Overview and discussion

Photo: (C) Light Rail Atlas/Rob van der Bijl
Michigan City (Indiana, US), Augustus 8, 2007

Is this train in the streets of South Bend an example of 'light rail'? No, though this train of the 'South Shore Line' (from Chicago to South Bend) crosses the streets of downtown like a 'tram' (or 'streetcar'). The expression 'light rail' creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. It is indeed a hybrid conception hence open to different interpretations. Light rail definitions keep people busy. Surf for some recent contributions to the second part of this page - click

Feel free to correspond...

Light Rail Vocabulary

More Smoothly

The 'Light Rail Transit Association' (LRTA) presents the next definition of the Light Rail phenomenon:
"The modern term "Light Rail" embraces tramways but goes further - and faster - than traditional tramways - and so much more smoothly and even with style and 'pizazz'".

Circumsription (1)

Unfortunately this is not a very clear definition. Indeed LRTA needs many additional words to give a proper circumscription of light rail - light rail is clean and green, safe, speedy, smooth, comfortable, compatible, civilising, acceptable and accepted, re-assuring, high capacity, affordable, reliable, versatile, adaptable, sound technology based, and last but not least, capable of going underground.

Circumsription (2)

According the LRTA most modern light rail systems offer frequent services that rival convenience of car, offer 'seamless journey' interchange from/to feeder services and to and from train services, offer level boarding with easy access for everyone, including wheel-chair users, offer Park & Ride so outer commuters need not drive to city centres, and offer through ticketing for day and regular users.

Photo: (C) Light Rail Atlas/Rob van der Bijl
Sacramento (California, US), summer 1994


The conception of light rail creates a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. It is indeed a hybrid conception and thus open to different interpretations. In the next section of this page some light rail related terminology is defined and explaned.


Light Rail is a mode of transport which contains properties of:

Classical tramways, street running and possibly some segregation
Tram (NL, CH, D, A, GB, F, and many other contries), streetcar (USA), Strassenbahn (D)
Heavy rail, segragated
Railway (general term), metro (NL, F, E, etc.), underground (GB), rapid transit (USA), S-Bahn (D), U-Bahn (D).

In the USA the word 'interurban' is not in use anymore, while 'trolley', an expression which contains historic connotations in the same extent, is used ambivalently to point to real light rail (e.g. San Diego) or vintage tramway service in downtown areas (e.g. Dallas).

If a tram system possesses heavy rail properties it can be called Light Rail; sneltram (NL), stadtbahn (D, A), metro (F, GB, USA and many other countries), light rail transit (USA), métro léger (F, I, E, etc.).

Beware of Germany

Strassenbahn can mean a classical tramway or a system containing much light rail characteristics; U-bahn is sometimes a classical metropolitain (underground) railway (such as in München, Neurenberg, Berlin). In other cases it is a modernized tramway or indeed a true light rail (Hannover, Köln-Bonn, 'Ruhrgebiet, etc.).
S-bahn means almost in all cases 'rapid transit' (Hamburg, München) or even classical heavy rail (Berlin). But, the S-bahn system of Karlsruhe is thé perfect example of light rail! And the light rail system of Saarbrücken is also called S-bahn.


In many countries tram (or even light rail) are expressions to be considered as oldfashioned, or simply as not appropriate. Therefore one introduces the expression 'métro léger' (F, E, and Southern America, including Mexico), 'metro' (GB), or one invents new terminology, such as tramlink (GB), metrobus (Rouen, F). Tramlink sounds understandable, but metrobus...? - the system of Rouen is nor metro nor bus, because it is a tram (T1). Don't get confused by T2, the optical guided bus of Rouen, because that's a bus indeed.

Some other terminology

The discussion is continued. Please do read the next contributions!

TramTrain (1)

Photo (C) Light Rail Atlas, Saarbrücken, Germany, August 20, 1999

What's this? It's a tram, but able to use heavy rail infrastructure. So it's a tram in the city of Saarbrücken (DE) which is able to drive as a train in the region (Saarland). Therefore it is called TramTrain. Other examples: France (Paris/Aulnay-Bondy, Mulhouse, and many more to come), and Karlsruhe (D) and similar systems in Germany and other countries.

TramTrain (2)

Photo: (C) Light Rail Atlas/Rob van der Bijl, The Hague (NL), February 25, 2009
Example of TramTrain conversion style.

TramTrain is a rather 'difficult' mode, and so a new expression. Any thoughts? Your contribution is welcome. Feel free to correspond...

TrainTram (1)

Foto: (C) Light Rail Atlas/Rob van der Bijl
Aigle (CH), August 19, 1999

It's a train, which is allowed to drive as a tram into the city. . Many examples in Japan, like in Switserland (e.g. Aigle - see photo above). Nice example: Zwickau (Germany), see section below

Zwickau: section of street alignment. Track sharing of light rail train RegioSprinter (right) and city tram (left).

TrainTram (2)

Photo: (C) Light Rail Atlas/Axel Kuehn, Camden (NJ) USA, June 10, 2005
Light Rail according American standards! European DMU across the street of Camden's waterfront.

After more than one year of operation the new light rail transit service from Trenton to Camden turns out to be a success. The original doubts about the project’s success have disappeared. The patronage is much higher then expected. Moreover, the technical solution used - 'train-tram', could be of interest for other places in the US, and Europe as well. Meanwhile the European-built Stadler GTW type of cars are used in many places, like soon in Groningen (Netherlands) too.

UITP International Light Rail Committee

"This morning, I happened to see your web page, which I didn´t know about before. I enjoyed reading it. I read the different definitions of the words light rail. As a member of the UITP International Light Rail Committee ever since it started in 1978, I remember that the first thing we discussed was the name of the committee and then in 1983 we defined light rail. The definition can be found on the web in a UITP Focus paper on Light Rail for Livable Cities."

Ragnar Domstad - Development Director Västtrafik Göteborgsområdet (2001)

Not bad: the next two definitions

1. Ed Tennyson defines Light Rail in accordance with the officially adopted definition of the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council (USA). In his words it is: "An electric passenger railway capable of operating in the street, across the street, on aerial structure, in subway and on railroad tracks, characterized by but not limited to private right-of-way and trains of from one to four cars."
But does this definition help clear the issue? George Barsky (April 2003) conjectures that by this definition many electric railways, ie, locomotive hauled or MU trains qualify as 'LRT', but DMU does not.

2. "A light rail vehicle can be operating in the middle of a busy street at one moment and function as a high-speed rapid transit train moments later."
The First LRT conference (USA, 1975)

Not a definition

Light Rail is sexy!

Our new definition (2010)

Image: (C) RVDB/ (Rob van der Bijl)
October 2009

Light rail represents operation on one or more types of rail infrastructure. compiled a new definition of light rail, in colaboration with ProRail, the Dutch national railinfrastructure provider (2009-2010).
"Light rail is a rail-bound mode of public transport for cities and urban regions. Contrary to train (heavy rail) and metro (subway, underground) light rail principally is able to be integrated within public realm, sharing public space with other traffic to some extend."
Source: RVDB/, February 19, 2010, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Feel free to correspond...

Back to the top of this page.






More vocabulary & definitions

See the pages of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP - Particularly this page...