How can U.S. streetcars evolve into better light rail systems?

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Last month, our article «For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution» emphasized that “For the first time since the advent of the USA’s modern light rail transit (LRT) revolution in the mid-1970s, the modern streetcar — a scaled-down version of higher-performance LRT — has emerged as the leading form of LRT development for launching urban rail in American cities.” One of the features of the new-start modern streetcar systems, the article notes, is “more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic” (i.e., as compared with prior conventional implementations of LRT). However, it’s precisely that “reliance” on sharing streets with mixed motor vehicle traffic that has fed a debate, at least in North America, among transit advocates over the relevancy of some streetcar lines, in contrast with “full LRT” routed in dedicated lanes or reservations. (Jarrett Walker, especially in posts on his Human Transit website, is an influential critic.)

The Light Rail Now Project team realize that dedicated-lane operation is superior, but we also recognize that occasionally mixed running with general traffic may be necessary. Furthermore, we believe that most streetcar systems should be implemented with a longer-term view toward eventual upgrade to “full” LRT features, included running in dedicated or exclusive lanes, under traffic-signal prioritization, etc.

Systems elsewhere, such as those in Europe and Australia, offer excellent examples of how streetcar (tramway) systems can by installed or upgraded cost-effectively with incremental operational improvements and tweaks. Tram advocate Tony Prescott, in postings on the Eurotrams online forum, provides useful information that offers some illumination on these issues.

Regarding tramway operations, Tony writes

One message you’re obviously going to have to get across in the debate is that separation [via dedicated or reserved lanes] is not a magic pill that will necessarily solve all street-running issues. A lot is … down to smart planning and operation. Mixed running along a street is not necessarily a problem till you get to an intersection, and you will see if you study a lot of the European cab videos that the tracks are segregated as they approach an intersection, as far back as necessary to avoid the tram being caught in a traffic tailback.

There are lots of little such techniques – and most importantly skilled management – that keep those traditional European tramways moving along swiftly, indeed often more swiftly than many expensive new separated “modern light rail” projects.

Tony cites a YouTube video of one of Prague’s tramlines (Line 18, videoed from the cab of one of the city’s new Skoda 15T trams, such as the one shown at the top of this post). The video provides an excellent illustration of the techniques used in a modern European city, with heavy reliance on tramway services for its public transport, to optimize operations via a blend of mixed-traffic and dedicated-lane alignments plus deft traffic management. Even just a few minutes is worth watching (the full video is nearly an hour in length) to acquire an understanding of the sensible, often minimalist techniques deployed to expedite tram (streetcar) operations in this city.



As Tony points out:

What is interesting about this video is that it is filmed on an evening weekday peak run. … This video shows the peak-hour challenges faced on line 18 between Pankrac depot and Petriny. It goes across the city and through the centre from south-east to west.

In relation to the parallel discussion here about mixed-traffic running vs separation, it shows the varied running environments, challenges and techniques on one of the world’s busiest tram systems. You can also see the now considerable development of shared running with buses through the tram stops, to the enormous benefit of bus operations and interchange convenience for passengers. This has been made possible by the development of 100% low floor buses with multiple doors, enabling the same dwell times as trams.

Tony also notes that “In Prague, buses don’t enter the city centre for environmental reasons. They feed off the trams and metro at the edges of the city centre.” Perhaps an interesting and useful model for North American urban public transport?

Our own recommendation: These comments and videos of high-quality tramway/streetcar services like this represent lessons that planners and designers of new streetcar systems in North America would be well-advised to heed. ■

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One thought on “How can U.S. streetcars evolve into better light rail systems?

  1. Hi Guys – Just wondering if you are still supporting the CBD South East Light Rail with its poor outcomes?

    26th May 2016
    Why continue the CSELR project?

    • Does it increase public transport passenger capacity per hour vs. existing buses? NO
    • Are total journey times faster? NO
    • Is it higher frequency? NO
    • Is it more comfortable? NO
    • Is it safer? NO

    • 180 buses per am peak hour eliminated between Kingsford/Randwick and Central Circular Quay
    Vs. just 15 Light Rail vehicles per hour
    RESULT: Light Rail maximum passenger capacity per hour at least 6000 below current buses

    • Bus journey times are 28 minutes from Circular Quay to Randwick and 30 minutes from Circular Quay to Kingsford
    Vs. Light Rail Average journey 35 minutes from Circular Quay to Randwick and 37 minutes from Circular Quay to Kingsford
    RESULT: Costs you time

    • Buses on average 3 per minute between Kingsford/Randwick and Central / Circular Quay in the am peak hour
    Vs. light rail one every eight minutes from Kingsford and Randwick respectively in the am peak hour
    RESULT: Longer waiting times

    • A 60 passenger capacity bus seats 43 people or 72% seated
    Vs. Light Rail 120 out of 450 passenger capacity = 27% seated
    RESULT: Get used to standing

    • Buses can swerve to avoid a collision and brake with rubber tyres
    Vs. Light Rail ploughs straight ahead with sliding metal wheels on metal rails
    RESULT: More serious accidents and fatalities IMAGINE: A 67-metre giant light rail vehicle at 70 kph

    It doesn’t benefit the community. Why build it?

    If interested or any questions, please contact john@johnbellamybiz
    SYDNEY LIGHT RAIL ACTION GROUP
    MEDIA CONTACT John Bellamy john@johnbellamy.biz 0414 755 621

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