Third rail systems are a means of providing electric traction power to trains, and they use an additional rail (called a "conductor rail") for the purpose. On most systems, the conductor rail is placed on the sleeper ends outside the running rails, but in some cases a central conductor rail is used. The conductor rail is supported on ceramic insulators or insulated brackets, typically at intervals of 10 feet (3.0 metres) or so.
The trains have metal contact blocks called "shoes" which make contact with the conductor rail. The traction current is returned to the generating station through the running rails. The conductor rail is usually made of high conductivity steel, and the running rails have to be electrically connected using wire bonds or other devices, to minimize resistance in the electric circuit.
The conductor rails have to be interrupted at level crossings and at crossovers, and ramps are provided at the ends of the sections to give a smooth transition to the train shoes.
There is considerable diversity about the contact position between the train and the rail; some of the earliest systems used top contact, but developments used side or bottom contact, which enabled the conductor rail to be covered, protecting track workers from accidental contact and protecting the conductor rail from snow and leaf fall.
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