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.

Many decades ago, the Ontario Government thought it knew better than the rest of the transit industry what was needed for the future of cities.  Toronto got the “Intermediate Capacity Transit System” (ICTS) better known here as the Scarborough RT, and in Vancouver as “Skytrain”.  The arm twisting that went into Toronto’s “acceptance” of this technology is legendary to the point that Queen’s Park threatened to cut off subsidies, and a bill allowing Ontario to write financial guarantees for the Vancouver project was treated as a vote of confidence by a then-minority government.

To make this technology more palatable (and appropriate to the era of the debate – 1984), the ICTS was dubbed “Advanced LRT” even though it was nothing of the kind.  It was an automated system using side-running power rails and a reaction rail (for the linear induction motor) in the guideway.  Both of these dictated complete segregation of the system from pedestrians and traffic thereby making the technology more a “mini metro” or scaled down subway, not an LRT.

Ever since, the citizens of Scarborough have been confounded by a system that calls itself “ALRT” and confuses the question of what real “LRT” actually is.  The problem is compounded by streetcar lines downtown upgraded to reserved lanes that are the very low end of “LRT” only in that they have partial segregation but none of the other attributes.

Now, of course, with the rattletrap RT on its deathbed, it is a widely derided technology and this attitude extends to the proposed “LRT” replacement that hardly anyone really understands.

Regardless of what one might think of the proposed “Transit City” LRT network, it demonstrated the concept of using “heavy” infrastructure (notably the Eglinton tunnel) where and only where it was needed, and surface running, mainly on streets, for the rest of the network.  That is a hallmark of LRT even if some of the TTC’s proposed implementations were a bit heavy-handed.

The Scarborough RT-to-LRT conversion was added once Transit City became established as a brand to simplify and standardize the network on one technology.  It would most definitely not have been a “streetcar” because none of the Scarborough line runs on a street.  For the extended version, street running would have been confined to the carhouse access at Sheppard.

Now we come to the 2014 election campaign and the position taken by some candidates that Toronto Council should reverse its Scarborough Subway decision and proceed with the original LRT proposal in the SRT corridor.  Queen’s Park, true to their meddlesome tradition, wants a subway, but on the SRT alignment, not on the Eglinton/McCowan route favoured by Council.

My point is not to debate the LRT vs subway issue here, but to ensure that terms are used for what they mean, not for anyone’s invention.  (Comments attempting to relaunch the subway debate which has been discussed here extensively already will be deleted, or if I am in a very good mood, edited to retain whatever content is separate from that issue.)

We have one mayoral candidate, David Soknacki, who is clear that he favours the LRT plan while another, Olivia Chow, gives out confusing messages.  (Tory, Stintz and Ford are clearly in the subway camp.)

In a recent NOW article by Jonathan Goldsbie, Chow extols Vancouver’s Skytrain as “LRT” when in fact that is (a) not what the LRT plan would use and (b) Skytrain is not “LRT” as the term is commonly used in the industry.  Her main transit page features a photo of the Seattle LRT line, not Skytrain, but Chow contributes her own confusion to the debate with yet another piece of transit terminology, “Overground”.

“Overground”, a term used in London UK, refers to a collection of services more akin to GO Transit than to anything the TTC operates.  There is also a map of world “overground” systems including Vancouver and other cities with Skytrain-like systems as well as conventional LRT and a variety of other technologies and implementations.

If the criterion for the term is that a transit line not be underground, well, all modes we operate in Toronto, including “subways” are “overground” at some point (just as our “streetcars” run underground in a few locations).

Does Chow even understand which technology she is endorsing?  The debate is difficult enough without using incorrect comparisons to other systems and introducing a term that nobody in Toronto (or much of the rest of the world) applies in the manner implied by Chow’s material.

I understand the reluctance to talk about “LRT” in Scarborough, but that’s what the technology for Transit City really is.  All of the planning and past debates have turned on that term, not one invented to dress up the scheme in new clothes.  We went through that crap with “Advanced LRT” three decades ago, and Scarborough has been worse off for the experience.

For a more extensive review of transit terminology, see Wikipedia.

To conclude:

The term “LRT” was coined many decades ago to distinguish transit implementations that were “lighter” than subways, the most common form of rapid transit seen in the first half of the 20th century.  By definition, this does not include any technology requiring a completely segregated right-of-way which is necessarily “heavier” than would be required for true LRT in at least part of a corridor.

The term may be used in some locations to refer to technologies outside of that definition (notably on the Docklands Light Railway in London, UK), but these are exceptions with local history, certainly not “LRT” as it was proposed and used here in Toronto and in most other cities of North America.

82 thoughts on “When is “LRT” not LRT?

  1. Malcom N says:

    “Couple of basic questions,

    “1. Has this been implemented at an intersection like Sheppard and Vic Park (next one down the way). While the intersection you showed was no back alley it is not 7 lanes including turn lanes either.”

    Let’s assume that we have 12 foot traffic lanes, 3 foot centre median and 8 foot pedestrian crossings; that will make the gap only 103 feet. If we stop the third rail 10 feet before the pedestrian crossing then we have a 123 foot gap. This is doable but the third rail shoes on all trucks are live even if just one is touching the third rail.

    Subway cars only have air and regenerative brakes while LRT has these and track brakes which can stop a vehicle a lot faster in an emergency though causing extra rail wear. Since the subways don’t have these you would have to be able to guarantee a clear intersection for safety sake, crossing gates and lights anyone? The one advantage with centre reservation LRT is that people do use it as a midway point for crossing the street. Would you want to try this with third rail? You would need a fenced median between all cross streets. This would really improve the urban streetscape.

    “2. Is not the 3rd rail much more expensive to implement?”

    The rail is more expensive that the overhead wire but it reduces the need for poles and feeders. It also does not fall down in ice storms though it can get coated in ice which is difficult to remove. Anyone who would consider the use of third rail for a median reservation needs to seriously re think this thought.

    Subway trains are not designed to run in a median with level crossings. They do not have the right braking system so you would need a special set of cars with track brakes. There goes any interchange options with other lines. Either you add the track brakes to all cars or you have a special set for the Sheppard HRT median line with level crossings.

    Third rail is totally incompatible from a safety point of view for running in a median.

    The high platforms would make it difficult to meet AODA and safety of life requirements.

    There is a system that exists that meets all of these requirements. It is called LRT. Don’t try to engage in rational arguments with them Malcolm for their minds are made up.

    Rick please note that the grade crossing has flashing lights, crossing gates and bells. It is built like a main line railway crossing, probably because it is on the right of way of a former interstate railway and has to meet FRA requirements for “safety”. It also operates about every 10 minutes so it does not make a major impact on traffic like a 5 minute or better service would.

    Can anyone picture a large number of people getting off a 4 or 6 car subway train, descending the stairs and then crossing the street from the centre median. My mind shudders at the thought and the traffic chaos it could cause.


  2. Robert Wightman said:

    “can anyone picture a large number of people getting off a 4 or 6 car subway train, descending the stairs and then crossing the street from the centre median. My mind shudders at the thought and the traffic chaos it could cause”

    Given the Metrolinx initial projected load was only 3000, I have a hard time thinking you would find a large number of people at any station. The projection could be supported by a single LRV every 3 minutes. The image I have is seeing such a train pull through at a “busy station” and with 10 or fewer people get off or on at rush.

    Yes build the system so you can increment later, (allow for space for station expansion), but don’t spend many extra billions now.

    Steve: If the peak demand is only 3k, there is absolutely no justification for through routing the subway, and they can transfer at Don Mills Station. As and when a subway is actually justified, then we can spend the money putting one underground.

    Please note that I consider this whole discussion of subway trains in the middle of the road at an end and will not publish any new comments that come in on that subject.


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