This electrification is ideal for railways that cover long distances or carry heavy traffic. After some experimentation before World War II in Hungary and in the Black Forest in Germany, it came into widespread use in the 1950s.
One of the reasons why it was not introduced earlier was the lack of suitable small and lightweight control and rectification equipment before the development of solid-state rectifiers and related technology. Another reason was the increased clearance distances required where it ran under bridges and in tunnels, which would have required major civil engineering in order to provide the increased clearance to live parts.
Railways using older, lower-capacity direct current systems have introduced or are introducing AC instead of DC/ DC for their new high-speed lines.
The first successful operational and regular use of the system dates back to 1931, tests having run since 1922. It was developed by Kálmán Kandó in Hungary, who used AC at , asynchronous traction, and an adjustable number of (motor) poles. The first electrified line for testing was Budapest-Dunakeszi-Alag. The first fully electrified line was Budapest-Gy?r-Hegyeshalom (part of the Budapest-Vienna line). Although Kandó's solution showed a way for the future, railway operators outside of Hungary showed a lack of interest in the design.
The first railway to use this system was completed in 1936 by the Deutsche Reichsbahn who electrified part of the Höllentalbahn between Freiburg and Neustadt installing a 20 kV, 50 Hz AC system. This part of Germany was in the French zone of occupation after 1945. As a result of examining the German system in 1951 the SNCF electrified the line between Aix-les-Bains and La Roche-sur-Foron in southern France, initially at using the same 20 kV but converted to 25 kV in 1953. The 25 kV system was then adopted as standard in France, but since substantial amounts of mileage south of Paris had already been electrified at 1,500 V DC, SNCF also continued some major new DC electrification projects, until dual-voltage locomotives were developed in the 1960s.
The main reason why electrification at this voltage had not been used before was the lack of reliability of mercury-arc-type rectifiers that could fit on the train. This in turn related to the requirement to use DC series motors, which required the current to be converted from AC to DC and for that a rectifier is needed. Until the early 1950s, mercury-arc rectifiers were difficult to operate even in ideal conditions and were therefore unsuitable for use in railway locomotives.
It was possible to use AC motors (and some railways did, with varying success), but they have less than ideal characteristics for traction purposes. This is because control of speed is difficult without varying the frequency and reliance on voltage to control speed gives a torque at any given speed that is not ideal. This is why DC series motors are the best choice for traction purposes, as they can be controlled by voltage, and have an almost ideal torque vs speed characteristic.
In the 1990s, high-speed trains began to use lighter, lower-maintenance three-phase AC induction motors. The N700 Shinkansen uses a three-level converter to convert single-phase AC to AC (via transformer) to DC (via phase-controlled rectifier with thyristor) to a maximum three-phase AC (via a variable voltage, variable frequency inverter using IGBTs with pulse-width modulation) to run the motors. The system works in reverse for regenerative braking.
The choice of was related to the efficiency of power transmission as a function of voltage and cost, not based on a neat and tidy ratio of the supply voltage. For a given power level, a higher voltage allows for a lower current and usually better efficiency at the greater cost for high-voltage equipment. It was found that was an optimal point, where a higher voltage would still improve efficiency but not by a significant amount in relation to the higher costs incurred by the need for larger insulators and greater clearance from structures.
To avoid short circuits, the high voltage must be protected from moisture. Weather events, such as "the wrong type of snow", have caused failures in the past. An example of atmospheric causes occurred in December 2009, when four Eurostar trains broke down inside the Channel Tunnel.
Electric power from a generating station is transmitted to grid substations using a three-phase distribution system.
At the grid substation, a step-down transformer is connected across two of the three phases of the high-voltage supply. The transformer lowers the voltage to which is supplied to a railway feeder station located beside the tracks. SVCs are used for load balancing and voltage control.
Railway electrification using , AC has become an international standard. There are two main standards that define the voltages of the system:
The permissible range of voltages allowed are as stated in the above standards and take into account the number of trains drawing current and their distance from the substation.
|, AC, 50 Hz|
This system is now part of the European Union's Trans-European railway interoperability standards (1996/48/EC "Interoperability of the Trans-European high-speed rail system" and 2001/16/EC "Interoperability of the Trans-European Conventional rail system").
Systems based on this standard but with some variations have been used.
In countries where is the normal grid power frequency, at is used for the railway electrification.
Some lines in the United States have been electrified at or converted from to . Use of allows direct supply from the 60 Hz utility grid yet does not require the larger wire clearance for or require dual-voltage capability for trains also operating on lines. Examples are:
Early 50 Hz AC railway electrification in the United Kingdom was planned to use sections at where there was limited clearance under bridges and in tunnels. Rolling stock was dual-voltage with automatic switching between and . The sections were converted to as a result of research work that demonstrated that the distance between live and earthed equipment could be reduced from that originally thought to be necessary.
The research was done using a steam engine beneath a bridge at Crewe. A section of overhead line was gradually brought closer to the earthed metalwork of the bridge whilst being subjected to steam from the locomotive's chimney. The distance at which a flashover occurred was measured and this was used as a basis from which new clearances between overhead equipment and structures were derived.
Occasionally is doubled to to obtain greater power and increase the distance between substations. Such lines are usually isolated from other lines to avoid complications from interrunning. Examples are:
The 2 × 25 kV autotransformer system is a split-phase electric power system which supplies 25 kV power to the trains, but transmits power at 50 kV to reduce energy losses. It should not be confused with the 50 kV system. In this system, the current is mainly carried between the overhead line and a feeder transmission line instead of the rail. The overhead line (3) and feeder (5) are on opposite phases, so the voltage between them is 50 kV, but the voltage between the overhead line (3) and the running rails (4) remains at 25 kV. Periodic autotransformers (9) divert the return current from the neutral rail, step it up, and send it along the feeder line. This system is used by Indian Railways, Russian Railways, Italian High Speed Railways, UK High Speed-1 and Crossrail, with some parts of older lines being gradually converted, French lines (LGV lines and some other lines), most Spanish high-speed rail lines,Amtrak and some of the Finnish and Hungarian lines.
Trains that can operate on more than one voltage, say 3 kV/25 kV, are established technologies. Some locomotives in Europe are capable of using four different voltage standards.
Existing electrified lines do not allow for double stacked containers, as over-bridges, tunnels, signal gantries, and even the OHW masts themselves are too low. Completely new railways in India and Africa can be built with extra height needed for double stacking at relatively little extra cost.
Traxx MS (multi-system) for operation on both AC (15 and 25 kV) and DC (1·5 and 3 kV) networks