A third rail is a method of providing electricity to power a railway through a continuous rigid conductor alongside the railway track or between the rails. It is used typically in a mass transit or rapid transit system, which has alignments in own corridors, fully or almost fully segregated from the outside environment. A list of lines or networks equipped with a third rail is provided further below. Third-rail systems generally supply direct current to power the trains. In the early 1900s the third-rail system was used to power early rollercoasters such as the Rough Riders in Coney Island, New York.
The third-rail system of electrification is unrelated to the third rail used in dual-gauge railways.
An experimental electric train using this method of power supply was developed by the German firm of Siemens & Halske and shown at the Berliner Gewerbeausstellung of 1879. This pioneer electric railway had its third rail placed between running rails. At some early electric railways, though, one of the running rails could be the current conductor, as was the case of the 1883-opened Volk's Electric Railway in Brighton. Soon it was given an additional power rail in 1886 (the railway is still operating). The Giant's Causeway Tramway followed, equipped with an elevated outside third rail in 1883 (but later converted to overhead wire pickup). The first railway to use the central third rail was the Bessbrook & Newry Tramway, opened in Ireland in 1885 but now it is, like the Giant's Causeway line, closed. Also in the 1880s third-rail systems began to be used in public urban transport. Trams were first to benefit from it, but they used conductors built in conduit below the road surface (see Conduit current collection), and usually on selected parts of the networks. This was first tried in Cleveland (1884) and in Denver (1885) and later spread to many big tram networks (e.g. Manhattan, Chicago, Washington DC, London, Paris, all closed) and Berlin (the third rail system in the city was abandoned in the first years of the 20th century after heavy snowfall)) .
A third rail supplied power to the world's first electric underground railway, the City & South London Railway, which opened in 1890 (now part of the Northern Line of the London Underground). In 1893 the world's second third-rail powered city railway opened in Britain, the Liverpool Overhead Railway (closed 1956 and dismantled). The first US third-rail powered city railway in revenue use was the 1895-opened Metropolitan West Side Elevated, which soon became part of the Chicago 'L'. In 1901, Granville Woods, a prominent African-American inventor, was granted a , covering various proposed improvements to third rail systems. This has been cited to claim that he invented the third rail system of current distribution. However, by that time there had been numerous other patents for electrified third-rail systems, including Thomas Edison's of 1882, and third rails had been in successful use for over a decade, in installations including the rest of Chicago 'elevateds', as well as these in Brooklyn, New York (if not to mention the development outside the US). To what extent Woods' ideas were adopted is thus a matter of controversy.
In Paris, third rail appeared in 1900 in the main-line tunnel connecting the Gare d'Orsay to the rest of the CF Paris-Orléans network. Main-line third rail electrification was later expanded to some suburban services.
Top contact third rail (see below) seems to be the oldest form of power collection. Railways pioneering in using other less hazardous types of third rail were the New York Central Railroad on the approach to its NYC's Grand Central Terminal (1907 — another case of a third-rail mainline electrification) and the Hochbahn in Hamburg (1912) — both had bottom contact rail. However, the Manchester-Bury Line of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway tried the side contact rail (1917). These technologies appeared in wider use only at the turn of the 1920s and in the 1930s on, e.g., large-profile lines of the Berlin U-Bahn, the Berlin S-Bahn and the Moscow Metro. The Hamburg S-Bahn has used a side contact third rail at 1200 V dc since 1939.
In 1956 the world's first rubber-tyred railway line, Line 11 of Paris Metro, opened. The conductor rail evolved into a pair of guiding rails required to keep the bogie in proper position on the new type of track. This solution was modified on the 1971-opened Namboku Line of Sapporo Subway, where a centrally placed guiding/return rail was used plus one power rail placed laterally as on conventional railways (see 画像:ST SN5000 20061102 001.jpg).
The third rail technology at street tram lines has recently been revived in the new system of Bordeaux (2004). This is a completely new technology (see below).
Third rail is by no means obsolete. There are, however, countries (particularly Japan, South Korea, India, Spain) more eager to adopt overhead wiring to their urban railways. But in the same time there were (and still are) many new third rail systems built elsewhere, including technologically advanced countries (i.e. Copenhagen Metro, Taipei Metro, Wuhan Metro). Bottom powered railways (it may be too specific to use the term 'third rail') are also usually those having rubber-tyred trains, whether it is a heavy metro (except two other lines of Sapporo Subway) or a small capacity people mover (PM). Practically the type of railways where third rail is no longer used in new systems is regional and long distance rail, which require higher speeds and voltages.
The first idea for feeding electricity to a train from an external source was by using both rails on which a train runs, whereby each rail is a conductor for each pole insulated by the sleepers. This method is used by most model trains, however it does not work so well for large trains as the sleepers are not good insulators, furthermore the use of insulated wheels or insulated axles is required. As most insulation materials have worse static properties compared with metals used for this purpose, this results in a less stable train vehicle. Nevertheless, it was sometimes used at the beginning of the development of electric trains. The following systems used it:
However some trains used for rides for children at beer festivals also use this method for power supply.
As with overhead wires, the return current on a third-rail system usually flows through one or both running rails, and leakage to ground is not considered serious. Where trains run on rubber tyres, as on parts of the Paris Métro, Mexico City Metro and Santiago Metro, and on all of the Montreal Métro, live guide bars must be provided to feed the current. The return is effected through the rails of the conventional track between these guide bars (see rubber-tyred metro). Another design, with a third rail (current feed, outside the running rails) and fourth rail (current return, half way between the running rails), is used by a few steel-wheel systems, see fourth rail. The London Underground is the largest of these, see railway electrification in Great Britain.
On line M1 of the Milan Metro the third rail is used as the return electrical line (with potential near the ground) and the live electrical connection is made with a sliding block on the side of the car contacting an electrical bar parallel to the track approximately 1 m (3') above rail level. In this manner there are four rails. In the northern part of the line the more common overhead line system is used.
The third rail is an alternative to overhead lines that transmit power to trains by means of pantographs attached to the trains. Whereas overhead-wire systems can operate at 25 kV or more, using alternating current (AC), the smaller clearance around a live rail imposes a maximum of about 1200 V (Hamburg S-Bahn), and direct current (DC) is used. Trains on some lines or networks use both power supply modes (cf. below, "Compromise systems").
One method for reducing current losses (and thus increase the spacing of feeder/sub stations, a major cost in third rail electrification) is to use a composite conductor rail of a hybrid aluminium/steel design. The aluminium is a better conductor of electricity, and a running face of stainless steel gives better wear.
There are several ways of attaching the stainless steel to the aluminium. The oldest is a co-extruded method, where the stainless steel is extruded with the aluminium. This method has suffered, in isolated cases, from de-lamination (where the stainless steel separates from the aluminium); this is said to have been eliminated in the latest co-extruded rails. A second method is an aluminium core, upon which two stainless steel sections are fitted as a cap and linear welded along the centre line of the rail. Because aluminium has a higher coefficient of thermal expansion than steel, the aluminium and steel must be positively locked to provide a good current collection interface. A third method rivets aluminum bus strips to the web of the steel rail. The photo on the right depicts such a rail.
Intercity ground level third rail systems are the norm in the southeast of England, and level crossings are handled in a fashion similar to the Chicago system. A few interurban electric railways attempted to utilize third rail in the USA, but these were quickly abandoned as impractical outside New York City commuter lines such as the Long Island Rail Road. Both the US and UK intercity systems address safety through extensive fencing and warning signage.
There are urban legends that people have died while urinating on the third rail (the urine stream supposedly completes an electrical circuit that electrocutes the victim); a non-continuous stream has been demonstrated by MythBusters (Season 1, Episode 3) to be unable to conduct electricity This myth may be partially perpetuated by a 1977 incident that occurred in Chicago where an intoxicated pedestrian suffered a fatal electrocution injury while trespassing to urinate on the grade-level CTA Brown Line near Kedzie Avenue. However, the death occurred as a result of the passenger making physical contact with the third rail, not as a result of an electrical circuit being completed via his urine stream However a recent event at Vauxhall station in London may perpetuate this myth (see http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1453527.ece). There are also myths about people urinating on overhead wires from a bridge. Also people have been killed by overhead wires while passing a standing train by climbing over it. So both variants of electric supply are dangerous.
By comparison, overhead wires can provide 50 kV, and can take roughly ten times the power.
When David L. Gunn became General Manager of the Washington DC Metro Rail system in 1991, he proposed to alleviate crowding by running much more frequent trains as two-car trains instead of the practice the transit authority had of running four-car trains. He had to publicly drop this idea, with some embarrassment, when it was pointed out to him that two-car trains can operate only in specific areas of the system because each car only has one shoe, on the same side of the car. Even with the practice of having each car pointing in the opposite direction so that there is a shoe on each side of the train, there are many places in the system where a two-car train would end up gapped.
Older systems adopted top-contact third rail before they realised that there would be problems with leaves, etc., while newer systems have learned from this mistake and use side or bottom contact. However, some relatively new systems in North America, such as the TTC in Toronto, use top-covered top-contact third rails on above-ground portions of its subway system; rarely is the system delayed by electrical problems even after heavy snows. Problems generally arise in other aspects of the system (frozen switches for example) long before snow interferes significantly with electrical pickup. Some systems are less susceptible to this problem due to having mostly underground trackage, or less severe weather.
Also in New York City, due to a prohibition on diesel emissions in tunnels, Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak use diesel locomotives that can also be electrically powered by third-rail. This kind of locomotive (for example the P32AC-DM or the EMD/Siemens built DM30AC of LIRR), can transition between the two modes while underway. The third-rail auxiliary system is not as powerful as the diesel engine, so on open-air (non-tunnel) trackage run the engines typically run in diesel mode, even where third rail power is available. This does not hold true for the DM30ACs, where the electric mode is much more powerful than the diesel.
In Manhattan, New York City, and in Washington, D.C., local ordinances required electrified street railways to draw current from a third rail and return the current to a fourth rail, both installed in a continuous vault underneath the street and accessed by means of a collector that passed through a slot between the running rails. When streetcars on such systems entered territory where overhead lines were allowed, they stopped over a pit where a man detached the collector (plow) and the motorman placed a trolley pole on the overhead. Some sections of the former London tram system also used the conduit current collection system, also with some tramcars that could collect power from both overhead and under-road sources.
The Blue Line of Boston's MBTA uses third rail electrification from the start of the line downtown to Airport, where it switches to overhead catenary for the remainder of the line to Wonderland. Dual power supply method was also used on some US interurban railways that made use of newer third rail in suburban areas, and existing overhead streetcar (trolley) infrastructure to reach downtown, for example the Skokie Swift in Chicago.
The Eurostar uses overhead electrical power (at 25 kV AC) in the Channel Tunnel and along High Speed 1, with a pantograph height change required between HS1 and the Channel Tunnel (which is at a unique height). (The trains are also required to cope with height changes for the French urban and TGV lines.) Until 14 November 2007, at Fawkham Junction a transition was made on the fly to 750 V DC for the journey through the London suburbs on the standard commuter lines into Waterloo using the third rail system. There are now 25 KV overhead wires all the way into St. Pancras International station.
Also in London, the North London Line changes its power supply several times between Richmond and Stratford. The cross-city Thameslink service runs on Southern Region third rail from Farringdon station southwards and on overhead line northwards from Farringdon to Bedford: this change-over is made while stationary.
The new tramway in Bordeaux (France) uses a novel system with a third rail in the center of the track. The third rail is separated into 8 m (26 ' 3 ") long conducting and 3 m (9 ' 10 ") long isolation segments. Each conducting segment is attached to an electronic circuit which will make the segment live once it lies fully beneath the tram (activated by a coded signal sent by the train) and switch it off before it becomes exposed again. This system (called "Alimentation par Sol" (APS), meaning "current supply via ground") is used in various locations around the city but especially in the historic centre: elsewhere the trams use the conventional overhead lines, see also ground-level power supply. In summer 2006 it was announced that two new French tram systems would be using APS over part of their networks. These will be Angers and Reims, with both systems expected to open around 2009–2010.
Suburban corridors in Paris from Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare des Invalides (both Compagnie des chemins de fer de l'Ouest) and Gare d'Orsay (CF PO), were electrified from 1924, 1901, 1900 respectively. They all changed to overhead wires by stages after they became part of a wide scale electrification project of the SNCF network in the 1960s–70s.
In Manchester area, the Bury Line (originally L&YR) was first electrified with overhead wires (1913), then changed to third rail (1917, cf. Railway electrification in Great Britain) and again in 1992 to overhead wires in the course of its adaptation for the Manchester Metrolink. Trams in city centre streets, carrying collector shoes projecting from their bogies, were considered too dangerous for pedestrians and motor traffic to attempt dual-mode technology (in Amsterdam and Rotterdam Sneltram vehicles go out to surface in suburbs, not in busy central areas). The same thing happened to the West Croydon — Wimbledon Line in Greater London (originally electrified by the Southern Railway) when Tramlink was opened in 2000.
Three lines of five making up the core of Barcelona Metro network changed to overhead power supply from third rail. This operation was also done by stages and completed in 2003.
The opposite took place in south London. The South London Line of the LBSCR network between Victoria and London Bridge was electrified with catenary in 1909. The system was later extended to Crystal Palace, Coulsdon North and Sutton. In the course of main-line third rail electrification in south-east England, the lines were converted by 1929.
The first overhead electric trains appeared on the Hamburg-Altonaer Stadt- und Vorortbahn in 1907. Thirty years later, the main-line railway operator, Deutsche Reichsbahn, influenced by the success of the third-rail Berlin S-Bahn, decided to switch what was now called Hamburg S-Bahn to third rail. The process began in 1940 and was not finished until 1955.
In 1976–1981 the third-rail Viennese U-Bahn U4 Line substituted the Donaukanallinie and Wientallinie of the Stadtbahn, built c1900 and first electrified with overhead wires in 1924. This was part of a big project of consolidated U-Bahn network construction. The other electric Stadtbahn line, whose conversion into heavy rail stock was rejected, still operates under wires with light rail cars (as U6), though it has been thoroughly modernised and significantly extended. As the platforms on the Gürtellinie were not suitable for raising without much intervention into historic Otto Wagner's station architecture, the line would anyway remain incompatible with the rest of the U-Bahn network. Therefore an attempt of conversion to third rail would have been pointless. In Vienna, paradoxically, the wires were retained for aesthetic (and economic) reasons.
The reasons for building the overhead powered Tyne & Wear Metro network roughly on lines of the long-gone third-rail Tyneside Electrics system in Newcastle area are likely to have roots in economy and psychology rather than in the pursue of compatibility. At the time of the Metro opening (1980) there were no third-rail light rail vehicles on the market and the latter technology was confined to much more costly heavy rail stock. Also the far-going change of image was desired: the memories of the last stage of operation of the Tyneside Electrics were far from being favourable. This was the construction of the system from scratch after 11 years of ineffective diesel service.
A railway can be electrified with an overhead wire and a third rail at the same time. This was the case, for example, on the Hamburg S-Bahn between 1940 and 1955. A modern example is Birkenwerder Railway Station near Berlin, which has third rail on both sides and overhead wire. The whole Penn Station complex in New York City is also electrified with both systems. However, such systems have problems with the influence of the different supplies. If one supply is DC and the other AC, an undesired premagnetization of the AC transformers can occur. For this reason, double electrification is usually avoided.
The border station of Modane on the French-Italian Fréjus railway was electrified at both 1500 V DC third rail for French trains and with overhead wires (initially three-phase, later 3000 V DC) for Italian trains. When the French part of the line was converted to overhead wires, the voltage of the wires was dropped to 1500 V DC. Now Italian trains run in Modane feed with 1500 V DC instead of 3000, with half of their power.
In 1906, the famous Lionel electric trains became the first model trains to use a third rail to power the locomotive. Lionel track uses a third rail in the center, while the two outer rails are electrically connected together. This solved the problem two-rail model trains have when the track is arranged to loop back on itself, as ordinarily this causes a short-circuit. (Even if the loop was gapped, the locomotive would create a short and stop as it crossed the gaps.) Lionel electric trains also operate on alternating current. The use of alternating current means that a Lionel locomotive cannot be reversed by changing polarity; instead, the locomotive sequences among several states (forward, neutral, backward, for example) each time it is started. Märklin three-rail trains use a short spike of voltage to reverse a relay within the locomotive while it is stopped.
Most model train sets today use only two rails, and supply locomotives with direct current. The voltage and polarity of the current controls the speed and direction of the train. A growing exception is DCC (Digital Command Control), where bi-polar DC is delivered to the rails at a constant voltage, along with digital signals that are decoded within the locomotive; the signals carry addresses that indicate which locomotive is being commanded when multiple locomotives are present on the same track.
Some model railroads realistically mimic the third rail configurations of their full-sized counterparts; such models may or may not actually draw power from the third rail (most do not).
See List of rail transport systems using third rail for a complete list.