Types of Rail Transit: Streetcars

Until recently, the Federal Transit Administration used the terms streetcars and light rail interchangeably. But construction of streetcar lines in Portland and a few other cities has led the agency to distinguish between the two. Where most light-rail cars today are 80 to 100 feet long, most streetcars being operated today are just 40 to 66 feet long. Where light-rail sometimes has an exclusive right-of-way, streetcars almost always operate in streets.

The most important distinction, however, is that light-rail cars have couplers that allow them to be operated in trains of two to four cars, while streetcars typically do not. This means the capacity of streetcars is far less than light rail, so if light rail stands for “low-capacity rail,” then streetcars mean “super-low-capacity rail.”

In 2012, the average streetcar had 48 seats, but so-called “modern streetcars” typically have only 30 seats so that overall capacities can be boosted by increasing standing room. In actual service, streetcars carried an average of 18 people.

Streetcars were supposed to be even less expensive to build than light rail, but like light rail costs have quickly risen. Portland’s first streetcar line, opened in 2001, cost just under $24 million per mile (a little over $30 million per mile in today’s dollars). Three streetcar lines proposed for federal funding in the FTA’s 2015 budget cost an average of $46 million per mile, ranging from $40 million to $53 million per mile. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the average speed of streetcars in 2012 was 8.2 miles per hour.