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Center Identification Number: 392-09

Project Title: Evaluation of the Economic Viability of Narrow-Gauge Local Rail Systems 

Co-Principal Investigators:

Lisa Staes, Senior Research Associate

Dennis Hinebaugh, Transit Program Director


Center for Urban Transportation Research
University of South Florida
Tampa, Florida

External Project Contact: 

Jon Ausman, Transit Program Manager

I. Project Objective 

The purpose of this project is to investigate and determine whether narrow-gauge local rail systems are economically viable in Florida, an if so under what circumstances or operating environments. The CUTR project team will examine the various technologies available, issues related to right-of-way purchase and maintenance, average per unit construction costs, operating and maintenance costs in general and for diesel versus diesel/electric. We will also discuss ridership and the associated estimated farebox revenues of this type of system. Finally, other revenues such as joint development and advertising will be reviewed. CUTR staff will address the extent to which the development of such a system could cause a significant mode shift and if it could be a positive contributor to community development/redevelopment.

II. Project Abstract 

A narrow-gauge railway is characterized by the distance between the heads of the parallel rails. Generally narrow-gauge rail systems have rail distances of either 24 or 30 inches while the standard for light and heavy railroads is 56.5 inches. Narrow gauge railways have been in existence in the United States since the early 1800s. Many of Florida's smaller municipalities developed and maintained these systems in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1920s many of these systems had gone out of business. Today their use is generally confined to light-duty people circulators and rides in amusement parks. Current efforts to create "Transit Greenways" have stimulated the interest in these less obtrusive, low cost rail systems. Narrow-gauge rail transit systems are more conducive to pedestrian, bicyclist and automotive vehicular interaction due to low operating speeds and "friendly" design scale.

III. Task Descriptions 

Task 1 Literature Review 

Conduct a literature search for documents written about the use of narrow-gauge rail systems both within the United States and in other countries, including data sheets and publications produced by manufacturers.

Task 2 Estimate Unit Capital Costs 

Identify the unit costs associated with the construction and various capital costs associated with the development of a narrow-gauge rail system and the purchase of system vehicles.

Task 3 Estimate Operating and Maintenance Costs

 Identify and discuss the operating and maintenance (O&M) considerations with narrow-gauge rail systems and estimated O&M costs.

Task 4 Ridership/mode shift expectations 

In this task, CUTR will summarize and analyze the validity of existing ridership projections contained in Transit Greenway Proposals/Studies, and community circulator studies. Existing community circulator type systems and historic trolleys will be examined as comparable systems for ridership and performance data.

Task 5 Revenue Sources 

Staff will identify potential federal, state, and or local revenue sources that may be accessed to assist in meeting capital and operating expenses.

Task 6 Anticipated impact on community development/redevelopment 

Existing community circulator type systems and historic trolleys will be examined as comparable systems to explore their impact on community development/redevelopment initiatives.

Task 7 Final Report 

Based on the results of the previous tasks, CUTR will discuss the relevant economic viability of narrow-gauge rail systems, their likelihood to create significant modal shift within a community, and their potential for creating a positive impact on community development/redevelopment activities. Prior to the completion of the final report, a peer review committee will be established to review the results of the project.

IV. Student Involvement 

Graduate students will be used to assist in the literature review and data gathering.

V. Relationship to Other Research Projects 

Unaware of other specific research in this area.

VI. Technology Transfer Activities/Peer Review 

The results of this analysis will be provided to the FDOT through interim memoranda and a final report. Copies of the final report will be provided to the Research Office, the State Public Transportation Administrator, and the Manager of the Transit Office. The results of this analysis will be made available to Florida's transit agencies and others as requested.

VII. Potential Benefits of the Project 

The topic of "transit greenways" is gaining popularity in the state. A number of proposals have been developed for various communities throughout Florida. One of the components of many of these proposals is the introduction of a small scale rail system or system of trolleys or small transit vehicles to assist with community mobility. This research will provide transit professional with the latest information available on the topic of narrow-gauge rail systems that will hopefully assist them in identifying the relative feasibility of various transportation alternatives within their communities.

VIII. TRB Keywords 

Public transit, rail, narrow-gauge, revenue, ridership, costs



National Center for Transit Research at the Center For Urban Transportation Research University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Ave., CUT100 Tampa, FL 33620-5375 (813) 974-3120 (813) 974-5168 Comments: