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Heavy Rail

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Definition: Heavy Rail

Heavy rail refers to traditional high platform subway and elevated rapid transit lines. Principal characteristics are operation over rights of way that are completely segregated from other uses, with the track placed in subway tunnels, on elevated structures, or on fenced surface rights of way, free of grade crossings with roads. Trains consist of anywhere from two to 12 cars, each with its own motors, and drawing power from a third rail (or in some cases from overhead wire). Boarding is from high platforms that are even with the floor level of the car, allowing large numbers of people to enter and leave rapidly. Before World War II, true heavy rail rapid transit systems existed only in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Since the war, new systems have been opened in Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, the San Francisco-Oakland region, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami, plus Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

An experimental modern rapid transit train running on an elevated line in New York.


Heavy rail systems are extremely expensive to build due to the need to build tunnels, elevated structures, or other fully segregated rights of way and to accommodate more gentle curves and grades than are needed for light rail or streetcars. Given the high costs and the recent huge overruns of the Los Angeles rapid transit construction, funding of new heavy rail systems in the United States has become much less likely.


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