, & L Lines[note 1] 1990 88.1 mi (141.8 km) 71 4 2016 [27]
Minneapolis–Saint Paul Minnesota Metro: Blue & Green lines 2004 21.8 mi (35.1 km) 37 2 2014 [28][29]
Norfolk Virginia The Tide 2011 7.4 mi (11.9 km) 11 1 [30][31]
Phoenix Arizona Valley Metro Rail 2008 26.3 mi (42.3 km) 35 1 2016 [32][33][34]
Portland Oregon MAX Light Rail 1986 60 mi (97 km) 97 5 2015 [35][36]
Sacramento California Sacramento RT Light Rail 1987 42.9 mi (69.0 km) 53 3 2015 [37]
St. Louis Missouri MetroLink 1993 46 mi (74 km) 37 2 2006 [38][39]
Salt Lake City Utah TRAX 1999 44.8 mi (72.1 km) 50 3 2013 [40][41]
San Diego California San Diego Trolley 1981 65 mi (105 km) 62 4 2021 [42]
San Jose California Santa Clara VTA Light Rail 1987 42.2 mi (67.9 km) 62 3 2005 [43][44]
Seattle Washington Line 1 (Link light rail) 2009 24.65 mi (39.67 km) 19 1 2021 [45]
Tacoma Washington Line T (Link light rail) 2003 1.6 mi (2.6 km) 6 1 [45]

Streetcar systems

City/Area served State System Year opened System length Stops Lines Year last expanded System type Ref.
Atlanta Georgia Atlanta Streetcar[note 2] 2014 2.7 mi (4.3 km) 12 1 Modern [46]
Charlotte North Carolina CityLYNX Gold Line 2015 1.5 mi (2.4 km) 6 1 Modern [47]
Cincinnati Ohio Cincinnati Bell Connector 2016 3.6 mi (5.8 km) 18 1 Modern [48][49]
Dallas Texas Dallas Streetcar 2015 2.45 mi (3.94 km) 6 1 2016 Modern [16][17][18]
McKinney Avenue Transit Authority 1989 4.6 mi (7.4 km) 40 1 2015 Heritage [50][51][52]
Detroit Michigan QLine 2017 3.3 mi (5.3 km) 20 1 Modern [53]
El Paso Texas El Paso Streetcar 2018 4.8 mi (8 km) 27 1 Heritage [54]
Kansas City Missouri KC Streetcar 2016 2 mi (3.2 km) 16 1 Modern [55][56]
Kenosha Wisconsin Kenosha Streetcar 2000 2.0 mi (3.2 km) 17 1 Heritage
Little Rock Arkansas Metro Streetcar 2004 3.4 mi (5.5 km) 15 1 2007 Heritage [57][58]
Memphis Tennessee MATA Trolley 1993 6.3 mi (10.1 km) 25 3 2004 Heritage [59][60]
Milwaukee Wisconsin The Hop 2018 2.5 mi (4 km) 18 1 Modern
Oklahoma City Oklahoma Oklahoma City Streetcar 2018 4.6 mi (7.4 km) 22 2 Modern [61]
Portland Oregon Portland Streetcar 2001 7.35 mi (11.83 km) 76 2 2015 Modern [62][63]
Salt Lake City Utah S Line 2013 2.0 mi (3.2 km) 7 1 Modern
Seattle Washington Seattle Streetcar 2007 3.8 mi (6.1 km) 17 2 2016 Modern [64][65][66][67]
Tampa Florida TECO Line Streetcar 2002 2.7 mi (4.3 km) 11 1 2010 Heritage [68][69]
Tucson Arizona Sun Link 2014 3.9 mi (6.3 km) 22 1 Modern [70]
Washington, D.C. District of Columbia DC Streetcar 2016 2.4 mi (3.9 km) 8 1 Modern [71][72]

"Hybrid rail" systems

City/Area served State System Year opened System length Stations Lines Year last expanded Ref.
Austin Texas Capital MetroRail 2010 32 mi (51 km) 9 1 [73]
Contra Costa County California eBART 2018 10.1 mi (16.3 km) 3 1 [74]
CamdenTrenton New Jersey River Line (NJ Transit) 2004 34 mi (55 km) 20 1 [25][75]
Denton County Texas A-train 2011 21 mi (34 km) 6 1 [76]
Fort Worth Texas TEXRail 2019 27.2 mi (43.8 km) 9 1 [77]
North San Diego County California Sprinter 2008 22 mi (35 km) 15 1 [78]

Systems under construction

The following table lists entirely new light rail or streetcar systems under heavy construction.[79] LRT systems that are in the planning stages but not yet under construction (e.g. Glassboro–Camden Line, MARTA Clifton Corridor, Austin Capital MetroRail Blue and Orange Lines), are not listed; expansions of existing LRT systems are also not listed here.

City/Area served State System Planned opening System length System type Ref.
Tempe Arizona Tempe Streetcar 2022[80] 3.44 mi (6 km) Streetcar [81]
Orange County California OC Streetcar 2023[82][83][84] 4.1 mi (7 km) Streetcar [85]
Maryland Maryland Purple Line after 2024 16.2 mi (26.1 km) Light rail [86][87]

See also


  1. ^ a b This system also has a heavy rail rapid transit/metro portion (see List of metro systems), and connections to a commuter rail system; the figures and statistics presented here represent the light rail portion of the system only.
  2. ^ This system also has a heavy rail rapid transit/metro portion (see List of metro systems); the figures and statistics presented here represent the light rail portion of the system only.


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