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



Rapid transit

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 and Latin American cities.

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. Also, the Buffalo Metro Rail is referred to as "the subway", while it uses light rail equipment and is in a pedestrian mall downtown. 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 Tube

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

In London the colloquial term ‘tube’ refers to the London Underground and is the most common word used for the underground system, and it is used by Transport for London the local government body responsible for most aspects of the transport system throughout Greater London.[1] The Glasgow metro system is known as the Glasgow Subway or colloquial as "the subway". The word Metro is not usually used in London or Glasgow to refer to those cities' metros, but it is used in and around Newcastle upon Tyne to refer to the Tyne and Wear Metro.

Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow all have metro systems which are called metro in French, Italian, Spanish and Russian.[2][3][4]

U-Bahn and S-Bahn

The term metro is not usually used to describe metro systems in Germany, Austria and the German speaking cantons of Switzerland, as the Germans use the term U-Bahn — a shortening of Untergrundbahn, meaning underground railway — and S-Bahn — an abbreviation for the German "Stadtschnellbahn" (fast city train). So for example in Berlin the mostly underground system is know as the Berlin U-Bahn and it is integrated with the mostly above ground system is known as the Berlin S-Bahn. BVG, the operators of the Berlin U-Bahn system describe the U-Bahn as "the largest metro system in Germany"[5] and the S-Bahn system as "urban rail system"[6].


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 transit

Tram, streetcar, trolley

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 different dialects of English, with streetcar and trolley most common in North America, while tram predominates elsewhere.

Tram is a British word derived from Low German traam, meaning the "beam (of a wheelbarrow)". The term "tram" was originally used in the coal mines of Scotland and Northern England for a coal cart running on rails, although some sources claim (inaccurately) that it was derived from the name of engineer Benjamin Outram.

Streetcar is an American word derived from "street" + "car", where "car" is used in the sense of a vehicle running on rails, i.e. railway car. The first American streetcars, introduced around 1830, were horsecars, and this type of streetcar became ubiquitous because very few of the streets in American cities were paved. Mechanical versions, pulled by cables, were introduced around 1870. Electric streetcars were introduced in the 1880s and soon replaced the horse-drawn streetcar in cities across the United States.[7]

Trolley is an American word derived from the electric current pickup mechanism in early systems. The first successful electric streetcars in the United States used a system devised by Frank J. Sprague, in which a spring-loaded trolley pole pushed a small trolley wheel up against an overhead wire to collect electricity for the motors. Although not the first overhead collection system, it was far more reliable than its predecessors, and eventually became used by almost all streetcars.[7] Some authorities believe that the vehicle became known as a trolley car because it reminded people (particularly on the West Coast) of a boat trolling for fish. Others believe it derived from a dialect word for a wheeled cart.

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.

Historical systems

Specific terms for some historically important tram technologies include horsecar, heritage streetcar, and cable car.

Heritage streetcar (also known as heritage trolley or vintage trolley) is an American term for streetcar systems that use vehicles that were built before 1960, or modern replicas of such vehicles.

Cable car is an American word for a passenger rail vehicle attached to a moving cable located below the street surface and powered by engines or motors at a central location, not on board the vehicle. The only remaining cable car operation is in San Francisco, California.[8]

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 rail

Light rail is a term coined in the 1970s during the re-emergence of streetcars/trams. It was devised in 1972 by the U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) to describe new streetcar transformations which were taking place, and was a translation of the German word stadtbahn. However, instead of the literal translation of city rail, the UMTA used light rail instead.[9] 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.

It should, however, be noted that in the United Kingdom the terms "Light Rail" and "Tramway" also have precise legal meanings derived from the Light Railways Act 1896 and the Tramways Act 1870 respectively.

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 unfavorable toward 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 Millennium Station 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, interurban 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 rail

Heavy rail refers to regional rail and intercity rail services as distinct from other rapid transit or light rail modes, such as when referring to National Rail services in London.

Heavy rail can also refer to rapid transit services in North America, when referring to the heavier passenger loadings compared to light rail systems[10], but distinct from commuter rail and intercity rail systems. It is characterized by high-speed, passenger rail cars running in separate rights-of-way from which all other vehicular and foot traffic are excluded.[11]

Regional rail and commuter rail

Regional rail usually provides rail services between towns and cities, rather than purely linking major population hubs in the way inter-city rail does. Regional rail operates outside major cities. Unlike Inter-city, it stops at most or all stations. It provides a service between smaller communities along the line, and also connections with long-distance services. Alternative names are "local train" or "stopping train". Examples include the former BR's Regional Railways, France's TER (Transport express régional) and Germany's DB Regio services. Regional rail operates throughout the day but often at low frequency (once per hour or only a few times a day), whereas commuter rail provides a high-frequency service within a conurbation.

Regional rail in this sense does not exist in North America, where the term "regional rail" is synonymous with commuter rail.

Regional trains are usually all seated and provide luggage space, although they seldom have all the amenities of inter-city trains such as a buffet or dining car. Since their invention, the distinction between regional and long-distance rail has also been the use of multiple unit propulsion, with longer distance trains being locomotive hauled, although development of trains such as the British Rail Class 390 have blurred this distincion. Shorter regional rail services will still usually be operated exclusively by multiple units where they exist, which have a shorter range and operate at lower average speeds than services on Inter-city rail networks. Not using a locomotive also provides greater passenger capacity in the commuter role at peak periods.

British Rail, during sectorisation, did once create a "Regional Railways" subsidiary, however this was so named to differentiate it's 'all other regions' lines from the other sectors Network SouthEast, which heavily focused on commuters services to London terminal stations but operated rail services across the South East region, and the Inter-City sector which operated long distance services.

Commuter rail in North America refers to urban passenger train service for local short-distance travel operating between a central city and its suburbs. Such rail service, using either locomotive-hauled or self-propelled railroad passenger cars, is characterized by multi-trip tickets, specific station-to-station fares, and usually only one or two stations in the central business district. It does not include heavy rail, rapid transit, light rail, streetcar, tram, or intercity rail service.[11]

Intercity, Corridor and Long-Distance

Intercity rail refers to passenger routes which connect two or more distinct cities. It is usually used to refer to routes which interconnect different major conurbations, not used to refer to lines which connect a major city with its suburbs, though this is not a hard-and-fast distinction.

In the US, "Corridor" services refer to routes connecting relatively nearby cities, where one city can be visited from another without staying overnight. "Long-Distance" refers to routes which cover vast rural distances.

Other types of rail transit

Automated guideway transit refers to guided transit vehicles operating singly or in multi-car trains with fully automated control (no crew on transit units). Service may be on a fixed schedule or in response to a passenger-activated call button. Automated guideway transit includes personal rapid transit, group rapid transit and people mover systems.[11]

Personal rapid transit (PRT), also called personal automated transport (PAT), is a public transportation concept that offers on-demand, non-stop transportation, using small, independent vehicles on a network of specially-built guideways.

People mover or automated people mover (APM) systems are fully automated, grade-separated mass transit systems which serve a relatively small area such as an airport, downtown district or theme park. The term "people mover" has become generic for the type of system, which may use technologies such as monorail, duorail, automated guideway transit or maglev.

Monorail means a system of guided transit vehicles operating on or suspended from a single rail, beam, or tube. Usually they operate in trains.[11] Monorails are distinguished from other types of elevated rail system by their use of only a single beam, and from light rail and tram systems by the fact they are always grade separated from other vehicles and pedestrians.

Service type

Local service means trains stop at every station on a route. For light rail vehicles operating on city streets, local service is analogous to local bus service, where stops are every block or two apart.

Express service means trains operate for long distances without stopping, skipping some stations between stops. This speeds up longer trips, especially in major urban areas. In major cities, express trains may have separate tracks for at least part of their routes.

Limited-stop service is a hybrid between local and express service, where not all stations and stops are served. For example a pair of closely-spaced trains may both stop at the most heavily-used stations. For lesser-used stations, the first train stops at alternate stations, while the following train stops at the stations missed by the first train.[8]

Passenger boarding

Street-level boarding is used primarily by light rail and tram lines that stop on the street rather than at stations. No platforms are used, the passengers walk up steps into the vehicles. For wheelchairs, a retractable lift or ramp is required to gain access to the vehicle.

Low-level platforms are generally about 30 to 45 centimetres (12 to 18 in) above track level and are used primarily by some commuter rail and light rail lines. Wheelchairs can board low-floor vehicles directly from the platform, but high-floor vehicles require retractable lift or ramp.

High-level platforms are generally 45 to 95 centimetres (18 to 37 in) above track level and are used primarily by heavy rail, automated guideway, and some commuter rail lines. Only high-floor vehicles can be used, but wheelchairs can board directly from platforms if vehicle floors are level with the platform.[8]

Rail terminology with regard to speed

Non-high-speed rail: Less than 200 km/h

The vast majority of passenger trains, and almost 100% of freight trains are of this category.

High-speed rail: 200 km/h – 550 km/h

There is no globally accepted standard separating high-speed rail from conventional railroads; however a number of widely accepted variables have been acknowledged by the industry in recent years. Generally, high-speed rail is defined as having a top speed in regular use of over 200 km/h (125mph). Although almost every form of high-speed rail is electrically driven via overhead lines, this is not necessarily a defining aspect and other forms of propulsion, such as diesel locomotives, may be used. A definitive aspect is the use of continuous welded rail which reduces track vibrations and discrepancies between rail segments enough to allow trains to pass at speeds in excess 200 km/h. Track radius will often be the ultimate limiting factor in a train's speed, with passenger discomfort often more imminent than the danger of derailment. Depending on design speed, banking and the forces deemed acceptable to the passengers, curves often exceed a 5 kilometer radius. Although a few exceptions exist, zero grade crossings is a policy adopted almost worldwide, with advanced switches utilizing very low entry and frog angles. Magnetic levitation trains fall under the category of high-speed rail due to their association with track oriented vehicles; however their inability to operate on conventional railroads often leads to their classification in a separate category.

In the US, "high speed rail" is often used to describe services faster than 100mph. This is because almost no regular services in the US exceed 80 mph, which is low by international standards.

Very high-speed rail: 550 km/h – 800 km/h

A number of both technological and practical variables begin to influence trains in the vicinity of 500-600 km/h. From a practical standpoint, very-high-speed trains are those whose velocity will exceed that of most propeller-driven aircraft. Technologically the limitations are by no means beyond reach, however conventional trains begin to encounter several physical obstacles, most notably track damage and pantograph limitations. It is important to note that the current world record for rail vehicles is held by the TGV V150 set on 15 April 2007 at 574.8 km/h, and conventional trains may indeed eventually reach into very high-speeds. However, based on current and foreseeable technology, these speeds will more than likely be reached predominantly by maglev trains. The two most prominent maglev trains are the Transrapid with a maximum speed of 550 km/h; and the JR-Maglev MLX01, which holds the world land speed record for railed vehicles at 581 km/h.

Ultra high-speed rail: 800 km/h – 1000 km/h

Ultra high-speed rail is a projected classification into the far future of rail transportation. These speeds are based solely on their potential to compete directly with commercial subsonic jet aircraft. Regardless of technological parameters, the track for such a train and anything faster would more than likely require turn radii of significantly higher proportions than current dimensions, essentially preventing anything but a direct line between terminals. Such trains are extremely unlikely in the current or near future.

Greater than 1000 km/h

Depending on the aerodynamic design of the vehicle and various ambient atmospheric conditions, a train would begin to exhibit transonic airflow in the vicinity of Mach .8 (988 km/h) and higher. From a modern perspective, this is essentially the realistic maximum speed of trains as they are known today. This is because the Prandtl-Glauert singularity would cause catastrophic damage to the vehicle as the sound waves reflected off of the ground, potentially blasting the train into the air. Trains could exceed this speed significantly, were they vactrains.

Comparison of types

Comparison of Characteristics and Operating Standards of Types of Metropolitan Rail Systems[12]
Characteristics Streetcar Tram/
Light Rail
Heavy Rail
Suburban Rail
Urban population
(thousands of people)
200-5,000 500-3,000 Over 4,000 Over 3,000
Rail tracks At grade Mixed - mostly
grade separated
Grade separated Grade separated
Power supply Overhead lines Overhead lines Third rail Overhead lines
Third rail
Units per train 1-2 2-4 Up to 8 Up to 12
Average speed (km/h) 10-20 30-40 30-40 45-65
Passengers per train 125-250 260-520 800-1,000 1,000-2,200
Maximum passengers
per hour per direction
7,500 11,000 22,000 48,000


  1. ^ London Underground: Tube travel information website of Transport for London
  2. ^ Transports Metro
  3. ^ MetroRoma - Home
  4. ^ Metro de Madrid
  5. ^ The Berlin metro (U-Bahn)
  6. ^ The urban rail system (S-Bahn)
  7. ^ a b Post, Robert C. (2007). Urban Mass Transit - The Life Story of a Technology. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33916-3. 
  8. ^ a b c "Rail Definitions". American Public Transportation Association. 2003. 
  9. ^ Thompson, Gregory L. (2003). "Defining an Alternative Future: Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America" (PDF). US Transportation Research Board. Retrieved on 2009-01-09. 
  10. ^ American Public Transport Association definition of heavy rail
  11. ^ a b c d "Transit Glossary". US Federal Transit Administration. 2008. Retrieved on 2009-01-12. 
  12. ^ Cervero, Robert (1998). The Transit Metropolis - A Global Inquiry. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-593-6. 


Published - March 2009

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