Streetcars vs LRT

The Basics

Edmonton has had streetcars and high-floor LRT. Now, Edmonton is preparing to construct a low-floor (urban) LRT line. So, what are the differences?

Streetcars

Streetcars are a mode of transit that is well known as the rail transit of a bygone era. This is not entirely true. Although electric streetcars did have a heyday stretching roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s (in some cities as late as the 1950s) and many cities now have heritage lines, not all streetcar lines that are being developed today are utilizing heritage streetcars.

Many lines that are dubbed streetcar lines are using new rolling stock that is really no different than urban LRT rolling stock. These modern streetcar lines are different from high-floor and low-floor LRT (discussed below) in the way they are constructed and run.

Streetcar lines typically share the road with other vehicles in "mixed traffic", their stops are at intervals of 200 meters (roughly every two blocks), and their rolling stock is rarely coupled together to form "trains."

High-Floor LRT

Edmonton's "Capitol Line" and "Energy Line" are examples. They are characterized by high-floor rolling stock that requires specialized platforms for the loading and unloading of passengers. These lines require greater infrastructural investments (e.g. complete stations) than streetcars or low-floor LRT lines. Because of this, stops are typically spaced further apart than streetcar or low-floor LRT stops. Stations are often 600 meters apart.

Low-Floor "Urban" LRT

Low-Floor LRT is very different from high-floor LRT, as shown above, and also in that it blends in to residential areas much better than high-floor LRT. Low-floor stops do not need to be elaborate stations. They can be as simple (and inexpensive) as a raised curb and standard bus shelter.

The difference between low-floor LRT and streetcars is simple if the streetcar line operates heritage streetcars, but if it operates new rolling stock, the differences are much smaller. The space between stops may be the same for streetcars and low-floor LRT but how they travel between stops will be different. Low-floor LRT lines will have reserved right-of-ways and typically not operate in mixed traffic. They will also have priority at intersections. Essentially, low-floor LRT lines have the potential to operate faster than streetcar lines.

Conclusion

In the end, the differences between streetcars and high-floor LRT lines are drastic, but the differences between streetcar lines and low-floor LRT are more subtle. Some systems may even be a hybrid of both options.