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Rail transport makes highly efficient use of space: a double-track rail line can carry more passengers per hour than a four-lane road. As a result, rail transport is a major form of public urban transport in many countries.

The first metropolitan underground railway opened in London in 1890. Since then, the ‘metro’ has spread worldwide. Between 1990 and 2010 alone, 44 new metros were launched, and nearly 120 cities now have them.The International Association of Public Transport (IATP) estimates that they carry more than 150 million passengers a day between them.

IATP says that metro is the most efficient transport mode in terms of energy consumption and space occupancy, and that the proportion of people using public transport tends to be larger in cities with metros.

A technological cousin of the metro is light rail transit (LRT), which includes everything from a tramway to a rapid transit system operated partially on its own right-of-way. Many cities developed them, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to metro construction and because they produce less noise and other local pollution than buses.

However, LRT is itself under challenge today from Bus Rapid Transit, which can be developed at lower costs and with less disruption to already congested cities.

Online resources
Trends in Urban Public Transport — Quality Public Transport Briefing 4

The high public price of Britain’s private railway