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Comparison of 'Rail' modes

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Go to description of rail modes

Transportation designates its various travel technologies as "modes" of travel. Buses are one mode, personal vehicles are another mode, multi-engine jet long-range airliners and smaller, shorter-range airliners are two other modes. Rail is classed as a mode, and within it are actually several modes as different from each other as SUVs from sub-compact gas savers.

In its 1998 feasibilty study of Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter trains, SEWRPC (SouthEast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission) sought to describe for casual observers and newcomers to the dialogue about metropolitan transportation just what traits would identify each mode of rail transportation. This table compares some of those identifying traits.

(Table data from SEWRPC newsletter, August, 1998, Vol. 38, No. 2, page 10)

except Blue designates 2009 data estimates added by KenRail webmaster
Characteristics Type of Service
Light Rail Heavy Rail Commuter Rail
Conventional Intercity Rail
High-Speed Rail Midwest Fast trains
Usual Vehicles Modern articulated streetcars Modern subway or elevated cars coaches Locomotive-hauled or self-propelled coaches Locomotive-hauled coaches Locomotive-hauled coaches Diesel-electric hauled coaches
Train length 1-3 cars 4-10 cars 2-8 coaches 2-14 coaches 8-12 coaches 8-10 coaches (estim.)
Propulsion System Electric using overhead wire Electric using third rail Diesel-electric (a) Diesel-electric Electric using overhead wire High hp. diesel-electric
Right-of-Way requirements New surface alignment New grade-separated alignment Existing main-line railway trackage Existing main-line railway trackage Upgraded existing or new main-line railway trackage Existing main-line track upgraded; some new grade separation
Typical route length (miles) 5-15 5-15 20-50 50-2,000 100-500 150-400
Average station spacing (miles) 0.25-1 0.5-2 2-5 5-50 10-50 30
Boarding plafforms at stations Low or high High Low Low High Low
Typical fare collection method(s) Self-service At stations On board On board At stations or on board Not yet specified
Speed (miles per hour)
Maximum operating 50 mph 70 79 79-90 125-250 110 mph, except secondary lines 79 mph
Average along route 10-20 (b) 20-30 (c) 25-40 30-50 40-70 100-150
Typical primary passenger market Trips within densely developed urbanized areas Trips within densely developed urbanized areas Trips within metropolitan areas between suburbs and major urban centers including central business district Long-distance trips between cities Long-distance trips between major metropolitan areas Trips among major metro centers and intermediate cities
Frequency of Service
Peak-Period 5-10 minutes 5-10 minutes 30-60 minutes 1-2 hours 30-60 minutes 90-150 mins. (prelim.)
Nonpeak-Period 10-20 minutes 10-20 minutes 1-3 hours Daily 1-2 hours 3-5 hours (prelim.)

(a) Self-propelled coaches may be either diesel-electric, diesel-hydraulic, or diesel-mechanical.
(b) Involves extensive use of street rights-of-way.
(c) Involves extensive use of exclusive, grade-separated rights-of-way.

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