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Passenger rail terminology

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Wikipedia logo This page uses content from Wikipedia. The original article was at Passenger rail terminology. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with Metro Wiki, the text of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0 (Unported) (CC-BY-SA).

Various terms are used for passenger rail lines and equipment. Unfortunately the usage of these terms differs substantially between areas.

Rapid transitEdit

Originally, the term rapid transit was used in the 1800s to describe new forms of quick urban public transportation that had a right-of-way separated from street traffic. This set rapid transit apart from horsecars, trams, streetcars, omnibuses, and other forms of public transport.

Though the term was almost always used to describe rail transportation, other forms of transit were sometimes described by their proponents as rapid transit, including local ferries in some cases.

The term bus rapid transit has recently come into use to describe bus lines with features to speed their operation. These usually have more characteristics of light rail than rapid transit.


Subway used in a transit sense refers to either a rapid transit system or (rarely) a light rail/streetcar system that goes underground. The term may refer only to the underground parts of the system, or to the full system.

Subway is most commonly used in the United States and some parts of Canada, though the term is also used elsewhere, such as to describe the subway line in Glasgow, Scotland and in translation of system names or descriptions in some Asian cities into and in America Latina too.

Some lines described as subway use light rail equipment. Notably, the Newark City Subway and Boston's Green Line, each about half underground, originated from fully surface streetcar lines. Sometimes the term is qualified, such as in Philadelphia, where trolleys operate in an actual subway for part of their route and on city streets for the remainder. This is locally styled subway-surface.

In some cities where subway is used, it refers to the entire system; in others, only to the portions that actually are underground. Naming practices often select one type of placement in a system where several are used; there are many subways with above-ground components, and on the other hand, the Vancouver SkyTrain and Chicago `L' include underground sections.

Interestingly, when the Boston subway was originally built, the subway label was only used for sections into which streetcars (trams) operated, and the rapid transit sections were called tunnels. Also, in some countries, subway refers to systems built under roads (such as the Glasgow Subway or London's Metropolitan Line) and the informal term tube is used for the deep-underground tunnelled systems (such as London's Piccadilly Line) - in this usage, somewhat technical nowadays and not used much in London, underground is regardless the general term for both types of system.

Bus subways are uncommon but do exist, though in these cases the non-underground portions of route are not called subways. Seattle, Washington has a bus subway downtown, in which dual-mode trolleybuses can operate on overhead wires when in the subway and via internal combustion when outdoors. Bus subways are sometimes built to provide an exclusive right-of-way for bus rapid transit lines, such as the MBTA Silver Line in Boston. These are usually called by the term bus rapid transit.

'Subway' outside the USA, and especially in Europe often refers to underground pedestrian passageways linking large road interconnections that are often too difficult or dangerous to cross at ground level.

Underground, Metro and TubeEdit

The usage of underground is very similar to that of subway, describing an underground train system. Similarly, Metro usually refers to rapid transit.

Many Germanic languages use the term U-Bahn, a shortening of Untergrundbahn, meaning underground railway, while many others in Europe use Metro. In London, the word Metro most commonly refers to the London Underground, not the Docklands Light Railway, or frequent suburban National Rail train services which are referred to as trains, over ground trains, national/local trains or crossrail services.

The colloquial term ‘tube’ refers to the London Underground and is the most common word used for the underground system.

The Brussels Metro has three traditional rapid transit lines and two premetro lines which run trolleys but have enough width to be eventually converted to the bigger metro standards if the traffic warrants it.


Elevated is a shortened form of elevated railway, a railway built on supports over other rights of way, generally city streets. They are also called els.

At-grade urban rail transitEdit

Tram, streetcar, trolleyEdit

The terms tram, streetcar and trolley refer to most forms of common carrier rail transit that run entirely or partly on streets, providing a local service and picking up and discharging passengers at any street corner, unless otherwise marked. While tram or tramway are widely used worldwide, the term used varies in English, with streetcar and trolley most common in North America, while tram predominates elsewhere. All three terms refer to the class of vehicles below light rail.

Tram is from Low German traam, meaning the "beam (of a wheelbarrow)", although some sources claim inaccurately that it is derived from the name of engineer Benjamin Outram. The use of the term trolley for trams and light rail vehicles is derived from the trolley pole and connected trolley wheel that was used as an electric current pickup in early systems.

In the U.S. the word tram frequently refers to a tourist bus with the appearance of a heritage streetcar, cable car, or rubber-tired people-mover. They are frequently used for parking lot shuttles at theme parks and major events or transportation within theme parks. Trolley can sometimes carry similar meaning, as in the RiverCity Trolley in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

More specific terms for some tram technologies include horsecar, heritage streetcar, and cable car.

In the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, the term streetcar is used allegorically to refer to Blanche duBois' promiscuousness and inability to form permanent relationships, as in the sarcastic phrase: "Men (or women) are like streetcars. There'll be another one along any minute." There was actually a streetcar line in New Orleans named Desire Street and simply signed Desire. It is mentioned in the book and an actual New Orleans streetcar with that signage is seen at the beginning of the Marlon Brando-Vivien Leigh film.

Light railEdit

Light rail is a term coined in the 1970s during the re-emergence of streetcars/trams. In general, it refers to streetcar/tram systems with rapid transit-style features. It is named to distinguish it from heavy rail, which refers to rapid transit systems as well as heavier regional rail/intercity rail.

A few systems such as people movers and personal rapid transit could be considered as even "lighter", at least in terms of how many passengers are moved per vehicle and the speed at which they travel. Monorails are a separate technology.

Light rail systems can typically handle steeper inclines than heavy rail, and curves sharp enough to fit within street intersections. They are typically built in urban areas, providing frequent service with multiple-unit trains or single cars.

The most difficult distinction to draw is that between light rail and streetcar/tram systems. There is a significant amount of overlap between the technologies, and it is common to classify streetcars/trams as a subtype of light rail rather than as a distinct type of transportation. The two general versions are:

  1. The traditional type, where the tracks and trains run along the streets and share space with road traffic. Stops tend to be frequent, and little effort is made to set up special stations. Because space is shared, the tracks are usually visually unobtrusive.
  2. A more modern variation, where the trains tend to run along their own right-of-way and are often separated from road traffic. Stops are generally less frequent, and the passengers are often boarded from a platform. Tracks are highly visible, and in some cases significant effort is expended to keep traffic away through the use of special signaling, and even grade crossings with gate arms.
At the highest degree of separation, it can be difficult or impossible to draw the line between light rail and rapid transit, as in the case of London's Docklands Light Railway, which would likely not be called light rail were it not for the contrast between it and the London Underground.

Many light rail systems — even fairly old ones — have a combination of the two, with both on-road and off-road sections. In some countries, only the latter is described as light rail. In those places, trams running on mixed right of way are not regarded as light rail, but considered distinctly as streetcars or trams. However, the requirement for saying that a rail line is "separated" can be quite minimal — sometimes just with concrete "buttons" to discourage automobile drivers from getting onto the tracks.

There is a significant difference in cost between these different classes of light rail transit. The traditional style is often less expensive by a factor of two or more. Despite the increased cost, the more modern variation (which can be considered as "heavier" than old streetcar systems, even though it's called light rail) is the dominant form of new urban rail transit in the United States. The Federal Transit Administration helps to fund many projects, but as of 2004, the rules to determine which projects will be funded are biased against the simpler streetcar systems (partly because the vehicles tend to be somewhat slower). Some places in the country have set about building the less expensive streetcar lines themselves or with only minimal federal support. Most of these lines have been "heritage" railways, using refurbished or replica streetcars harkening back to the first half of the 20th century. However, a few, such as the Portland Streetcar, use modern vehicles. There is a growing desire to push the Federal Transit Administartion to help fund these startup lines as well.

Light rail is generally powered by electricity, usually by means of overhead wires, but sometimes by a live rail, also called third rail (a high voltage bar alongside the track), requiring safety measures and warnings to the public not to touch it. In some cases, particularly when initial funds are limited, diesel-powered versions have been used, but it is not a preferred option. Some systems, such as AirTrain JFK in New York City, are automatic, dispensing with the need for a driver; however, such systems are not what is generally thought of as light rail, crossing over into rapid transit. Automatic operation is more common in smaller people mover systems than in light rail systems, where the possibility of grade crossings and street running make driverless operation of the latter inappropriate.


In the U.S., interurban refers to a higher-speed rural streetcar line. Interurbans are all but gone, with two of the remaining (Norristown High Speed Line, IRT Dyre Avenue Line) having been upgraded to rapid transit specifications. The South Shore Line, which runs from Chicago's Randolph Street Terminal to South Bend, Indiana, has been converted to modern electric rapid-transit operation on the dense corridor between Chicago and Gary, Indiana but still runs essentially as an interurban through several small towns between Gary and South Bend.

Interurbans sometimes used freight railways rather than building their own track.

In Australia, intercity refers to long distance commuter trains such as the routes between Newcastle and Sydney, between Brisbane and Gympie, or between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Some interurban trains may operate from where suburban lines end, such as Southern Higlands services between Campbelltown and Goulburn, or between Ipswich and Rosewood. These do not have the features of "intercity trains" in other parts of the world, such as booked seats and meal services, but are bare commuter trains. They are properly called interurban rather than intercity, although CityRail refers to its interurban services as "intercity" trains.

Heavy railEdit

Heavy rail sometimes refers to rapid transit, but sometimes refers to regional rail (also known as "commuter rail") and intercity rail.

Regional rail and Commuter railEdit

See Regional rail.

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