The light rail in Portland, Oregon. Light rail vehicles can run both on the street and on dedicated right-of-ways. (Photo: Steve Morgan)

The light rail in Portland, Oregon. Light rail vehicles can run both on the street and on dedicated right-of-ways. (Photo: Steve Morgan)

What is light rail?

Light rail, also called light rail transit (LRT), is a form of public transit using individual rail cars or short trains. Light rail can operate on both urban streets and dedicated right-of-ways. LRT offers higher capacities and comfort than buses but can be implemented at a much lower cost than subways.

Light rail is widely used around the world as a flexible, affordable mode of higher-order transit. Calgary and Edmonton are examples of Canadian cities with highly successful light rail systems. Many more Canadian municipalities are building brand new light rail systems, including Montreal, Hamilton, Mississauga, and Waterloo.

Facing crippling traffic congestion and wildly expensive highway-building proposals, Halifax needs higher-order public transit. But the city lacks the scale and density to warrant a subway system, which is many times more expensive than a light rail system. Light rail is suited to a city of Halifax’s size and intensity. Light rail vehicles run on electricity carried on overhead lines and do not exhaust any emissions directly.

We once had light rail. Pictured: Haligonians pose at the intersection of Barrington and Buckingham streets with the last Birney streetcar to run downtown (26 March 1949). That year, tram service in Halifax ceased entirely. (Source: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)

We once had light rail. Pictured: Haligonians pose at the intersection of Barrington and Buckingham streets with the last Birney streetcar to run downtown (26 March 1949). That year, tram service in Halifax ceased entirely. (Source: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)

Light rail in other cities

Light rail can be found across the globe, typically in mid-sized cities that lack the population and density to warrant a subway system. Click on the following thumbnails for more details on some light rail systems existing and planned:

"Light rail" versus "commuter rail"

A commuter raii service, such as the recent proposal by Via Rail, would offer one-way service at peak hours only. It would terminate at the existing railway station, near the Seaport, which is far from most places of employment. The large, diesel-driven trains could not run on downtown streets.

The Via Rail proposal is a good first step toward rail transit in Halifax. But for rail to be a viable and attractive alternative to car ownership, the ultimate goal should be two-way, all-day service (at 15 minute headways or better) running on a comprehensive rail network. Transit must also be considered in tandem with dense development at select stations.

In this way, LRT would serve as a “mini subway”, scaled to Halifax’s needs and budget. LRT can run through downtown streets, providing better access to major centres of employment and offering superior inter-modal connectivity with the Dartmouth ferry and existing bus routes.

The Halifax tram network in 1927. (Source)

The Halifax tram network in 1927. (Source)