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Dreaming of passenger rail — of all kinds

My friends with the Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers asked if I could help clear up confusion on what constitutes the different modes of passenger rail.

It’s probably wishful thinking, but I keep hoping Georgia will decide sooner rather than later to dedicate its transportation future to rail as other states, like North Carolina, have done.

But I agreed that it would be helpful if we could agree on a set of definitions for the different forms of rail transportation.

GARP members Jim Dexter and Richard Hodges were nice enough to provide me a summary of the different forms of passenger rail.

I’m passing them on to you so we can become more literate when we talk about rail transit in our metro area, our state and the Southeast region.

Thank you Jim Dexter for providing this at Richard Hodges’ request.


INTERCITY RAIL trains link two or more distinct metropolitan areas. They usually consist of one or more diesel or electric locomotives pulling several passenger cars, and share their tracks with freight trains. Amtrak’s Crescent, which runs between New York, Washington, Atlanta and New Orleans is an example of intercity rail.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL trains are intercity trains that run at top speeds of at least 90 mph. They are less likely than other intercity trains to share their tracks with freight trains. Most high-speed lines feature multiple daily departures. Amtrak’s Boston-Washington Acela Express line is an example of high-speed rail.

COMMUTER RAIL trains connect major metropolitan areas with their outlying suburbs. They’re primarily designed for daily commuters going to and from their jobs, and most service is concentrated during the morning and evening rush hours. Commuter rail stations are spaced more closely than intercity rail stations, but NOT as closely as urban rail transit stops. Commuter rail trains usually share tracks with freight trains. The proposed Atlanta-Griffin and Atlanta-Athens lines would be examples of commuter rail.

URBAN RAIL TRANSIT consists of HEAVY-RAIL TRANSIT, LIGHT-RAIL TRANSIT and STREETCARS. They serve densely populated urban areas, i.e., central cities and close-in suburbs. They do NOT share their tracks with freight trains or with intercity rail or commuter rail trains. They offer frequent service most of the day, in some cases 24 hours a day.

HEAVY-RAIL TRANSIT trains run in multiple-car sets on their own dedicated right-of-way, above or below street level. They’re usually powered by an electric third rail. They are slower than commuter trains, largely because they make more frequent stops. They are faster than light-rail trains or streetcars. Passengers board heavy-rail trains on raised platforms, level with the passenger car floor. Trains consist of several cars. MARTA Rail trains are heavy rail trains.

LIGHT-RAIL TRANSIT trains usually run in their own dedicated right-of-way, but their tracks may cross streets at grade level. They’re usually powered by an overhead wire. Stations can be more closely spaced than heavy-rail transit stations, but they tend to be simple structures, sometimes consisting of little more than a curb-level boarding platform. Light-rail trains usually consist of more than one car. Charlotte’s new Lynx line is an example of light-rail transit.

STREETCARS often run on tracks imbedded in streets shared with automobiles and trucks. They’re slower than other urban rail transit. They’re almost always powered by an overhead wire. A typical streetcar is about as big as a bus, smaller than a light-rail vehicle, and most streetcars operate as single units. Stops are frequent, often at every corner, like bus stops. The proposed Peachtree Streetcar would be one example.

NOTE: Some passenger rail lines combine aspects of more than one mode. Many “light-rail” lines are actually combinations of light-rail and streetcar technology. Some intercity trains scheduled to link nearby cities during rush hours carry daily commuters, like commuter trains.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


1 Comment

  1. writes_of_weigh February 28, 2015 3:17 pm

    Maria – you might find this [http://bit.ly/1BCFzif] somewhat lengthy article from CITYLAB elucidating regarding the “dreaming” which was taking place at U.S.DOT in 1970/1971 prior to the inception of Amtrak (Railpax) service, under President Nixon (R).Report


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