The Overhead Wire has a post about how rail lines should have numbers not colors. For example, in Chicago and Los Angeles all the rail lines names are colors, ie, “blue line”, “red line”, while in New York the “services” are numbered “A”, “7”, etc. I agree that numbers allow for more lines/services, but maps like colors. Almost every city in America (also, Washington, Boston, etc.) with a rail system uses colors.

I prefer names over numbers, because they allow for more information. The London Underground has names, and there’s little question where some of the lines go. The “Waterloo and City” line goes between, well, Waterloo and the City of London. In Tokyo the lines are named, too. The Toyoko line goes between Tokyo and Yokohama, and it’s obvious from the name (if you speak Japanese).

It seems like we are going toward naming our lines, but giving them terrible names: “Central Link”, “Tacoma Link”, “First Hill Streetcar”, “South Lake Union Streetcar”, and “Sounder”. I may be jumping the gun, since we only have really one line and it’s not opened yet, but I propose this if we ever get an integrated system, either light rail or streetcars: we both letter our lines and give them names. San Francisco does it this way, with the “N Judah”, “9 Potrero”, “T Third Street”, “38 Geary” etc. This way it could be the “T Tacoma”, “S South Lake Union”, “F First Hill”, “D Denny”, etc.

What do you guys think? Are letters better than colors? Names better than letters?

8 Replies to “How to Name Urban Rail Ways”

  1. New York names the lines names like “IRT”, “IND”, and “BMT” then names the services letters and numbers. That’s kind of like the sound transit way. Central Link, East Link, etc. are lines and the “Blue Line” could be Northgate-Bellevue or a “red line” could be Sea-Tac-Northgate, etc.

  2. I think it depends. I believe the objective of line/route/stop/system naming is to communicate to the riders (and potential riders) what to expect from the service and/or how to navigate through the transit system. So the preferred nomenclature will depend on the size/complexity of the system, at the potential full buildout (or at least as far as can be envisioned- 40 years?)

    Pullman Transit has each of their bus routes named by letters. Bellingham has colors for their frequent service routes. It is perfectly appropriate since in either case there is no expectation of a significant increase in the system size where letters (A-Z; no AA-ZZ et seq) or colors (Primary, secondary; not teal or taupe) would be exhausted. 0-999 is in use in our region for buses(with some redundancy) and it seems to be sized appropriately for the bus system(for King County: < =99, Seattle; 100s, South, 200s, West, 300s, North; 400s Community Transit Commuter; 500s, ST Express; 600-900, I'm not sure.) But my first question for Daimajin: what are you trying to communicate? Rail lines? Speed? Frequency? Reliability? Regional connections? I’m not sure I would place streetcars in the same category as Link, because they operate so differently, the streetcar is a local service while Link is more interlocal/regional, and the two are not related for the users’ experience, except by the fact they are rail. Link’s operating speeds are a lot faster than the streetcar to SLU and will actually achieve much higher frequencies than ever expected for the streetcar. So for Link by itself, color might do just fine for each line. Letters would be fine too. Numbers are unnecessary and cause confusion with bus service. But I don’t know why one should stop at just Link. What are we trying to communicate? From what I can tell, Seattle is branding the new streetcar the “South Lake Union Line” of the Seattle Streetcar system. I have heard that Sound Transit is not naming lines of Link, but rather focusing on naming the stations.

  3. A lot of systems use a mix of letters/numbers and colors as well. New York uses colors to associate similar lines (lines that shares sections of track, express and local along the same route, etc), although they are called by the letter/number on normal usage.

    Los Angeles uses colors, but also assigns three digit numbers, although those number are mostly used on the back-end (and are part of the bus numbering system).

    In my opinion, colors are the normal convenient when the system is smaller, and then letters/numbers are needed when it gets larger (and it’s much easier to say to take the N line or the Blue line vs saying a longer name). Longer names can be useful, but IMO mostly to tourists and new people to the system, and in some cases would be rediculously long to convey the trip of the trains (especially in places like New York, where one subway can go through 3 bouroughs, and it is FAR from a straight line between the two), but it varies.

  4. The CTA lines in Chicago didn’t used to be named by their color. They used to have place related names, like the “Congress O’Hare” line for example.

    What was so stupid was that when they moved to calling the lines by the color they used to depict them on maps, etc… they claimed that they were taking a cue from the London Underground. Except, while the Tube maps colors are distinctive, we know red is the Central Line, and yellow the Circle line, etc…, no one in London calls these lines by their color!

    I think naming routes by colors is a bad idea. Naming them after their end-points or based on some place name gives anyone familiar with a town an idea of where the line services. You only need to resort to numbers when, like buses, you have too many to name.

  5. hi guys,
    I think it is a question of how many routes you have to describe. In the early times we used several systems here in Germany but during the 20s and 30s we changed all letters and descriptions into numbers. It is a very flexible system. So you can characterize a route by its system (U1, U2… as Underground (Fast Transport), T1, T2… as Trams (Medium) and B1, B2…as Buses (Slow). Or you can count the digits (1 -> frequent service/main line), 11 -> regular service), 111 -> just a few times per hour)…also you can bundle routes (7xx, 7xy, 7yy northbound) or serving a local area…

    1. Moscow and St Petersburg do this. Metro lines are preceded with M, tramvay (streetcar) with a handwritten T (which looks like a latin M), trolleybus with a printed T (which looks like a T), and avtobus with an A. So trolleybus 104 is completely different from avtobus 104.

  6. I am a big fan of colors for rail lines.

    Names can be very confusing. Like your Tokyo line example. uhh, where in Tokyo?…

    When it comes to rail numbers don’t make any sense.

    Colors are logical and easy to remember.

  7. I disagree with using numbers, colors, or the current “Blah Link” nomenclature. I also think that indicating both ends of the line, such as “Sea-Tac—Northgate” could prove confusing. Would you call it “Northgate—Sea-Tac” on your way back? What direction the train is heading isn’t apparent in underground stations, as we have planned here, and is vital to know for getting on the correct car.

    Instead of referring to an alignment by both ends of the line, we should just use the terminus station name. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco uses this approach to indicate direction as well as where you’ll end up, such as “Dublin/Pleasanton” or “San Francisco/SFO”. In our case this would mean calling the light rail line currently under construction “Sea-Tac” when travelling south, and “Northgate” when taking the same line north.

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