When is “LRT” not LRT?

In all the debates about transit options, be they in Scarborough or elsewhere, one of the most abused and frequently misunderstood terms is “LRT”.

The term appears in various contexts over the years under both the guise “Light Rail Transit” and “Light Rapid Transit”.  The difference can be more in local preference including marketing aims.

One can even find “LRRT” where a proposal tries to be all things to be all people.  The Buffalo line, which incongruously runs on the surface downtown, but in a tunnel elsewhere, originally used this term, but was rebranded “Metro Rail”.  The “LRRT” term, however, is still in current use as a Google search will demonstrate.

The term “Light” contrasts “LRT” with systems that require more substantial (or “heavy”) infrastructure such as:

  • mainline railways including commuter rail operations such as GO,
  • “subways” as the term is used in Toronto (with other words such as “Metro” and “Tube” found in other cities),
  • any technology requiring a dedicated, segregated guideway and stations either because of automated control systems or because the right-of-way cannot be crossed for various reasons.

Life gets very confusing because there are overlaps between technologies and their implementation.  One of the oldest streetcar systems in North America, Boston’s, exhibits every conceivable type of operation with the same vehicles running in mixed traffic (little of this remains on the network), on reserved lanes in street medians, on private rights-of-way that run “cross country” relative to the road network, on elevated structures, and in tunnels just like a subway.  (The “Blue Line” running under the Boston harbour was originally a streetcar tunnel, but was converted to “subway” operation in the 1920s.)

The Boston Green Line is the oldest subway on the continent, and it runs with “streetcars” that morph into “light rail vehicles” not because of magic performed where they leave the street pavement, but because of the way the vehicles are used.  This is central to the concept of “LRT” – the ability to operate in many environments as appropriate to demand and local circumstance.

Unlike what Toronto calls a “subway”, an LRT network can adapt to its surroundings and this is a fundamental characteristic of the mode.  The original Scarborough LRT would have run at grade with some road crossings enroute, and a Malvern extension was on the books, but never built.

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Full Disclosure & An Open Door

For the benefit of readers and those working on various election campaigns:

Since the municipal campaign began earlier this year, I have been approached by a few candidates and/or by their organizations for my thoughts on transit issues.  All of this has been on a pro bono basis.  I am not working for any of the campaigns, nor do I intend to take up that role.  My aim is to improve the quality and “literacy” of discussions about transit issues.  Whether the candidates or their teams agree or incorporate my thoughts is their own matter.

It is far to early in the campaign to even think about endorsements, and if I make any, this will be much closer to voting day when the candidates and their platforms have been tested by several months of campaigns and scrutiny.  The readership here is not huge, and the idea that I could sway a significant voting block is laughable.  My personal voting preferences will be based on more than just the transit file, but this site is not a place for discussion of issues from municipal portfolios beyond transportation.

As transit issues develop in the campaign, I will write about them here, although I do not intend to rehash the entire Scarborough subway/LRT debate beyond clarifications or challenges to misleading information.  Frankly there are more important matters to talk about, and a pro-transit candidate should not make this the sole plank of their platform however they stand on the question.

My door, so to speak, is open to those who want to talk about transit, although I suspect certain candidates won’t be calling.