Railway electrification system
A railway electrification system supplies electric power to railway trains and trams without an on-board prime mover or local fuel supply. Electric railways use either electric locomotives (hauling passengers or freight in separate cars), electric multiple units (passenger cars with their own motors) or both. Electricity is typically generated in large and relatively efficient generating stations, transmitted to the railway network and distributed to the trains. Some electric railways have their own dedicated generating stations and transmission lines, but most purchase power from an electric utility. The railway usually provides its own distribution lines, switches, and transformers.
Power is supplied to moving trains with a (nearly) continuous conductor running along the track that usually takes one of two forms: an overhead line, suspended from poles or towers along the track or from structure or tunnel ceilings, or a third rail mounted at track level and contacted by a sliding "pickup shoe". Both overhead wire and third-rail systems usually use the running rails as the return conductor, but some systems use a separate fourth rail for this purpose.
In comparison to the principal alternative, the diesel engine, electric railways offer substantially better energy efficiency, lower emissions, and lower operating costs. Electric locomotives are also usually quieter, more powerful, and more responsive and reliable than diesels. They have no local emissions, an important advantage in tunnels and urban areas. Some electric traction systems provide regenerative braking that turns the train's kinetic energy back into electricity and returns it to the supply system to be used by other trains or the general utility grid. While diesel locomotives burn petroleum products, electricity can be generated from diverse sources, including renewable energy. Historically concerns of resource independence have played a role in the decision to electrify railway lines. The landlocked Swiss confederation which almost completely lacks oil or coal deposits but has plentiful hydropower electrified its network in part in reaction to supply issues during both World Wars.
Disadvantages of electric traction include: high capital costs that may be uneconomic on lightly trafficked routes, a relative lack of flexibility (since electric trains need third rails or overhead wires), and a vulnerability to power interruptions. Electro-diesel locomotives and electro-diesel multiple units mitigate these problems somewhat as they are capable of running on diesel power during an outage or on non-electrified routes.
Different regions may use different supply voltages and frequencies, complicating through service and requiring greater complexity of locomotive power. The limited clearances available under overhead lines may preclude efficient double-stack container service. However, Indian Railways and China Railway operate double-stack cargo trains under overhead wires with electric trains.