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Light Rail for better public transport

The History of Tramways and Evolution of Light Rail

by Michael Taplin,
Vice-President and Past Chairman of the Light Rail Transit Association
© M.R.Taplin and LRTA, 1998.

The evolution of electric trams around the world:

The origin of the tramway can be traced back to the plateways used in mines and quarries to ease the passage of horse-drawn wagons, but the first street tramway in a city was the New York and Harlem line of 1832, coining the American term still used today, street railway. Remarkably the world's second horse tramway, in New Orleans (1835), is still in use for electric cars today, after over 150 years of continuous service.

American promoters brought the tramway to Europe, Paris in 1853 and Birkenhead in England in 1860, followed by London in 1861 and Copenhagen in 1863. The 1870s were a boom time for the construction of horse tramways, but the limitations of animal power were obvious, and promoters soon turned to investigating mechanical traction. Steam trams were developed, but were not very suitable for urban use, although they ran on many suburban and rural light railways. Compressed air, gas and petrol engines were tried; cable tramways enjoyed considerable success for a time (and survive in San Francisco). However most of these technically suspect or expensive options faded quickly once electric traction became a possibility.

The first electric vehicles were battery powered, but it was the development of a practicable dynamo by Werner von Siemens, demonstrated in Berlin in 1879, which provided the way ahead for electric traction by generating power at a fixed point and supplying it to a line by conducting rail or overhead wire. Siemens & Halske opened the first electric tramway to provide public service in Berlin in 1881, using current at 180 volts fed through the running rails.

The first lines in the United Kingdom were the Portrush and Bushmills (later Giant's Causeway) tramway in Ireland, and Volks Railway at Brighton in 1883; the latter seafront line still runs today.

For safety reasons electrified running rails were unsuitable for a street environment, and in the UK overhead wire was first used on the Bessbrook and Newry line in Ireland in 1885. Slotted tube overhead was tried in Paris in 1881, and other European cities, including Frankfurt in 1884, and the latter now has the longest period of continuous electric street tramway operation anywhere in the world (conventional overhead wire has been used since 1906). Underground conduit was an alternative to overhead current collection, sometimes preferred for aesthetic reasons since poles and overhead were not required, and surviving until the end of tramway operation in London in 1952, and in Washington DC until 1962. The Blackpool tramway, operated on the overhead system since 1899, opened with conduit operation in 1885, and is Britain's oldest street tramway still operating today.

However the overhead wire with trolley pole collection was soon shown to be the most practicable solution, and the first city tramway network was that installed by the American, Sprague, in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887. By 1900 almost all US horse tramways had been converted to electric traction, and European cities were not far behind. Siemens developed the bow collector as an alternative to the trolley pole, and this lead in turn to the pantograph which is most common today. Before the end of the century electric tramways had appeared around the world, in cities such as Kyoto, Japan; Bangkok, Thailand; and Melbourne, Australia. Tramways in Britain or with a British heritage usually used double-deck trams to maximise capacity. In continental Europe a single-deck tram towing a trailer was more common, while American systems soon progressed to larger trams mounted on two bogies.

The decline of the tram:

For about 25 years from the turn of the century there was a golden age of tramways, and almost every city of consequence around the world operated a system, mostly under municipal control. The tramway provided cheap and reliable transport for the masses, facilitating economic development and the growth of suburbs. Technical innovation in electrical and mechanical engineering permitted larger and more powerful cars; high-speed interurban lines sprang up, particularly in North America where over 15 000 miles of line criss-crossed the continent.

However by the 1920s some tramway managers were worried men. There had been a rapid increase in the cost of labour and materials, and politicians were usually reluctant to face up to fares increases to match the increase in costs. The initial investment was wearing out, but on many systems the profits of the good years had been hived off, with insufficient thought given to a renewals fund to ensure timely replacement of worn-out assets. Mass production of motor cars was starting, and reliable motorbuses were becoming available, so real competition was looming, and it was cheaper to introduce bus feeders than extend tramways.

The depression, which started in America in 1929, but soon affected European economies, saw the rapid collapse of many systems that operated at marginal profitability, small town tramways and most interurbans. The motorbus took over, and from the early 1930s the trolleybus provided a way of contemplating tramway abandonment without dispensing with the electrical supply infrastructure. In the United States, where municipal ownership was less common, there is considerable evidence of a concerted effort by the bus and oil companies to take over ailing tramways and replace them with buses, in order to boost the profits of both groups. Ironically, within little more than another decade, those profits had disappeared under the tidal wave of mass private motoring, and many municipalities had to step in to ensure the retention of some vestige of public transport.

The tramway managers did not give in without a fight. In North America the President's Congress Committee of streetcar companies commissioned research and production of a new design of tram which would offer motor car levels of comfort and performance. The result was the PCC car, which staved off the closure of many systems, and saved others to form the basis of the tramway revival of the modern era. Some still operate today, and have become an icon for those interested in heritage tramways as a contribution to urban regeneration. The PCC did not arrive in Europe until after the war, but in the UK the pioneer Blackpool tramway was modernised with large numbers of trams built to similar principles, which have ensured the survival of that system to the present day.

The Second World War hastened the decline of tramways in the UK and France, but provided the opportunity for tramway reconstruction and reinvestment in Benelux, Germany and eastern Europe. In Britain the nationalisation of the municipal electrical supply was another reason for the attractions of cheap motor buses to sound the death knell for the tramways. Some city systems, such as Glasgow and Liverpool, enjoyed a post-war renaissance, with fleets of new trams and reserved-track extensions, but never enough to ensure they became a dominant part of the network. The last British city system to close was at Glasgow in 1962.

The 1960s:

The decade of the 1960s was a bad time for public transport in many parts of the world, with the growing belief by industry and transport planners that the motor car would be the ordinary form of transport for most people (with buses for those who could not afford cars), and that cities could be adapted to cope with the increased road traffic that would result. All British cities had abandoned trams by 1962, leaving just the Blackpool system, with its unique seafront traffic patterns, faithful to the tram on its reserved track route. A handful of tramway systems survived in North American cities, though many believed that bus replacement was just a matter of time, and in many locations elsewhere around the world tramway modernisation had come to a stop as the economics of mass production disappeared from the tramway supply market.

Only on the European continent did investment in tramways continue, particularly in northern and eastern Europe; Spain, France and Italy followed the abandonment trend common in Britain and the USA. West Germany became the centre of world tramway development, in particular the progress to larger articulated trams, eventually operated by one person, and with most fares collected off the car by season ticket sales or ticket machines at stops. Frequent inspection ensured the viability of the honour fare system. German manufacturer Duewag achieved pre-eminence in the field of tramcar design. Only in this constant improvement in the staff/passenger ratio did the tram continue to demonstrate superior economics to the bus, while the modernised fleets and infrastructure encouraged patronage despite an increase in car ownership. In many city centres in Austria, Belgium and Germany the tram was kept free of the worst effects of traffic congestion by the construction of sections of shallow subway under busy intersections or crowded streets.

The Benelux countries and eastern Europe became the home of the europeanised PCC car, which attracted traffic by offering high performance and short headways. The communist regimes of eastern Europe had little private motoring, so high-capacity public transport was a must. Full metro (underground railway) was unaffordable outside the major conurbations, and the tramway remained the dominant mode for city transit. Centralised planning same the Soviet Union become the world's largest tramway operator, with Leningrad having the world's largest tramway. The world's most prolific tramcar manufacturer became CKD Tatra of Prague, Czechoslovakia, as Comecon agreements made this operation the supplier for most of the systems in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, with production reaching 1000 trams per year.

By the end of the decade the more far-sighted planners in the west had begun to realise the disadvantages of wholesale motorisation and marginalisation of public transport. Traffic congestion in major cities was reaching chaotic proportions at peak times, the peak times were spreading, and attempts to create new super highways in urban areas to cope with the demands of private motoring were seeing whole swathes of city landscapes demolished or divided, bringing economic and social decline. Many North American cities saw a rapid decline in their city centres as new suburban malls sprang up to serve populations that had migrated from high to low-density housing areas, and these were focused almost entirely on travel by car. Concerns about environmental pollution started to surface. Planners and politicians began to look at flourishing cities in continental Europe for a solution to their problems, and realised the importance of effective public transport such as that provided by reserved track tramways.

The Light Rail revolution - Britain:

Legislation in the 1960s provided the groundwork for progress towards a new era in public transport. Local authorities were charged with developing plans for integrated transport systems, and a funding mechanism was put in place for significant central government contribution towards the cost of major public transport infrastructure projects. In the major conurbations Passenger Transport Authorities were created to take over responsibility for operation and development of the network, and they were soon commissioning studies to determine the place of public transport in land-use transportation planning, and options for the future.

The Tyneside PTA published its public transport plan in 1973 setting out proposals for the creation of a light rail transit system to take over the alignment of run-down local rail services (42 km) and link them up by new infrastructure (13.5 km) to create a network of electrified suburban lines which would form the core of an integrated passenger transport system, including bus feeders to purpose-built interchanges. The initial system was opened in stages from 1980 to 1984; a 3.5-km extension to Newcastle airport was opened in 1991, and plans are now advancing for an extension to Sunderland. Britain's first light rail system has been successful in assisting the regeneration of Tyneside and carries over 40 million passengers/year.

In London a key issue in the proposed regeneration of the docklands area east of the city was public transport, and light rail was selected as a credible and affordable option in 1982. The 12-km initial system linking Tower Hill and Stratford with the Isle of Dogs was opened in 1987 as the segregated and automated Docklands Light Railway, using former rail alignments and some new construction. The system has since been extended to 22 km, in tunnel to Bank and on new surface alignment to Beckton, while a cross-river extension to Lewisham is under construction. Over 22 million passengers/year are carried.

Greater Manchester set up a Rail Study Group in 1982 to develop a long-term strategy for the local rail network, and this proposed that the Altrincham (12.3 km) and Bury (16 km) lines, which were in need of investment, be converted to light rail and linked through the city centre on 2.7 km of new street tramway to reach Piccadilly Station. Approval came in 1988 and the system opened in 1992. Within four years it was carrying 13 million passengers/year, compared with 7.5 million on the former rail lines. A branch is under construction to Salford Quays and Eccles, and planning in progress for lines to Ashton-under-Lyne and Wythenshawe/Manchester Airport. The rail line to Oldham and Rochdale could also be converted to light rail.

In South Yorkshire proposals for a tram network based on Sheffield first came from a land-use transportation study in 1974, emerging in 1985 as a defined project for a 29-km street-based system linking the city centre with Meadowhall, Middlewood and Halfway. Approved in 1990, the system was opened in 1994-5, and was expected to carry 17 million passengers/year, but initial performance has been poor due to demographic changes, bus competition, fare structure and few traffic management priorities.

Further light rail/tramway systems are under construction in the West Midlands (Birmingham-Wolverhampton, 20 km) and in the London Borough of Croydon (28 km), while proposals are awaiting funding in Leeds and Nottingham, and under development in South Hampshire, North Kent, Bristol and Edinburgh. The range of systems, from segregated and automated operation on former rail alignments to conventional street tramways indicate the flexibility of the concept.

Mainland Europe:

Light rail was first created in mainland Europe, as street tramways were upgraded with new rolling stock and segregated alignments. The concept owes much to the planning which took place in Goteborg (Gothenburg) in Sweden, where over a period of 15 years an ordinary city street tramway was extended through new and established suburbs on high-speed reserved track, all rolling stock was replaced by a fleet of high-performance trams, and effective traffic restrictions introduced in the central area to give priority to trams and every encouragement to use public transport. All this was achieved without the expense of digging any tram subways, keeping public transport on the surface as a visible and accessible system.

Many other cities have chosen to follow the same path over the last 20 years: Graz and Linz in Austria, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Basel and Zurich in Switzerland, and Gent in Belgium are good examples. Elsewhere, in Belgium, Germany and Austria it was thought that the best way of improving the average speed of public transport in city streets was to provide a segregated path on the surface or in subway, and cities such as Antwerpen, Bruxelles, Koln (Cologne), Hannover, Stuttgart and Wien (Vienna) provide examples of this alternative approach. More recently the cost of underground construction has become prohibitive and there has been a swing back to imposing restrictions on motor traffic as an acceptable way of achieving public transport priority on the surface.

The upgraded systems have given rise to new terminology to differentiate them from ordinary tramways: Supertram, light rail, light metro, sneltram (express tram) and Stadtbahn (city rail) are just some of the names used, while several German cities market their upgraded subway tramways in the same way as underground metros by using the term U-Bahn (underground). Another reason why the subway solution proved popular in the 1970s and 1980s is that it permitted level boarding of high-floor cars from platforms in the city suburbs. On the surface lines in the suburbs, there was often room to install high boarding platforms as well (elsewhere the cars use their folding steps) so the systems gradually became fully-accessible for passengers in wheelchairs, or those with prams and buggies, and boarding and alighting was speeded up for all passengers.

In the 1990s the development of new technology to provide low-floor trams with step-free entrances only 350 mm above rail level has permitted surface systems to achieve the same effect just by building-up kerbs slightly to a matching height at each stop. After trials in France and Germany, this is now the favoured solution for making trams fully accessible, and over 2000 low-floor cars have been delivered or ordered for European systems. In Britain all new systems are required by law to offer step-free access to their trams, resulting in new rolling stock being supplied by Belgian, German and Italian manufacturers.

In countries such as France, Italy and Spain, which like Great Britain had abandoned their tramway heritage, there has also been a swing back to trams. France has led the way, with new systems in Nantes, Grenoble, Paris, Strasbourg and Rouen, all of which are fully-accessible in their entirety thanks to their low-floor tram fleets. Other systems are under construction or planned in Bordeaux, Montpelier, Orleans and Toulon. The Spanish city of Valencia has similarly built a new tramway, and others are developing plans. In Italy Genova has a new segregated light rail line, and many cities are planning tramway systems with the support of generous government funding.


The revival of the streetcar or tram in North America (usually in the guise of light rail) has been just as remarkable as in Europe. The Americans love affair with the automobile may not be over, but they have at least realised that it is not possible to rebuild major cities to accommodate unrestrained traffic growth, either in social or environmental terms. Pressures for better public transport as an alternative to the private car are very strong in California, where the west-coast ethos and the realities of pollution from motor vehicles make it particularly suitable for political initiatives to this end.

In the 1970s American urban planners started to look to Europe for ideas on how to save their cities from sprawl and economic decline. With transportation companies now in public ownership, the introduction of better public transport could be achieved using a mix of city, state and national funding. At the same time, with the end of the Vietnam war, defence contractors were looking for alternative markets, and saw transportation as a growth area. This led to a decision by the surviving tramway cities of Boston and San Francisco to place orders with Boeing-Vertol for new articulated light rail vehicles to replace their PCCs, using a design that was intended to become the standard US LRV in the same way that the PCC had achieved standardisation 40 years earlier. Unfortunately the resulting product was an expensive technical disaster, as Boeing tried to reinvent the wheel rather than learning from transit vehicle experience elsewhere.

The Canadian city of Edmonton led the way with an alternative approach of adapting European technology to American conditions. They built a new light rail line, partly on underused rail alignment, and partly in city subway, and operated it from 1978 with imported trams from Siemens-Duewag in Germany. This was an immediate success, and the Californian city of San Diego followed suit three years later, as did Calgary in Canada. In these cases, rather than dig expensive subways, pedestrian and transit precincts were created in the city centres, since guided pollution-free vehicles such as trams can operate quite successfully in a pedestrian environment.

The success of these systems in attracting back to public transit motorists who would not dream of using a bus led to a boom in the development and construction of light rail systems which is still going on. Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland (with America's first low-floor trams), Sacramento, St Louis are all cities which have built new light rail lines, and many are continuing to expand. New systems are under construction in Jersey City and Salt Lake City, with planning in progress in other cities such as New York and Seattle. The systems at Cleveland, Pittsburg, Philadelphia and Toronto, which survived from the earlier streetcar era, have all acquired new rolling stock, and are extending again.

The example of Los Angeles is particularly significant, since this was a city which threw away its trams and interurbans in the 1960s, and determined it could live with the automobile. The pall of pollution which hangs over the urban sprawl proves differently, and two new light rail lines and an underground metro have been opened, with a third light rail line under construction.

South of the border new light rail lines have been built in the cities of Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City. In South America tramways had virtually disappeared by the end of the 1960s, but the first new light rail lines have now appeared, in Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro.

Australasia and Asia:

The antipodean tram was largely modelled on its British counterpart, though double deckers were less common, and saw a rapid decline in the 1950s and 1960s as small-town systems closed for economic reasons, and cities such as Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney gave up trams for industro-political reasons. However the largest system (220 km) in the southern hemisphere, at Melbourne, survived intact, thanks to good management and political support. The first new trams for 20 years arrived in 1975 and a total of 362 new cars have transformed the system from a very traditional and conservative operation to one which is much more customer orientated, and is being prepared for privatisation. Several new extensions have been built and two local rail lines converted to light rail operation and linked through street operation in the city centre.

1997 saw the return of trams to Melbourne's great rival, Sydney, with the opening of a short light rail line built and operated by the private sector. This will form the basis of an expanded network, including operation in city streets, by the time the Olympic Games are held in the city in the year 2000. Elsewhere Brisbane is considering the re-introduction of trams, and the surviving route in Adelaide is due to be modernised. This line was due for extension in the 1980s, until a change of political power saw the introduction of the German O-Bahn guided busway system. In New Zealand trams disappeared from city streets by the 1960s, but 1995 saw their return to Christchurch in the form of a heritage loop through the city centre using museum cars to provide a tourist-orientated service. Light rail is on the agenda in Auckland and Wellington.

Japan has suffered even heavier motorisation than the USA and western Europe, so conditions have not been conducive to the survival of the street tramway. However many tramways have been steadily upgraded over the years to run on segregated alignments and form the basis of a substantial network of electric light railways that are an important part of the well-patronised public transport system. Ironically some small town street tramway operations have survived, and are slowly being modernised; the first low-floor tram (based on a German design) was introduced in 1997.

Elsewhere in Asia rail-based urban public transport is less common. India's only surviving tramway, in Calcutta, is a large network, but years of under-investment have left services in a parlous state. By contrast the capital of the Philippines, Manila, opened a new segregated light rail line across the city in 1984, and the success of this has encouraged the construction of two more lines using private capital. China had little tramway operation, and just three Manchurian towns operate trams today. 1997 saw the People's Republic re-integrate the British colony of Hong Kong, where British-style double-deck trams have run since 1904, and continue to compete successfully with intensive bus operation on the streets of Hong Kong Island. A complete contrast is the light rail system built since 1988 in the suburban township of Tuen Mun, which is one of the most heavily patronised systems in the world, carrying over 112 million passengers/year on the 32-km network. The North Korean capital Pyongyang has built a new tramway system since 1991. In Malaysia Kuala Lumpur has a new light metro system opened in 1996.


In Africa light rail is limited to Tunisia and Egypt. Tunis has created a 32-km system since 1985, with German-built articulated cars operating four surface lines that carry 90 million passengers/year. Alexandria has a street tramway and suburban light rail line, while in the Cairo area the Egyptian capital, Heliopolis and Helwan operate modernised light rail lines.

The concept of light rail:

Light rail is not a rigid concept, but a flexible mode that fits between the bus and the heavy metro or conventional railway, and can behave like either of them as well. In comparison with a system of buses on city streets, it is more expensive to construct, but may be cheaper to operate for a given capacity, will have lower whole-life costs, a higher commercial speed, reduce pollution, and be more successful in attracting motorists to public transport. In comparison with a metro or urban railway, light rail will be cheaper to build and operate, but operate at a lower commercial speed. However it will maintain a visible presence of surface public transport, offer better penetration of urban areas, enjoy better security, and generate less noise.

Light rail can cater economically and effectively for passenger flows between 2000 and 20 000 passengers/hour, which will usually be found in cities with populations between 200 000 and one million.

Light rail usually involves steel wheel vehicles operating on steel rails and collecting electrical power from an overhead wire. Diesel light rail is a concept that has been tried to a limited extent, and may have a role in future for low-cost starter lines. The steel rails can be grooved, so that they may lay flush with a street surface, or ballasted like normal railway track, making light rail the only system which can operate on both city streets and jointly with conventional rail services. It offers the possibility that regional rail services can be extended through to the city centre via transfer points from rail to street track, a concept that has been introduced with enormous success in Karlsruhe, Germany, using dual voltage light rail vehicles, and is now being built elsewhere.

Light rail demonstrates its flexibility by its ability to operate in a wide range of built environments. It can act as a tramway in the street, though if its advantages over the bus are to maximised, unsegregated street track should be kept to the minimum needed to pass particular pinch points. Within the street environment it can be segregated by white lines, low kerbs, and side or central reservation. Tracks can be laid in tarmac, mass concrete, ballast or grass according to operational and environmental needs. Light rail can be built on former railway formations, or indeed track share with railways, whether little-used freight lines or those with a passenger service. Technical progress means that appropriate safety arrangements can be put into force for mixed service despite the differing buffing loads of light rail and heavy rail rolling stock.

Although light rail is a modern mass transit system for cities, trams are being used increasingly to put the fun back into inner city life. A score of American cities have discovered just how a heritage tramway can be an economic boost to the central area, and the trend has spread to Europe. These heritage tramways, run with restored or replica cars, can share tracks with light rail service, and are often entirely separate from preservation activities by museum groups, although the two can interrelate quite successfully. Many established tramway systems run tourist-orientated services, such as the very successful Melbourne City Circle line, while others are stand-alone, such as the heritage line built in 1995 for Birkenhead in England, which uses replica double deckers built in Hong Kong.

Trams and light rail can cover the whole spectrum of public transport provision, and international experience of 350 systems worldwide confirms that this is the most successful intermediate mode, with over 100 years of development behind it, yet incorporating the latest technology for the future.

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