Light railway

Light railway

Light railway refers to a railway built at lower costs and to lower standards than typical "heavy rail". This usually means the railway uses lighter weight track, and is more steeply graded and tightly curved to avoid civil engineering costs. These lighter standards allow lower costs of operation at the price of slower operating speeds and lower vehicle capacity.

The precise meaning of the term varies by geography and context.

United States

In the United States, "light railway" generally refers to an urban or interurban streetcar system. The term light rail was introduced in the 1970s to describe a form of urban rail public transportation that has a lower capacity and lower speed than heavy rail or metro systems. Urban sprawl combined with higher fuel prices has caused an increase in popularity of these systems in recent years.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom 'light railway' refers to a railway built or operated in the United Kingdom under the 1896 Light Railways Act although the term is used more generally of any lightly built railway with limited traffic, often controlled locally and running unusual and/or older rolling stock. A light railway is properly distinct from a tramway which operates under differing rules and may share a road.

The term 'light railway' is generally used in a positive manner. Perhaps the most well known caricature of a light railway is the film The Titfield Thunderbolt, made in 1953 as many of the light railways and other small branch lines were being closed. Despite the great public affection for these railways very few were successful. H.F. Stephens was pivotal in the light railway world and tried many techniques to make light railways pay, introducing some of the earliest railcars and also experimenting with a rail lorry built out of an old model T ford. Nevertheless most light railways never made much money and by the 1930s were being driven out of business by the motor car. Although World War II provided a brief increase in the importance of these railways very few lasted beyond the early 1950s. Those that survive today are generally heritage railways.

Industrial railways

Many industrial railways were built to light railway standards. These may be of light and small construction, although the wagons carrying molten-steel in a steelworks can be several hundred tonnes in weight.


The Panama Canal used a heavy network of standard gauge temporary railways in its construction to move vast quantities of soil from the excavations to the dams that were constructed.

Military railways

Light railways have been used in several wars, especially before the advent of the combustion engine and motor car. These have often connect depots some distance behind the front line with the front lines themselves. Some armies have Divisions of Engineers trained to operate trains. Sometimes they operate a branch line of their own so that they can practice track and bridge building (and demolition) without disturbing trains on the main line.

* War Department Light Railways
* Longmoor Military Railway - built by the Royal Engineers in order to train on railway operations on it. It closed in 1969.
* Central Asian Military railway
* Feldbahn - German Military railway

ee also

* Minimum gauge railway
* Industrial railway

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Look at other dictionaries:

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