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 41% more power than an AC system operating at the same peak voltage. 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.
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