Counting the benefits of light rail

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The future prospects for Light Rail Transit (LRT) are promising: 80 cities are currently either building or planning their first LRT line. These are the signs of a mode of transport that is enjoying a remarkable revival according to UITP’s latest study and one that also enjoys a strong safety record.

LRT systems can be found in 53 countries across all continents and together move 45 million people each day in 388 cities. During the 1950s-1970s, while many countries made the disastrous move of tearing up their tram lines to make way for the all-conquering automobile, others took steps to modernise and upgrade with newer vehicles and (partly) segregated tracks and LRT was born.

Since the mid-1980s, LRT has made something of a comeback and cities that once ripped up their tracks, primarily in Europe and North America, have turned back to LRT. 70 new LRT systems were inaugurated from 2000-2015 and in 2015 alone, 289km of lines were opened in 19 countries around the world. So far in 2016, new systems have opened in Rio de Janeiro, Qingdao, Bydgoszcz, Kansas City, Seattle and Washington DC. 

Since the beginning of the Millennium, they have also been introduced in the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and more recently in Africa. In Latin America, two new systems were inaugurated last year in Medellin (Colombia) and between São Vicente and Santos (Brazil).  

LRT can play the role of a transport backbone for medium-sized cities (200-600,000 inhabitants), but it can also serve as a feeder to higher capacity metros or commuter railways in larger conurbations.

LRT is in fact six times safer than car travel

Making the case for LRT
The revival of LRT can be attributed to the many benefits that it offers both passengers and cities.

With train composition ranging from 22-60m in length, LRT is a good intermediate mode for capacity needs ranging from 3,000-11,000 passengers per hour per direction, with only metros, heavy rail and in some cases Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) offering similar or higher capacity.

With their good acceleration performance, LRT offers good service speed and can continue to operate in adverse weather conditions, whilst modern vehicles and well-designed and maintained tracks offers passengers a smooth and comfortable ride.

LRT also has the advantage of being environmentally friendly, consuming on average seven times less energy per passenger than cars and producing no emissions at street level. Meanwhile, recent technological advances are opening the way for ever greater gains in energy efficiency.

Light rail can also operate in urban and suburban environments, in mixed traffic or on segregated tracks, at ground level but also underground or elevated if necessary and has proven its flexibility in serving pedestrian areas.

What’s more, LRT schemes are not just transport projects, they are also urban upgrade projects: with permanent and highly visible infrastructure, they testify to a strong, long-term political commitment to sustainability and contribute to regenerating and modernising the areas they serve. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s new LRT system (VLT Carioca) is part of a wider neighbourhood regeneration scheme, ‘Porto Maravilha,’ focused on Rio’s city centre area. Once completed, it is expected to carry 300,000 passengers per day between the city centre and port zone and will be fully integrated with bus, metro, commuter rail, cable car, BRT and ferry services.      

How safe is it?
After conducting a first survey on the topic back in 2009, UITP’s Light Rail Committee set about again recently to examine this very question, updating its database and increasing the number of surveyed cities. 

The statistical evidence collected shows that LRT is in fact six times safer than car travel: of the 15 sampled cities, the accident rate for LRT amounted to 0.47 per million persons-km compared to 2.86 for cars.

Accidents caused by LRT driver error remain rare; however, despite LRT safety measures, accidents with third parties do still occur and cannot be avoided completely in the case of deliberate violation of traffic rules and/or a lack of awareness.

These safety measures include segregated rights-of-way and priority at traffic lights that help to reduce the risk of collision with road transport. Scientific research in the field of passive safety, has led to safer vehicle design and professional operators investigate each incident to learn and make systems safer. In addition, ‘Driver-Assistance-Systems’ are currently in the early stages of deployment and will help reduce further the risk of collision through early driver warning.

Among the many benefits of LRT that are contributing to its revival, the safety element is not negligible: LRT contributes to reducing the number of traffic accidents, thus any modal shift towards more LRT positively impacts the overall traffic safety record of a city.

Download UITP’s latest Knowledge Brief, ‘Light rail: a tool to serve customers and cities’:

‘Light rail: a tool to serve customers and cities’ (EN)

'Tran ligero: una herramienta para atender los pasajeros y las ciudades' (ESP)

'VLT: uma ferramenta para atender aos passageiros e as cidades' (POR)

For more on safety, please consult the LRT Knowledge Brief: ‘Light Rail Transit: a safe means of transport,’ and the 'Safety Management System: a sample of practice by LRT operators' report available for UITP members on Mobi+.

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