In all but very early cast iron rails, a rail is hot rolled steel (once wrought iron) of a specific cross sectional profile (an asymmetrical I-beam) designed for use as the fundamental component of railway track.
Unlike some other uses of iron and steel, railway rails are subject to very high stresses and have to be made of very high quality steel. It took many decades to improve the quality of the materials, including the change from iron to steel. Minor flaws in the steel that pose no problems in reinforcing rods for buildings can, however, lead to broken rails and dangerous derailments when used on railway tracks.
By and large, the heavier the rails and the rest of the trackwork, the heavier and faster the trains these tracks can carry.
The rails represent a substantial fraction of the cost of a railway line. Only a small number of rail sizes are made by steelworks at one time, so a railway must choose the nearest suitable size. Worn, heavy rail from a mainline is often reclaimed and downgraded for re-use on a branchline, siding or yard.
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