Lines such as the Charlotte Area Transit System show why the US is the global leader when it comes to light-rail investment. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Light rail is considered to be an environmentally sustainable transit option thanks to its contribution to reducing air pollution, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

While walking and cycling are the most sustainable ways of getting around, light rail comes out on top among its high-occupancy passenger transport peers, which include rail, tram, bus and metro.

Compared with buses especially, light rail can draw more people out of cars, releases no air pollution and, like heavy rail, obtains power from environmentally friendly sources such as electricity.

Since 2010, the US has seen 27 light-rail projects come to market for a total value of $35bn and length of 553km.

Light rail is also perceived to be particularly good in cutting other externalities beyond air pollution, including accidents, noise and congestion, water and soil pollution.

While findings indicate that a light-rail presence affects environmental sustainability in varying degrees, they also show that it alone cannot significantly affect energy intensity, energy per capita, carbon dioxide (CO2) intensity and CO2 per capita.

Other factors, including light-rail transit ridership, come into play as they influence how light-rail transit affects the environmental sustainability in urban areas.

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While not perfect, in common with the concept of sustainability, light rail presents characteristics that suit the sustainable development and sustainable transport agendas, which focus on transit options other than private cars that reduce energy use, emissions, noise and other externalities, and encourage efficient use of urban space.

Industry breakdown: US and France dominate light-rail scene

The Monitor Network’s sustainable infrastructure database shows that the US hosts the highest number of light-rail projects, as well as the largest for cumulative project value and area covered.

Since 2010, the US has seen 27 light-rail projects come to market for a total value of $35bn and a length of 553km.

Data shows that the US is followed by another large country, Canada, which for this reason is also able to host projects covering long distances.

Unlike the US, however, Canada has seen fewer projects (eight) over the same period of time, but much larger ones by average project value, which is $3.4bn per project from a total of $27bn.

Algeria, a much smaller country by land compared with both the US and Canada, secures an interesting third place by investment value at $13bn across 11 projects, and covering more than double the distance of Canada (351km versus Canada’s 144km).

France records the most light-rail projects in Europe

The number of light-rail projects that each country has hosted over the period shows France at the top alongside the US with 27 projects. While these have been much smaller projects, as the total value for the country comes at only $7bn, this high number shows that the French market is a savvy one when it comes to light rail.

Turkey, China and Australia follow in terms of number of projects, with China and Australia ranking highly by average project size, at $859m and $1bn, respectively.

The Monitor Network’s sustainable infrastructure database also shows that French contractors have a lead on others when it comes to procuring light-rail opportunities at a global level.

French contractor Alstom came out top of the list by the number of projects it has participated in at a global level. Data shows that the company, which focuses on green and smart mobility worldwide, has invested in France and in Algeria in both light-rail and tramway projects.

The company recently signed off the acquisition of Canadian rolling stock and rail transport manufacturer Bombardier Transportation. The deal significantly expands Alstom’s geographic footprint and creates a group with a combined proforma revenue of approximately €15.7bn and a €71.1bn combined backlog.

Another French company to rank highly is Eurovia, a subsidiary of concessions and construction company Vinci. The company has invested predominantly in the tramway sector across Belgium and France.

China Civil Engineering Construction comes second in the Monitor Network’s list, having worked in light-rail projects in Nigeria, Uganda, Colombia and Algeria.