Electrified railways

A railway electrification system supplies electrical energy to railway trains and trams so that they can operate without having an on-board prime mover. Railway electrification has many advantages over other power systems for traction, but it requires significant capital expenditure for installation. In this article "system" refers to the technical configuration and details adopted; "network" refers to the geographical extent of a system actually installed at a location.

Characteristics of railway electrification

Railway electrification provides traction energy to trains, which may employ electric locomotives to haul passengers or freight, or consist of electric multiple units, where each passenger car receives its own power and no locomotive is needed. The energy is typically generated in large-scale commercial generating stations, where the fuel efficiency of generation can be optimised. The electrical energy is conveyed to the trains by transmission lines to the railway, and then distributed within the railway network to the various trains. There is usually an internal energy distribution system and voltage transformation provided by the railway infrastructure manager.

The energy is transferred to moving trains through a continuous or nearly continuous contact conductor. In the case of overhead systems this is usually a contact wire suspended in a catenary wire system to maintain accurate registration of geometrical position. The trains have a pantograph mounted on the roof, which supports conducting strips held in contact with the contact wire by a spring system. Some variants of this system are described later in this article.

In the case of third rail systems, the conductor is a rail supported on the sleepers (ties). Four rail systems are described later in this article.

As compared with diesel traction, the principal alternative system, electrification enables considerably enhanced fuel efficiency even allowing for transmission losses; it enables much higher specific installed power in the traction unit; it substantially reduces maintenance cost and out of service time for the traction units; it enables more responsive control; and it avoids discharge of products of combustion in urban areas. In a few systems regenerative brakes return some electric energy from the train.

Disadvantages include the high capital cost of providing the energy distribution system; a corresponding inability to provide a cheap service to lightly trafficked routes; and a relative lack of flexibility in the event of route disruption. Different electrical supply standards in adjacent regions complicate through service. Low overead clearances in many electrified systems prevent the implementation of efficient double-stack container service.


Electrification systems are classified by three main parameters:

  • Contact System

Standardised voltages

Six of the most commonly used voltages have been selected for European and international standardisation. These are independent of the contact system used, so that, for example, 750 V DC may be used with either third rail or overhead lines (the latter normally by trams).

There are many other voltage systems used for railway electrification systems around the world, and the list of current systems for electric rail traction covers both standard voltage and non-standard voltage systems.

The permissible range of voltages allowed for the standardised voltages is as stated in standards BS EN 50163[1] and IEC 60850.[2] These take into account the number of trains drawing current and their distance from the substation.

Electrification system Lowest non-permanent voltage Lowest permanent voltage Nominal voltage Highest permanent voltage Highest non-permanent voltage
600 V DC 400 V 400 V 600 V 720 V 800 V
750 V DC 500 V 500 V 750 V 900 V 1,000 V
1,500 V DC 1,000 V 1,000 V 1,500 V 1,800 V 1,950 V
3 kV DC 2 kV 2 kV 3 kV 3.6 kV 3.9 kV
15 kV AC, 16.7 Hz 11 kV 12 kV 15 kV 17.25 kV 18 kV
25 kV AC, 50 Hz 17.5 kV 19 kV 25 kV 27.5 kV 29 kV

Direct current

Early electrification systems used low-voltage DC. Electric motors on the train were fed directly from the traction supply and were controlled using starting resistances which were progressively shunted as the train gathered speed and relays that connected the motors in series or parallel.

The most common DC voltages are 600 V and 750 V for trams and metros and 1,500 V, 650/750 V third rail for the former Southern Region of the UK, and 3 kV overhead. The lower voltages are often used with third or fourth rail systems, whereas voltages above 1 kV are normally limited to overhead wiring for safety reasons. Suburban trains (S-Bahn) lines in Hamburg, Germany, operate using a third rail with 1,200 V, the French SNCF Culoz-Modane line in the Alps used 1,500 V and a third rail until 1976, when a catenary was installed and the third rail removed. In the UK, south of London, 750 V third rail is used while, 660 V is used to allow inter-running on shared lines with London Underground, which uses a 630 V [3] fourth rail system but with the fourth (centre) rail connected to the running rails in inter-running areas. Some inner London lines have retained 660 volt operation either because of their connection to shared lines or for legacy reasons. All new inner London (Overground) lines are 750 volt.

During the mid-20th century, rotary converters or mercury arc rectifiers were used to convert utility (mains) AC power to the required DC voltage at feeder stations. Today, this is usually done by semiconductor rectifiers after stepping down the voltage from the utility supply.

The DC system is quite simple but it requires thick cables and short distances between feeder stations because of the high currents required. There are also significant resistive losses. The feeder stations require constant monitoring. The distance between two feeder stations at 750 V on third-rail systems is about 2.5 km (1.6 mi). The distance between two feeder stations at 3 kV is about 7.5 km (4.7 mi).

If auxiliary machinery, such as fans and compressors, is powered by motors fed directly from the traction supply, they may be larger because of the extra insulation required for the relatively high operating voltage. Alternatively, they can be powered from a motor-generator set, which offers an alternative way of powering incandescent lights which otherwise would have to be connected as series strings (bulbs designed to operate at traction voltages being particularly inefficient). Now solid-state converters (SIVs) and fluorescent lights can be used. Alternatively, the DC power can be converted to AC through an on-board inverter to supply auxiliary machinery, and with the introduction of AC traction motors, the whole train (an example is the New Zealand FP class electric multiple unit used on the 1500 V DC suburban lines in Wellington, which converts the DC supply to AC on board for use by the traction motors and on-board accessories)

Overhead systems

Main article: Overhead line

1,500 V DC is used in the Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong (parts), Republic of Ireland, Australia (parts), India (around the Mumbai area alone,[4] has been converted to 25 kV AC like the rest of the country[5]), France (also using 25 kV 50 Hz AC), New Zealand (Wellington) and the United States (Chicago area on the Metra Electric district and the South Shore Line interurban line). In Slovakia, there are two narrow-gauge lines in the High Tatras (one a cog railway). In Portugal, it is used in the Cascais Line and in Denmark on the suburban S-train system.

In the United Kingdom, 1,500 V DC was used in 1954 for the Woodhead trans-Pennine route (now closed); the system used regenerative braking, allowing for transfer of energy between climbing and descending trains on the steep approaches to the tunnel. The system was also used for suburban electrification in East London and Manchester, now converted to 25 kV AC.

3 kV DC is used in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Poland, the northern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, western Croatia, South Africa and former Soviet Union countries (also using 25 kV 50 Hz AC). It was formerly used by the Milwaukee Road from Harlowton, Montana to Seattle-Tacoma, across the Continental Divide and including extensive branch and loop lines in Montana, and by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (now New Jersey Transit, converted to 25 kV AC) in the United States, and the Kolkata suburban railway (Bardhaman Main Line) in India, before it was converted to 25 kV 50 Hz AC.

DC voltages between 600 V and 800 V are used by most tramways (streetcars), trolleybus networks and underground (subway) systems.

Third rail

Main article: Third rail

Most electrification systems use overhead wires, but third rail is an option up to about 1,200 V. While use of a third rail does not require the use of DC, in practice all third-rail systems use DC because it can carry approximately 41% more power than an AC system operating at the same peak voltage.[6] Third rail is more compact than overhead wires and can be used in smaller-diameter tunnels, an important factor for subway systems.

Third rail systems can be designed to use top contact, side contact or bottom contact. Top contact is less safe, as the live rail is exposed to people treading on the rail unless an insulating hood is provided. Side- and bottom-contact third rail can easily have safety shields incorporated, carried by the rail itself. Uncovered top-contact third rails are vulnerable to disruption caused by ice, snow and fallen leaves.

DC systems (especially third rail systems) are limited to relatively low voltages and this can limit the size and speed of trains and cannot use low-level platform and also limit the amount of air-conditioning that the trains can provide. This may be a factor favouring overhead wires and high voltage AC, even for urban usage. In practice, the top speed of trains on third-rail systems is limited to 100 mph (160 km/h) because above that speed reliable contact between the shoe and the rail cannot be maintained.

Some street trams (streetcars) used conduit third-rail current collection. The third rail was below street level. The tram picked up the current through a plough (U.S. "plow") accessed through a narrow slot in the road. In the United States, much (though not all) of the former streetcar system system in Washington, D.C. (discontinued in 1962) was operated in this manner to avoid the unsightly wires and poles associated with electric traction. The same was true with Manhattan's former streetcar system. The evidence of this mode of running can still be seen on the track down the slope on the northern access to the abandoned Kingsway Tramway Subway in central London, United Kingdom, where the slot between the running rails is clearly visible, and on P and Q Streets west of Wisconsin Avenue in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC, where the abandoned tracks have not been paved over. The slot can easily be confused with the similar looking slot for cable trams/cars (in some cases, the conduit slot was originally a cable slot). The disadvantage of conduit collection included much higher initial installation costs, higher maintenance costs, and problems with leaves and snow getting in the slot. For this reason, in Washington, D.C. cars on some lines converted to overhead wire on leaving the city center, a worker in a "plow pit" disconnecting the plow while another raised the trolley pole (hitherto hooked down to the roof) to the overhead wire. In New York City for the same reasons of cost and operating efficiency outside of Manhattan overhead wire was used.

A new approach to avoiding overhead wires is taken by the "second generation" tram/streetcar system in Bordeaux, France (entry into service of the first line in December 2003; original system discontinued in 1958) with its APS (alimentation par sol – ground current feed). This involves a third rail which is flush with the surface like the tops of the running rails. The circuit is divided into segments with each segment energized in turn by sensors from the car as it passes over it, the remainder of the third rail remaining "dead". Since each energized segment is completely covered by the lengthy articulated cars, and goes dead before being "uncovered" by the passage of the vehicle, there is no danger to pedestrians. This system has also been adopted in some sections of the new tram systems in Reims, France (opened 2011) and Angers, France (also opened 2011). Proposals are in place for a number of other new services including Dubai, UAE; Barcelona, Spain; Florence, Italy; Marseille, France; Gold Coast, Australia; Washington, D.C., U.S.A.; Brasília, Brazil and Tours, France. At least initially there were teething troubles in terms of maintaining current feed, however, and the fact that the system is used exclusively in the historic center, with the cars on leaving this zone converting to conventional overhead pickup, underlines how, esthetics aside, for streetcars/trams it is hard to beat the overhead wire system in terms of overall efficiency.

Fourth rail

The London Underground in England is one of the few networks that uses a four-rail system. The additional rail carries the electrical return that, on third rail and overhead networks, is provided by the running rails. On the London Underground, a top-contact third rail is beside the track, energized at +420 V DC, and a top-contact fourth rail is located centrally between the running rails at −210 V DC, which combine to provide a traction voltage of 630 V DC. The same system was used for Milan's earliest underground line, Milan Metro's line 1, whose more recent lines use an overhead catenary or a fourth rail.

This scheme was introduced because of the problems of return currents, intended to be carried by the earthed (grounded) running rail, flowing through the iron tunnel linings instead. This can cause electrolytic damage and even arcing if the tunnel segments are not electrically bonded together. The problem was exacerbated because the return current also had a tendency to flow through nearby iron pipes forming the water and gas mains. Some of these, particularly Victorian mains that predated London's underground railways, were not constructed to carry currents and had no adequate electrical bonding between pipe segments. The four-rail system solves the problem. Although the supply has an artificially created earth point, this connection is derived by using resistors which ensures that stray earth currents are kept to manageable levels.

London's sub-surface underground railways also operate on the four-rail scheme since in a number of areas (for example the Piccadilly Line and Metropolitan Line services to Uxbridge) sub-surface and deep-level stock run on the same tracks.

On tracks that London Underground share with National Rail third-rail stock (the Bakerloo and District lines both have such sections), the centre rail is connected to the running rails, allowing both types of train to operate, at a compromise voltage of 660 V. Underground trains pass from one section to the other at speed; lineside electrical connections and resistances separate the two types of supply.

Fourth-rail trains occasionally operate on the National third-rail system. To do so, the centre-rail shoes are bonded to the wheels. This bonding must be removed before operating again on fourth-rail tracks, to avoid creating a short-circuit.

A few lines of the Paris Métro in France operate on a four-rail power scheme because they run on natural rubber tyres which run on a pair of narrow roadways made of steel and, in some places, concrete. Since the tyres do not conduct the return current, the two guide rails provided outside of the running 'roadways' double up as conductor rails, so at least electrically it fits as a four-rail scheme. One of the guide rails is bonded to the return conventional running rails situated inside the roadway so a single polarity supply is actually required. The trains are designed to operate from either polarity of supply, because some lines use reversing loops at one end, causing the train to be reversed during every complete journey.[7] The loop was originally provided to save the original steam locomotives having to 'run around' the rest of the train saving much time. Today, the driver doesn't have to change ends at termini provided with such a loop, but the time saving is not so significant as it takes almost as long to drive round the loop as it does to change ends. Many of the original loops have been lost as lines were extended.

Alternating current

These are overhead electrification systems. Alternating current can be transformed to lower voltages inside the locomotive. This allows much higher voltages and therefore smaller currents along the line, which means smaller energy losses along long railways.

Low-frequency alternating current

Common DC commutating electric motors can also be fed with AC (universal motor), because reversing the current in both stator and rotor does not change the direction of torque. However, the inductance of the windings made early designs of large motors impractical at standard AC distribution frequencies. In addition, AC induces eddy currents, particularly in non-laminated field pole pieces, that cause overheating and loss of efficiency. In the previous century, five European countries, namely, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, standardized on 15 kV 16⅔ Hz (one-third of the normal mains frequency) single-phase AC in an attempt to alleviate such problems. On 16 October 1995, Germany, Austria and Switzerland changed the designation from 16⅔ Hz to a nominal frequency of 16.7 Hz (though the actual frequency has not changed, its designation has; in both cases allowed frequency deviation from nominal being ±13 Hz).

In the United States, 25 Hz, an older once-common industrial power frequency is used on Amtrak's system at 12 kV on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City and on the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. SEPTA uses the same 12 kV voltage on the catenary of its regional rail system in Northeast Philadelphia. This allows for the trains to operate on both the Amtrak and SEPTA power systems. Apart from having an identical catenary voltage, the power distribution systems of Amtrak and SEPTA are very different. The Amtrak power distribution system has a 138 kV transmission network that provides power to substations which then transform the voltage to 12 kV to feed the catenary system. The SEPTA power distribution system uses a 2:1 ratio autotransformer system, with the catenary fed at 12 kV and a return feeder wire fed at 24 kV. The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad used a 11 kV system between New York City and New Haven, Connecticut which was converted to 12.5 kV 60 Hz in 1987.

In the UK, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway pioneered overhead electrification of its suburban lines in London, London Bridge to Victoria being opened to traffic on 1 December 1909. Victoria to Crystal Palace via Balham and West Norwood opened in May 1911. Peckham Rye to West Norwood opened in June 1912. Further extensions were not made owing to the First World War. Two lines opened in 1925 under the Southern Railway serving Coulsdon North and Sutton railway station.[8][9][10] The lines were electrified at 6.7 kV 25 Hz. It was announced in 1926 that all lines were to be converted to DC third rail and the last overhead electric service ran in September 1929.

In such a system, the traction motors can be fed through a transformer with multiple taps. Changing the taps allows the motor voltage to be changed without requiring power-wasting resistors. Auxiliary machinery is driven by small commutating motors powered from a separate low-voltage winding of the main transformer.

The use of low frequency requires that electricity be converted from utility power by motor-generators or static inverters at the feeding substations, or generated at altogether separate traction powerstations.

Since 1979, the three-phase induction motor has become almost universally used. It is fed by a static four-quadrant converter which supplies a constant voltage to a pulse-width modulator inverter that supplies the three-phase variable frequency to the motors.

Polyphase alternating current systems

Three-phase AC railway electrification was used in Italy, Switzerland and the United States in the early twentieth century. Italy was the major user, for lines in the mountainous regions of northern Italy from 1901 until 1976. The first lines were the Burgdorf-Thun line in Switzerland (1899), and the lines of the Ferrovia Alta Valtellina from Colico to Chiavenna and Tirano in Italy, which were electrified in 1901 and 1902. Other lines where the three-phase system were used were the Simplon Tunnel in Switzerland from 1906 to 1930, and the Cascade Tunnel of the Great Northern Railway in the United States from 1909 to 1927.

The early sysems used a low frequency (16⅔ Hz), and a relatively low voltage (3,000 or 3,600 volts) compared with later AC systems. The system provides regenerative braking with the power fed back to the system, so is particularly suitable for mountain railways (provided another locomotive on the line can use the power). The system has the disadvantage of requiring two (or three) separate overhead conductors plus return through the rails for the three phases. Locomotives operate at one, two or four constant speeds.

The system is still used on four mountain railways, using 725 to 3000 V at 50 or 60 Hz: the (Corcovado Rack Railway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jungfraubahn and Gornergratbahn in Switzerland and the Petit train de la Rhune in France).

Standard frequency alternating current

Only in the 1950s after development in France (20 kV; later 25 kV) and former Soviet Railways countries (25 kV) did the standard-frequency single-phase alternating current system become widespread, despite the simplification of a distribution system which could use the existing power supply network.

The first attempts to use standard-frequency single-phase AC were made in Hungary as far back as 1923, by the Hungarian Kálmán Kandó on the line between Budapest-Nyugati and Alag, using 16 kV at 50 Hz. The locomotives carried a four-pole rotating phase converter feeding a single traction motor of the polyphase induction type at 600 to 1,100 V. The number of poles on the 2,500 hp motor could be changed using slip rings to run at one of four synchronous speeds. The tests were a success so, from 1932 until 1960s, trains on the Budapest-Hegyeshalom line (towards Vienna) regularly used the same system. A few decades after the Second World War, the 16 kV was changed to the Russian and later French 25 kV system.

Today, some locomotives in this system use a transformer and rectifier to provide low-voltage pulsating direct current to motors. Speed is controlled by switching winding taps on the transformer. More sophisticated locomotives use thyristor or IGBT circuitry to generate chopped or even variable-frequency alternating current (AC) that is then supplied to the AC induction traction motors.

This system is quite economical but it has its drawbacks: the phases of the external power system are loaded unequally and there is significant electromagnetic interference generated as well as significant acoustic noise.

A list of the countries using the 25 kV AC 50 Hz single-phase system can be found in the list of current systems for electric rail traction.

The United States commonly uses 12.5 and 25 kV at 25 Hz or 60 Hz. 25 kV, 60 Hz AC is the preferred system for new high-speed and long-distance railways, even if the railway uses a different system for existing trains.

To prevent the risk of out-of-phase supplies mixing, sections of line fed from different feeder stations must be kept strictly isolated. This is achieved by Neutral Sections (also known as Phase Breaks), usually provided at feeder stations and midway between them although, typically, only half are in use at any time, the others being provided to allow a feeder station to be shut down and power provided from adjacent feeder stations. Neutral Sections usually consist of an earthed section of wire which is separated from the live wires on either side by insulating material, typically ceramic beads, designed so that the pantograph will smoothly run from one section to the other. The earthed section prevents an arc being drawn from one live section to the other, as the voltage difference may be higher than the normal system voltage if the live sections are on different phases and the protective circuit breakers may not be able to safely interrupt the considerable current that would flow. To prevent the risk of an arc being drawn across from one section of wire to earth, when passing through the neutral section, the train must be coasting and the circuit breakers must be open. In many cases, this is done manually by the drivers. To help them, a warning board is provided just before both the neutral section and an advanced warning some distance before. A further board is then provided after the neutral section to tell drivers to re-close the circuit breaker, although drivers must not do this until the rear pantograph has passed this board. In the UK, a system known as Automatic Power Control (APC) automatically opens and closes the circuit breaker, this being achieved by using sets of permanent magnets alongside the track communicating with a detector on the train. The only action needed by the driver is to shut off power and coast and therefore warning boards are still provided at and on the approach to neutral sections.

On French high-speed rail lines, the UK High Speed 1 Channel Tunnel rail link and in the Channel Tunnel, neutral sections are negotiated automatically.

In Japanese Shinkansen lines, there are ground-operated switched sections installed instead of neutral sections. The sections detect trains running within the section and automatically switch the power supply in 0.3 s,[11] which eliminates the need to shut off power at any time.

World electrification

In 2006, 240,000 km (25% by length) of the world rail network was electrified and 50% of all rail transport was carried by electric traction.

Advantages and disadvantages


Newly electrified lines often show a "sparks effect", whereby electrification in passenger rail systems leads to significant jumps in patronage / revenue.[12] The reasons may include electric trains being seen as more modern and attractive to ride,[13][14] faster and smoother service,[12] and the fact that electrification often goes hand in hand with a general infrastructure and rolling stock overhaul / replacement, which leads to better service quality (in a way that theoretically could also be achieved by doing similar upgrades yet without electrification). Whatever the causes of the sparks effect, it is well established for numerous routes that have electrified over decades.[12][13]


  • lower cost of building, running and maintaining locomotives and multiple units
  • higher power-to-weight ratio, resulting in
    • fewer locomotives
    • faster acceleration
    • higher practical limit of power
    • higher limit of speed
  • less noise pollution (quieter operation)
  • faster acceleration clears lines quicker to run more trains on the track in urban rail uses
  • reduced power loss at higher altitudes (for power loss see Diesel engine)
  • independence of running costs from fluctuating fuel prices
  • service to underground stations where diesel trains cannot operate for safety reasons
  • reduced environmental pollution, especially in highly populated urban areas, even if electricity is produced by fossil fuels
  • easily accommodates kinetic energy brake reclaim using supercapacitors


Disadvantages include:

  • Electrification cost: electrification requires an entire new infrastructure to be built around the existing tracks at a significant cost. Costs are especially high when tunnels, bridges and other obstructions have to be altered for clearance. Another aspect that can raise the cost of electrification are the alterations or upgrades to railway signalling needed for new traffic characteristics, and to protect signalling circuitry and track circuits from interference by traction current.
  • Electrical grid load: adding a major new consumer of electricity can have adverse effects on the electrical grid and may necessitate an increase in the grid's power output. However, a railway can be electrified in such manner, that it has a closed and independent electrical network of its own and backup power available if the national or state electrical grid suffers from downtime.
  • Appearance: the overhead line structures and cabling can have a significant landscape impact compared with a non-electrified or third rail electrified line that has only occasional signalling equipment above ground level.
  • Fragility and vulnerability: overhead electrification systems can suffer severe disruption due to minor mechanical faults or the effects of high winds causing the pantograph of a moving train to become entangled with the catenary, ripping the wires from their supports. The damage is often not limited to the supply to one track, but extends to those for adjacent tracks as well, causing the entire route to be blocked for a considerable time. Third-rail systems can suffer disruption in cold weather due to ice forming on the conductor rail.[15]
  • Theft: the high scrap value of copper and the unguarded, remote installations make overhead cables an attractive target for scrap metal thieves.[16] Attempts at theft of live 25 kV cables may end in the thief's death from electrocution.[17] In the UK, cable theft is claimed to be one of the biggest sources of delay and disruption to train services.[18]


Maintenance costs of the lines may be increased, but many systems claim lower costs due to reduced wear-and-tear from lighter rolling stock.[19] There are some additional maintenance costs associated with the electrical equipment around the track, such as power sub-stations and the catenary wire itself, but, if there is sufficient traffic, the reduced track and especially the lower engine maintenance and running costs exceed the costs of this maintenance significantly.

Network effects are a large factor with electrification. When converting lines to electric, the connections with other lines must be considered. Some electrifications have subsequently been removed because of the through traffic to non-electrified lines. If through traffic is to have any benefit, time consuming engine switches must occur to make such connections or expensive dual mode engines must be used. This is mostly an issue for long distance trips, but many lines come to be dominated by through traffic from long-haul freight trains (usually running coal, ore, or containers to or from ports). In theory, these trains could enjoy dramatic savings through electrification, but it can be too costly to extend electrification to isolated areas, and unless an entire network is electrified, companies often find that they need to continue use of diesel trains even if sections are electrified. The increasing demand for container traffic which is more efficient when utilizing the double-stack car also has network effect issues with existing electrifications due to insufficient clearance of overhead electrical lines for these trains, but electrification can be built or modified to have sufficient clearance, at additional cost.

Additionally, there are issues of connections between different electrical services, particularly connecting intercity lines with sections electrified for commuter traffic, but also between commuter lines built to different standards. This can cause electrification of certain connections to be very expensive simply because of the implications on the sections it is connecting. Many lines have come to be overlaid with multiple electrification standards for different trains to avoid having to replace the existing rolling stock on those lines. Obviously, this requires that the economics of a particular connection must be more compelling and this has prevented complete electrification of many lines. In a few cases, there are diesel trains running along completely electrified routes and this can be due to incompatibility of electrification standards along the route.


Summary of advantages and disadvantages:

  • Lines with low frequency of traffic may not be feasible for electrification (especially using regenerative braking), because lower running cost of trains may be overcome by the higher costs of maintenance. Therefore most long-distance lines in North America and many developing countries are not electrified due to relatively low frequency of trains.
  • Electric locomotives may easily be constructed with greater power output than most diesel locomotives. For passenger operation it is possible to provide enough power with diesel engines (see e.g. 'ICE TD') but, at higher speeds, this proves costly and impractical. Therefore, almost all high speed trains are electric.
  • The high power of electric locomotives gives them the ability to pull freight at higher speed over gradients; in mixed traffic conditions this increases capacity when the time between trains can be decreased. The higher power of electric locomotives and an electrification can also be a cheaper alternative to a new and less steep railway if trains weights are to be increased on a system.

Energy efficiency

Electric trains are more energy-efficient than diesel-powered trains. If powered by low-carbon generating stations, an electric train can produce a lower carbon dioxide footprint.

Electric trains need not carry the weight of prime movers, transmission and fuel. This is partly offset by the weight of electrical equipment.

Regenerative braking returns power to the electrification system so that it may be used elsewhere, by other trains on the same system or returned to the general power grid. This is especially useful in mountainous areas where heavily loaded trains must descend long grades.

Central station electricity can be generated with higher efficiency than a mobile engine/generator. Large fossil fuel power stations operate at high efficiency,[20][21] and can be used for district heating or to produce district cooling, leading to a higher total efficiency.

Energy sources unsuitable for mobile power plants, such as nuclear power, renewable hydroelectricity, or wind power can be used. According to widely accepted global energy reserve statistics,[22] the reserves of liquid fuel are much less than gas and coal (at 42, 167 and 416 years respectively). Most countries with large rail networks do not have significant oil reserves and those that did, like the United States and Britain, have exhausted much of their reserves and have suffered declining oil output for decades. Therefore, there is also a strong economic incentive to substitute other fuels for oil. Rail electrification is often considered an important route towards consumption pattern reform.[23][24]

External cost

The external cost of railway is lower than other modes of transport but the electrification brings it down further if it is sustainable.

Also, the lower cost of energy from well to wheel and the ability to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas in the atmosphere according to the Kyoto Protocol is an advantage.

Non-contact systems

It is possible to supply power to an electric train by inductive coupling. This allows the use of a high-voltage, insulated, conductor rail. Such a system was patented in 1894 by Nikola Tesla, US Patent 514972.[25] It requires the use of high-frequency alternating current. Tesla did not specify a frequency but George Trinkaus[26] suggests that around 1,000 Hz would be likely.

Inductive coupling is widely used in low-power applications, such as re-chargeable electric toothbrushes. The contactless technology for rail vehicles is currently being marketed by Bombardier as PRIMOVE.[27]

See also

Energy portal



External links

  • Railway Technical Web Page
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