INTRO: From low-budget lines for low-density cities to intensely-operated networks, the variety of light rail lines around the Pacific Rim demonstrates the great flexibility of the mode. Critical for success has been the ability to tailor each application to the specific operating and financial needs of its community

BYLINE: John Schumann and Tom Larwin*

BYLINE: * John Schumann is Senior Planning Engineer at LTK Engineering Services in Portland, Oregon, and Chairman of the Transportation Research Board’s Light Rail Transit Committee. Thomas Larwin is General Manager of San Diego’s principal transit agency, Metropolitan Transit Development Board, and past Chairman of the LRT Committee

ON JULY 26 San Diego celebrated the 19th anniversary of the first modern light rail line in the United States. Its opening in July 1981, together with completion of lines at Edmonton and Calgary in Canada, sparked a renewed interest in light rail that has resulted in the construction of new networks across North America and beyond.

In the USA, the number of cities with light rail has jumped from seven in 1980 to 20 now, and several more projects are on the way. Canada and Mexico have each gone from one system to three, and there have been many other new starts around the globe - the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, Turkey and Venezuela. In Europe, new lines in France, Great Britain and now Sweden have joined the continually-improving networks in Germany and its neighbours.

The path has been different in each city, as one of light rail’s great strengths is the ability to adapt the technology to local conditions (Table I). However, it is possible to establish a number of common threads in determining what it takes to develop cost-effective light rail projects.

The role model

Why was San Diego such an influence for other cities? The simple answer is that MTDB built a low-cost and functional system - co-ordinating bus and rail into a seamless mix - that attracted riders without breaking municipal budgets.

This was achieved by carefully adhering to four principles for low-cost implementation: