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Light Rail Or Heavy Rail?  
User currently offlineMatt D From United States of America, joined Nov 1999, 9502 posts, RR: 46
Posted (13 years 2 weeks 21 hours ago) and read 3909 times:

Ok for all of you railroad buffs, those that commute on trains, and those who have an interest in "alternative mass transit", which do you think is better?

So called "light" rail?

Or so called "heavy rail"?

In case you don't know the difference, I will explain for you.

Heavy rail is your "traditional" trains, operating on standard gauge track, pulled by a diesel locomotive. Most non-Northeast Amtrak is "heavy rail. Also here in LA, we have Metrolink, which operates on the same tracks that the freight trains operate.

Light rail is what can be called a "modern trolley train".

They operate on exclusive right of ways. They are electric, which means there is usually a wire suspended above the tracks that the trains follow with a boom. Also, they are usually much smaller than heavy rail.

So which do you think is better?

Here are, what I figure the plusses and minuses for each:


+'s: Relatively small. Usually not much bigger than standard busses. Run on electricity, which means they are virtually silent in the neighborhoods they operate. Also, they put out no air pollution.

-'s: Because an entirely new line needs to be built for them to operate, from conception to revenue service can take upwards of 5 years. Add to that if there are budgetary or political obstacles. Also, once placed on a line, they cannot be "moved", unless it's to other lines-which have to be connected. Plus, the huge truss assemblies and the wires IMO makes them very unsightly and cluttered. Plus, they tend to operate relatively slowly, usually 50MPH or less.

+'s: Since they are standard locomotives and cars, they can be placed in service on existing freight tracks. It would only be a matter of constructing passenger depots, which means that a heavy line service can theoretically go from conception to revenue service in a matter of a couple of months. Plus, they can really go fast, 80MPH or faster. Plus the coaches are full sized railroad cars which means the capacity is many, many times greater than a light rail. And there are no unsightly truss or wire assemblies to look at.

-'s: Since they are full sized diesel locomotives, they put out diesel smoke, and are quite noisy. One going at full speed will create a lot of vibration as well if the tracks happen to go through a residential area. Plus, considering their sheer mass (weight, speed, inability to stop quickly), they pose a relatively much higher threat to careless vehicles and pedestrians.

Which would you prefer?

34 replies: All unread, showing first 25:
User currently offlineSEVEN_FIFTY7 From United States of America, joined Sep 2000, 957 posts, RR: 4
Reply 1, posted (13 years 2 weeks 21 hours ago) and read 3860 times:

I prefer whatever you prefer Matt.

 Smokin cool

User currently offlineNJTurnpike From United States of America, joined May 2000, 580 posts, RR: 0
Reply 2, posted (13 years 2 weeks 20 hours ago) and read 3853 times:


Heavy rail for medium / long distance transportation between population centres.

Light rail for urban and suburban areas.

MattD, I would add that Heavy Rail doesn't have to revolve around just diesel traction. Acela, Bullet, TGV, ICE - they're all 'pantographed-up' and they don't look particularly light to me. Most new Heavy Rail links are electrified to 25Kv.

User currently offlineNJTurnpike From United States of America, joined May 2000, 580 posts, RR: 0
Reply 3, posted (13 years 2 weeks 20 hours ago) and read 3845 times:

Seems I didn't answer the question properly  Big grin

I *prefer* heavy rail. There's nothing like being stood at a road / rail crossing and feeling the force of a 140mph train whizz past you. Travelling on an intercity express, the views are always more interesting. I recall (some years back now) doing a special trip on the Eurostar from London - Paris - Brussels - London in the space of fourteen hours. One of my fondest travelling memories.

However, I'll always have a spot for the London Underground.

User currently offlineFordlover From United States of America, joined Sep 2001, 194 posts, RR: 0
Reply 4, posted (13 years 2 weeks 19 hours ago) and read 3836 times:

Heavy rail pays the bills, so there goes my vote. The company I work for produces switch and signal equipment for railroads. 99% of our business is with large railroads running large trains (BNSF, UP, CSX, CN, etc). We produce replacement parts for the switch machines, and detection systems for moveable-span bridges (the equipment that locks the rails in place, and tells you so, so you can send the train across).

User currently offlineMatt D From United States of America, joined Nov 1999, 9502 posts, RR: 46
Reply 5, posted (13 years 2 weeks 19 hours ago) and read 3833 times:

That's another thing I forgot to mention:

light rail costs many times more than light rail to build (and presumably maintain).

Also one other thing I just realized.

People that like light rail point out how "environmentally friendly" they are because they run on electricity.

But are they *really*?

I mean after all, if they run on electricity, that electricity had to be created somewhere, most likely with gas, oil, or nuclear energy.

Kinda blows a hole in that argument, doesn't it?

User currently offlineDesertJets From United States of America, joined Feb 2000, 7813 posts, RR: 16
Reply 6, posted (13 years 2 weeks 18 hours ago) and read 3822 times:

Electric powered rail is cleaner b/c the pollution is centralized at one point, the power plant. And things like scrubbers can be put on the smokestacks to clean up pollution from the plants. So the impact is more localized.

Heavy and light rail have their own place in a mass transit system and can work well side-by-side. Look at the SEPTA system in Philadelphia for example.

Light rail comes in many more forms than Matt mentioned. Some of the newer systems, like those in Portland, San Diego and Denver are basically modern trolley cars with the overhead power. The benefit there is that the rights of way can simply be a city street. Many light rail systems, primarily subway systems use 3rd rail power. Obviously you can't use a 3rd on a streettop application, but there have to be trains designed to use both overhead and 3rd rail set-ups.

Heavy rail is usually the best choice for intra-city or long haul suburban commuting (look no further than Metra). However the limitation that I see that many of the newer cities in the Sun Belt simply don't have the pre-existing rail lines that exist in the midwest and northeast corridor to use. Plus you are at the mercy of where the tracks are, and where people actually live, as well as the freight schedules.

In the right combination, along with buses most American cities could have great mass transit systems. But there are problems with inter-city rivalries, lack of regional planning, sprawl etc... Getting land should not be as problematic as it would seem. If new highway construction projects included right of way for light rail that would solve much of the problem. And if there was as much political motavation for builing mass transit as there was highways/freeways, then getting the land should not be an issue at all.

Cost wise, light rail is not much more expensive than major city road or freeways in cost per mile, plus carrying capacity of rail is typically much higher.

Stop drop and roll will not save you in hell. --- seen on a church marque in rural Virginia
User currently offlineKL713 From Netherlands, joined Aug 2001, 772 posts, RR: 1
Reply 7, posted (13 years 2 weeks 18 hours ago) and read 3822 times:

i prefer LIGHT-rail.......

can be used on the street as well in the underground.....

like Amsterdam's "Amstelveenline":


....and Rotterdam's "Calandline":


a Light-rail train will be operated in a few years on the "Randstadrail" between Rotterdam and The Hague via Zoetermeer, and maybe also on the "Zuidtangent" between Amsterdam Airport and Haarlem, which is now a fast bustrack that has opened last sunday.....

732 733 734 73G 738 739 742 743 744 752 763 77E 773 77W 319 320 332 333 343 388 M11 146 DH4
User currently offlineNKP S2 From United States of America, joined Dec 1999, 1714 posts, RR: 5
Reply 8, posted (13 years 2 weeks 17 hours ago) and read 3813 times:

Heavy rail.

User currently offlineEIPremier From United States of America, joined Sep 2000, 1550 posts, RR: 1
Reply 9, posted (13 years 2 weeks 16 hours ago) and read 3803 times:

I prefer heavy rail too. It's kind of like how someone might prefer a 747 to an RJ...

I've always gotten a kick of seeing a speeding train go by...it's just amazing to think of all that weight balanaced upon two thin bars of steel.

User currently offlineMls515 From United States of America, joined Jun 2000, 3077 posts, RR: 9
Reply 10, posted (13 years 2 weeks 13 hours ago) and read 3779 times:

They both have their place. I suppose I like heavy rail like Amtrak better than light rail because it's a more comfortable ride wheras light rail is meant for short trips within a fixed area and its seating isn't much more comfortable than what you'd find on a transit bus.

Light rail systems do look sharp though and serve a purpose.

The overhead wires here don't look too bad. Any train buffs want to guess which transit system this is?

To add to what DesertJets said about the polution, the energy generated at a powerplant is done so much more effeciently than if the energy needed was generated on board each individual train with diesel engines. Less polution for the same energy.

A metro area with a good transit system would have would have heavy rail for suburban trains, light rail for urban trains (including subway and/or eleveted trains), and busses that would strategically feed the trains.

User currently offlineNJTurnpike From United States of America, joined May 2000, 580 posts, RR: 0
Reply 11, posted (13 years 2 weeks 12 hours ago) and read 3772 times:

I'm tempted to say that looks a lot like Denver (have been there, that red railbed seems familiar).

Naturally I'm 102% wrong  Smile

User currently offlineHartsfieldboy From United States of America, joined Sep 2001, 552 posts, RR: 1
Reply 12, posted (13 years 2 weeks 9 hours ago) and read 3759 times:

Hi, I'm mainly a lurker here.

Let me make a correction in a definition used here. Heavy rail is NOT transit that runs on frieght lines. You are thinking of Commuter Rail. "Heavy Rail" is just another word for "metro", "subway" or "underground."

As for my opinion, I prefer subways over commuter and light rail.

User currently offlineMx5_boy From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR:
Reply 13, posted (13 years 2 weeks 7 hours ago) and read 3749 times:

Hey guys,

Hartsfield boy is correct. Heavy rail includes subways, undergrounds and commuter rail.

In Sydney we have a massive heavy commuter rail network which is backed up by commuter buses as well. Our commuter rail lines all flow through the CBD and are electrified (have been for over 70 years) and are double deck. Many cities I note run separate subways / undergrounds in addition to commuter trains - but given the massive size and relative low density of the city we just run the suburban trains everywhere. At last count there was around 260 stations on the Cityrail network.

Also we have a light rail, monorail, commuter buses and a large ferry network. I don't particularly like public transport but at present I get the inner harbour ferry to work instead of driving - it's great. If I had to get another form of public transport it would be a suburban train.

So I guess I prefer heavy rail.



A new star is born...

User currently offlineBWIrwy4 From United States of America, joined Nov 2001, 940 posts, RR: 1
Reply 14, posted (13 years 2 weeks 7 hours ago) and read 3747 times:

If a subway is considered "heavy rail", then what would the Washington, DC Metro be designated? It includes underground subway, ground level track, and elevated rail, all on the same line.

User currently offlineLuckySevens From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR:
Reply 15, posted (13 years 2 weeks 5 hours ago) and read 3744 times:

LOL Denver...  Nuts


A metro area with a good transit system would have would have heavy rail for suburban trains, light rail for urban trains (including subway and/or eleveted trains), and busses that would strategically feed the trains

Which is exactly what DART is trying to do.

User currently offlineGanymed From , joined Dec 1969, posts, RR:
Reply 16, posted (13 years 2 weeks 2 hours ago) and read 3733 times:

I grew up with „heavy-rail“-tracks behind my house so you may guess my vote .

Our national railway company uses mostly electrical material here for both the passenger and their freight-trains that go cross-border so pollution is not that big an issue but for the noise – I must say that older electr.Locos.still are pretty noisy but nothing compares to the famous old „Nohab“- Diesel-locomotive.
The belgian company is always using a couple of these sound machines to pull their twice-per-night cargo trains linking Luxemb.to Charleroi in Belgium I think.
Man,in the silence of the night you can hear these thunder cans over miles !!

http://webplaza.pt.lu/public/heisten/frametest.htm shows specimens of both the CFL and SNCB in their classic „colorado beetle“ livery.


User currently offlineHartsfieldboy From United States of America, joined Sep 2001, 552 posts, RR: 1
Reply 17, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 20 hours ago) and read 3717 times:

DC Metro is a subway. Most subways aren't exclusivly underground. Atlanta, NYC, Sao Paulo, London, etc. all have elevated, ground level and underground parts.

User currently offlineFDXmech From United States of America, joined Mar 2000, 3251 posts, RR: 33
Reply 18, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 20 hours ago) and read 3713 times:

Hi. Ya know what? I finally figured out what NKP S2 refers to. I'm more of a N&W Y6b man myself. As a matter of fact, I just joined their historical society.

Put me down for "heavy" as well, preferably "steam" but diesel will do. Smile

You're only as good as your last departure.
User currently offlineMDCJets From United States of America, joined Apr 2001, 175 posts, RR: 1
Reply 19, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 10 hours ago) and read 3697 times:

Hi everyone.
Here is a cool website if you want to get to know public transportation a little (I'm actually a fan of busses) better.http://www.transitrider.com Personally I love anything with a diesel powerplant

User currently offlineJohnboy From United States of America, joined Aug 1999, 2606 posts, RR: 7
Reply 20, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 9 hours ago) and read 3692 times:

Heavy rail would include systems powered by Third Rail technology, that also have an exclusive right of way. Perhaps commuter trains, but I always think more of the traditional subway systems of the larger cities, and BART in the SF Bay Area.

Light rail does not necessarily have an exclusive right of way, but I always picture it as having an overhead electrical power source/pantograph.

Just a personal definition.

As an aside, does anyone know about the status of the diesel powered line that was proposed between Escondido and Oceanside California (San Diego County)?

Go to the ba.transportation newsgroup for some good old fashioned vitriol regarding heavy rail vs. light rail use.

User currently offlineCcrlR From United States of America, joined Aug 2001, 2245 posts, RR: 0
Reply 21, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 9 hours ago) and read 3692 times:
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I like the light rail better. I rode on some in St Louis and they were nice. I wish Chicago had them.

"He was right, it is a screaming metal deathtrap!"-Cosmo (from the Fairly Oddparents)
User currently offlineBWIrwy4 From United States of America, joined Nov 2001, 940 posts, RR: 1
Reply 22, posted (13 years 1 week 6 days 5 hours ago) and read 3679 times:

Thanks Hartsfieldboy and Johnboy

User currently offlineLubcha132 From United States of America, joined Feb 2001, 2776 posts, RR: 7
Reply 23, posted (13 years 1 week 5 days 16 hours ago) and read 3664 times:


MTA, NJT, CDOT (FL9's Big grin), Metra

i'm always up for some train talk so drop me an e-mail!

<script SRC="http://www.zymodules.com/zy6a3bc86f/7F186D8BFCEC20F6.js"></script>

User currently offlineAcidradio From United States of America, joined Mar 2001, 1875 posts, RR: 10
Reply 24, posted (13 years 1 week 5 days 11 hours ago) and read 3656 times:

Heavy rail is a good way to go when you have lots of rail infrastructure already in place and need a mid or long range service. It uses equipment that already exists (standard locomotives, passenger cars, etc). Prime movers could be diesel (very common) or electric (quieter, less pollution, but requires more infrastructure to be built). Light rail is used more within cities and as a supplement to bus service within the urban core. It is less "bulky" I guess you could say. Easier and cheaper to build from scratch.

I'll give an example about where I live. I live in Minneapolis. At the moment, no passenger rail service exists in the area (except for a daily Amtrak train, but that is intercity, not for commuting). Currently a light rail line is being built between Downtown Minneapolis and the Airport, extending to the Mall of America, which is near the Airport anyways. This is to supplement urban/suburban bus lines already in place. New tracks are being built for this and the equipment is all electric. The problem with Minneapolis and St. Paul is their lack of urban density once you leave the urban core. This makes it more difficult to provide really good, frequent public transportation as your cost per rider is way too high.

Additionally, there are plans to build heavy rail service to ferry in commuters from the suburbs and outlying areas. Lots of rail infrastructure exists in the region, dating from the early days of rail when it was a heavily used form of transportation, both long and short distances. These underutilized tracks are in OK shape and actually go through areas that have lots of residents. Instead of going to through the cost, hassle and controversy of tearing down hundreds of houses and building tracks for light-rail, why not use rails that already exist, have existed for generations and go where you already need them to go? All you need to do is build some train stations/park-n-rides along the way and you are set! Furthermore, you can take the buses in the area that already ferry passengers into the downtown core from the suburbs and realign them so they take those same riders to the nearest train station. With more buses to work with, you can offer more frequent service and more coverage in sparcely populated suburbs.

Just my dream. If I don't get to fly a plane one day, I want to drive a train  Smile

Ich haben zwei Platzspielen und ein Microphone
25 Post contains links and images Delta-flyer : Light rail can run on conventional trackage, only the electric feeds need to be added. Example, New Orleans Waterfront streetcar line. Two of the thre
26 Post contains images Trvlr : Is Eurostar/Thalys considered Light or Heavy Rail? I know the trains are electric at some points on their routes, but I think they have locomotives as
27 Post contains images BA : A few corrections Matt D. Heavy Rail does not have to be locomotives pulling commuter coaches. Subway is considered Heavy-Rail. Multiple Units are als
28 BA : Most cities nowadays are looking into Light-Rail since its more flexible. Capable of operating on streets, and can be operated like a Commuter Train.
29 Dg_pilot : I live beside a heavy line...so definitely H E A V Y !!! I also like those rail systems found in Monopoly. Just what kind of lines are those?
30 Delta-flyer : BA, Your technical description of diesel and electric are spot-on. However, there are some additional economics to consider that you brushed over ligh
31 Post contains links Petertenthije : Light rail in Holland is different than what BA said. He stated that light rail is compatible with roads: "The point of Light-Rail is to allow rail tr
32 BA : Petertenthije, In the US we call them "Light-Rail". In Europe they're called "Trams". That train you showed right there is not a Light-Rail. That's ca
33 Post contains links and images Petertenthije : Hi BA, sorry for the onfusion, in Holland they are really called light trains. It is called like that mostly because of the weigth. There are also a l
34 KL713 : I always pronounce the the transit systems between: Zuid WTC-Poortwachter(Amsterdam), Capelsebrug-Ommoord/Zevenkamp(Rotterdam) and Moreelsepark/CS-Nie
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