A Modest Proposal

The Antiplanner has been reading lots of rail transit plans lately and it strikes me that the standard jargon for different kinds of rail systems is confusing. Most people think that the terms “light” and “heavy” rail refer somehow to weight, when they don’t. By extension, if trains look heavy, they must be heavy rail.

This results in the most confusion between heavy rail and commuter rail. Both use the same weight of rails, so lots of people call commuter rail “heavy rail.” In fact, weight has nothing to do with it–most light-rail lines are built with the same weight of rails as heavy-rail lines.

As the Antiplanner has noted before, the terms “light” and “heavy” really refer to carrying capacity. Light rail is short for “light-capacity” rail while heavy rail is short for “heavy-capacity” rail. The confusion results because the term “heavy” is rarely used to mean “high” while “light” is rarely used to mean “low.”

So I modestly suggest we use a different terminology. Instead of “heavy rail,” we should say “high-capacity rail.” This would include subways and elevated, any trains that operate exclusively in their own right of way and whose potential length is eight cars or greater.

This means the term “low-capacity rail” should be used in place of light rail. While high-capacity rail has trains of eight or more cars, low-capacity rail has trains of just two to four cars, depending on the length of the blocks on the city where the trains are to run.

By extension, streetcars are “ultra-low capacity rail.” Unlike low-capacity rail, streetcars are not designed to be coupled together and so run only one car at at time. This, combined with the fact that each car is no more than two-thirds as long as a low-capacity railcar, means that a streetcar line has a third or less the capacity of low-capacity rail transit.

Commuter trains generally operate only during rush hours and often share tracks with freight trains, which use them during other hours. Unlike high- and low-capacity rail, which is usually electrically powered, commuter trains usually consist of a Diesel locomotive pulling two or more passenger cars.

But more confusion results because some cities have started what they call commuter-rail services that consist of one or two self-powered cars that often operate half-hourly all day long, and quarter-hourly during peak hours. The Federal Transit Administration has recently decided to call this type of service “hybrid rail” because it is something like a cross between commuter rail and low-capacity rail.

Instead, I propose to call commuter trains that consist of a locomotive and cars “moderate-capacity commuter rail,” while the hybrid rail should be called “low-capacity commuter rail.”

Is there such a thing as high-capacity commuter rail? Probably not, but ordinary commuter rail should be called “moderate-capacity” because its capacity falls well short of high-capacity rail. Even the most frequent commuter trains rarely operate more than five times per hour, which can’t compare with high-capacity rail which can operate at least twenty times an hour.

Rail advocates won’t like this nomenclature because they want to give people the misleading impression that light rail and even streetcars are high-capacity transit. That’s why the change is all the more urgent so that people can really understand what they are getting when their politicians decide to spend a billion dollars or more on a low-capacity rail line.

So from now on, this blog will use these terms: high-capacity rail; low-capacity rail; ultra-low-capacity rail; moderate-capacity commuter rail; and low-capacity commuter rail. I suggest others do the same.


10 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal

  1. LazyReader

    I was wondering, does the Antiplanner have any comprehensive data regarding European transit. Subways, trolleys, regional rail in regards to it’s costs, operating expenses, subsidies, energy consumption. It’s great he talks about America’s transit follies, but remember it draws it’s “inspiration” from it’s European constituents. Such as the RER which serves the entire Paris region. To have comprehensive data on Europe and it’s popular opinion on policies.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Is there such a thing as high-capacity commuter rail? Probably not, but ordinary commuter rail should be called “moderate-capacity” because its capacity falls well short of high-capacity rail. Even the most frequent commuter trains rarely operate more than five times per hour, which can’t compare with high-capacity rail which can operate at least twenty times an hour.

    What about New York’s Metro-North? The Long Island Railroad? SEPTA’s Regional Rail network?

    Maybe Chicago’s Metra?

    And there are regional rail or commuter rail lines in Japan and the EU nations that effectively operate as subway lines that happen to share tracks with “regular” rail service (long(er)-haul passenger trains and freights).

    So from now on, this blog will use these terms: high-capacity rail; low-capacity rail; ultra-low-capacity rail; moderate-capacity commuter rail; and low-capacity commuter rail. I suggest others do the same.

    Not a bad idea. Though I suggest that some qualitative metrics be associated with the above categories.

  3. Dave Brough

    The Antiplanner is stuck in the past. What about his definitions for the future of mobility that uses elevated guideway and off-line stations called Group Rapid Transit and carry from 8 to 20 pax (Example: Morgantown WV, in operation since late 70′s), 2- 8 pax Personal Rapid Transit (Example: Heathrow airport, Masdar City), and the real mover, Dual Mode, which combines Google’s robocar with guideway…?
    Considering that he’s so anxious to keep things small, why ignore realities can (and will) reduce accidents, congestion, and emissions to near-zero, return the earth’s surface to bikes and pedestrians, increase mobility by many times, remove the need for fossil fuels in transport, but above all, spell the end to socialist transit? That way he can reduce all his new terms under one heading: dinosaur.

  4. LazyReader

    For one thing personal rapid transit costs considerably more than land based transit. A road is just a paved surface, the vehicles that use them can can go anywhere where as PRT is based on set destinations using a myriad of elevated towers and guideways, such a similar system already exists in Chicago (The “L” or “EL”) and is on the verge of collapse due to lack of funding to repair or maintain. In suburbs, where small vehicles would be ideal, the extensive infrastructure would be economically unfeasible and environmentally unacceptable when streets and roads are cheaper, easier to build and less intrusive to the visual tastes of residents than elevated towers. The manufacturers of ULTra PRT acknowledge that current forms of their system would provide insufficient capacity in high density areas such as central London, and that the investment costs for the tracks and stations are high. Cars reach their individual destinations by pulling over or taking exits, trains have to stop and unload passengers and take on new ones. And it’s group transit which people are not willing to share despite ample seating if they have somewhere to go in a rush. PRT is a futuristic transportation concept is supposed to comprise of thousands of little pods on an elevated monorail-like structure with many off-line stations. After thirty years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on PRT research, there are no true PRT systems in operation anywhere in the world except airports or something. Originally estimated at $14 million the PRT project in Morgantown ended up costing $126 million (as of 1979) or 390 million in 2013 dollars. While it does enjoy a fairly high reliability record (98%). A WVU student reported that the breakdowns occur when squirrels stepped on the third rail, shorting out the system, and leaving the fried carcasses of squirrels littering the guideway, who’d a thought a squirrel could stop a train, they cant stop a car. Proponents in Cincinnati managed to convince U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky to release $500,000 in federal money for a PRT project they called Skyloop. Skyloop was rejected by a regional planning committee after engineers found the PRT concept to be unsafe and infeasible. PRT rarely receives any support from traditional grassroots organizations, transit advocacy groups or environmental groups like the Sierra Club. They neglect to say that the reason the Morgantown system is one of only few systems like it around is that it is so expensive to build and maintain (5 million a year) and they have not made a dime and might even be in the hole because of it. Student testimony say the system is constantly broken down and students must depend on crowded buses that often get them to their classes late or don’t make in time at all. It begs the question of why a university is so sprawled it takes a automated guided railway to move students. Typical universities are walkable. It’s as if the solution exists only because they’ve created a problem. West Virginia is mountain land, no choice but to spread the campus across what little flat land is there. If were gonna replace the car, why do it with something not only like the car but more expensive to start up from scratch and cant go exactly everywhere like a car. Rail transit systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York; these cities alone face fiscal crisis. Their systems are decrepit, overburdened, overregulated and poorly managed. Those four have incurred 80 billion dollars in needed maintenance, the solution is not building another boondoggle.

  5. bennett

    Be careful what you ask for. You know what has lower capacity that a streetcar, don’t you???

    This isn’t calling a spade a spade, it playing semantics to make things more or less attractive. Plus calling things like Amtrak “high-capacity” and other transit modes “low capacity” may result in a windfall to your most hated enemy.

  6. Dave Brough

    About Morgantown – which, because it carries up to 20 pax, is not PRT, but rather, GRT. As for the cost, when you build something new and (as was this case) there are a lot of cooks spoiling the broth, the cost always escalates. Even so, how much does the first car of a new line cost? Easily a billion dollars, right? How much for the second? Maybe $20K. As for it (Morgantown) not making a dime, please, show me one transit system that actually does! In many ways, Morgantown jsut showed what can go wrong. Or, if you’re talking safety, what can go right.
    The thing about PRT is, costs are so low that it could, in fact, make money. Isn’t that the name of the game?
    Good one about the squirrels. Or, should I say, squirrel. Tragic. Then again, it’s probably not as bad as what happens to pedestrians when they come into contact with LR… ah, I mean, what was that new name again? On that topic alone, surface transit kills at four times the rate of autos.

    On pax movements, back in the 70s – before the computer modeling of today – Cabintaxi demonstrated headways of .5 seconds. So do the math. 6 pax X .5 seconds X 120 x 60 = potential movements of 43,000 per hour. And that’s for a single lane. These things can be stacked. Pretty good wouldn’t you say?

    On comparing PRT to the ‘L’? Over-kill, don’t you think? A PRT pod will come in at around 600 pounds. Add payload and you’re still talking less than a ton – or maybe 300 pounds per pax. Compare that to the L.

    On cost, roads and conventional rail use the ground surface, and contrary to your contention, the earth’s surface is very expensive. Try $100M/mile. Or higher. On the other hand, a guideway planted on a lamp pole every 200 (or 1,000) feet isn’t nearly so expensive, plus it allows the ground surface to be used for people things – like walking or growing food. Not only that, all those ugly power and utility lines, traffic and street lights could all be attached to or secreted within the innards of the guideway.

    On that fiscal crisis you say many cities are facing, that’s in large part because they spend billions on useless transit. But if they can get a transportation system that not only is privately funded and operated, but could save lives and return the land to the people and haul around freight to boot, wouldn’t that be a pretty good thing?

    Many argue “If it’s so good why ain’t it been done?” as a reason for not considering it at all. Beats me. Might have something to do with people like you, though. But more likely, people with vested interests in a) keeping the cushy transit jobs; b) people that build cushy transit; and c) people who like things just the way they are and won’t give the new guy on the block a snowball’s chance. Which seems to include you.

    What would rather have? System A where you had to walk a half mile to a stop, wait, then get on a big box driven by a grumpy old man, get stuck in traffic, then have to transfer, then get on a rail of some sort, then transfer to another big box, then another transfer, followed by another half mile walk (and btw, not even operate half the time)…or
    System B where you have to have a special licence to move it, pay a lot of money to buy, operate and maintain it, and when you use it, gets stuck in congestion of your own making, and when you get ‘there’, have to cruise around to find a place to park it, then walk to your destination…or
    System C that shows up at your door exactly when you wanted it, drives you a couple miles to an elevated guideway, zips you above any traffic at 100 mph to the exit closest to your destination, where it then re-enters the roadway and drives you to your exact destination where you would get off, pay it a modest sum, then kiss it goodbye?
    You didn’t mention dual-mode, but detractors of GRT/PRT etc. are fond of the word ‘boondoggle’. If I recall, the term refers to “work, activity or products that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value”
    A product that can save lives, save the environment, return the street surface to people, not be visually obtrusive, can not only be privately run and operated, but PAY money to the city-county they operate in, eliminate congestion and encourage sight seeing is, IMHO, hardly pointless – or a boondoggle.
    Perhaps then, instead of mere rhetoric, you’d be kind enough to educate the world on how it is (a boondoggle). And that includes Randal.
    Looking forward to it.

  7. bradtem

    I think you will do better if you use the following terms:

    “heavy capacity rail”
    “light capacity rail”
    “extra-low capacity streetcar”
    “medium capacity commuter rail”
    “light capacity commuter rail.”

    Sure, the words light and heavy are confusing but they are so widely used that if you use the above phrases people will know what you mean, and know how to relate it to the terms other people use. In particular, saying “light capacity rail” informs people who didn’t know what the “light” means and the next time they hear light rail they will be informed.

  8. Hugh Jardonn

    Since we are talking about misleading transportation nomenclature, am I the only one who thinks it wrong to refer to medium-speed rail as “higher-speed” rail? It spits on basic English. Normal usage is:

    So why is “higher-speed” rail slower than “high speed” rail?

    I internally blanch when I read about “higher speed rail” in Railway Age when in fact they’re refering to “medium-speed rail.”

    Why make a big deal about this?

    Well, for one thing, it hurts the pro-rail argument. Normal people hear about “high speed rail” money getting spent on medium speed projects and they cry “pork.” It explains why CNN got a receptive audience with this report:


    Bottom line: it’s false advertising. If they simply called these medium speed projects “upgrades” it would remove lots of the “boondoggle” stigma.

    CHSR, on the other hand, will remain a boondoggle.

  9. the highwayman

    Streets can technically be highways too, it’s just that highways more likely relate to higher levels of government.

    Also what CNN did was absolute rubbish, since roads are not subjected to economic tests.

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