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A railroad or railway is similar to a road, but specially built for transport (both passengers and freight) by train. It consists of two parallel rails, usually made of steel, and wooden or concrete sleepers or ties that hold the rails exactly at the proper distance from each other. The rails provide very smooth and hard surfaces on which the wheels of the train may roll with a minimum of friction. This is more comfortable and saves energy (but trains tend to be heavy, which reduces the latter advantage. Nevertheless, it still only requires about 10% as much energy to move good by rail as by road). Furthermore, together with the sleepers the rails distribute the weight of the train evenly, allowing significantly greater loads per axle/wheel than in road transport.
The sleepers (called "ties" or "cross-ties" in North America) are embedded in ballast, such as crushed rock. Sometimes sleepers and ballast are replaced by concrete slabs, e.g. in tunnels.
Railroads may or may not be electrified. If they are not, they can only be used by non-electric trains, mainly diesel trains. In Europe large parts of the railroad network have been electrified. Electric trains do not have to carry their own fuel. They are cleaner and less noisy.
High speed rail, with speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour, are achieved by a specially built railroad and special trains.
Major cities often have metro and/or light rail/tram systems. For a tram on the road the terms streetcar track or tram track are used, rather than railroad or railway. With its own right-of-way it is called a tramway.
While on a multi-track railway trains may typically run in one direction on one track and the opposite direction on the other, a railway is unlike a highway in that either track can be used for either direction at any time. In some cases a railway is single track used for both directions. These are then equipped with "passing sidings." This short stretch of double-track is used as a place where trains may then pass.
The distance between the two rails is known as the gauge. In North America and most of Europe, the gauge has been standarized at 1435mm. (This distance between wheels actually goes back to Roman times when it found that if all carriages had their wheels spaced the same distance apart, they could all use the same ruts in the roads). This is known as "standard gauge." For political reasons, some countries chose a broader gauge, and thus Russia and former Soviet Union countries have a wider gauge, as does Spain and Portugal. (Some special passenger trains have special wheel sets and can actually run through). With the advent of the European Community, Spain has embarked upon a partial regauging program.
In some cases a much narrower gauge was chosen. While this generally can't handle as much traffic, cost of construction is somewhat less expensive, and this is particularly true in mountainous regions.
A dual gauge track has three or four rails positioned such that trains of two gauges can use it; it is applied in part of the railroads of Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.
With the advent of containerized freight in the 1980s, rail and ship transportation have become an integrated network that move bulk goods very efficiently with a very low labor cost. An example is that goods from east Asia that are bound for Europe will often be shipped across the Pacific and transferred to trains to cross North America and be transferred back to a ship for the Atlantic crossing.
To distinguish two directions on a given line sometimes one is called the up train and the other down train, which may for example mean from and toward the center or the big city.
In Britain and other commonwealth countries the term railway is used in preference to railroad.
In Britain the term railway is often used to refer to the complete organisation of tracks, trains, stations, signaling, timetables[?] and the organising companies which collectively make up a coordinated railway system, while permanent way or p/way refers to the tracks alone. See also British railway system.
History of rail transport, List of railway companies, Locomotive, Public transport, Private transport[?], Private railroad, Railroad switch, Famous trains, Railway Mail Service, Economy of Earth (Transportation section), Driving.