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You are here: Home > News > Network Rail explain the challenges with the third rail

Network Rail explain the challenges with the third rail

Date: 21 Jan 2013

Snow and freezing weather conditions continue to cause disruption to train services. Here Network Rail, who is responsible for clearing the tracks and signalling infrastructure of snow and ice, explain what they're doing to keep the network running:

A spokesman for Network Rail said: “The continued cold weather has caused a number of problems on the railway, particularly in the south and south-east of England where trains are powered by the third rail. Despite concerted efforts by Network Rail and train operators, the nature of the third rail power system means it will always be susceptible to disruption during severe cold weather.

“With current weather conditions set to continue, we have additional teams on the ground to carry out regular inspections of the infrastructure and respond to any incidents. Our fleet of anti-icing trains are operating on the third rail part of the network and in some locations we have been running empty ‘ghost’ trains to reduce the risk of snow and ice accumulating. We also have snowploughs at strategic locations should there be further significant snow fall.

“We will continue to work closely with train operators to deliver the best level of service so that passengers are disrupted as little as possible.”


About the third rail power system:

• The 750 volt DC third rail power system in the south-east of England was largely installed in the 1930s, with extensions of the system continuing until the 1960s. However, a number of issues – including its susceptibility to ice and snow – meant that by 1956 British Rail had adopted 25,000 volt AC overhead power lines as standard across the network.

• There are more than 20,000 miles of railway in Britain - 7,804 miles are electrified, of which 2,779 miles use the third rail system (with the remainder powered by AC overhead lines). The third rail is used almost exclusively in the south and south-east of England on Network Rail’s Kent, Sussex and Wessex routes.

• Ice can and does form on the top of the rail, forming an insulated barrier between it and the current collector ‘shoes’ on the trains, meaning they cannot draw power. Snow has the same effect as it is melted by the heat of passing trains, re-freezes and forms ice. For this reason, thousands of metres of heating strips have been installed on lengths of the third rail at key locations across the region, such as around stations and at junctions.

• De-icing equipment has also been fitted to a number of passenger trains in the region, which will spray anti-icing fluid directly onto the conductor rail. These operate in addition to Network Rail’s own fleet of de-icing trains, which generally operate overnight to fit in around the passenger schedule. It means we can keep the conductor rail free of ice throughout the day.