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Electric Locomotive Traction full report

Electric Locomotive Traction

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This page offers a selection of terms used in electric locomotive traction. If you can't find it here, try our Modern Railway Glossary page or use the Search facility. There are more Articles on Electric Traction on this site as follows: Electric Traction Power Supplies - DC Traction Motor Systems - Electric Traction Drives - Multiple Unit Operation - Electronic Power for Traction
Electric Locomotive Parts

Click on the part names for a description. This diagram shows an AC electric locomotive, i.e a locomotive collecting AC power from an overhead line. The red lines on the diagram indicate the single phase AC circuit, the green lines the DC circuits and the purple lines the 3-phase AC circuits. A locomotive using DC traction current is similar, except that there is no single phase AC circuit or transformer. The current passes directly from the pantograph (or shoe) to the main and auxiliary inverters.
Asynchronous Motor
Modern traction motor type using three phase AC electrical supply and now the favoured design for modern train traction systems. Can be used on DC and AC electrified railways with suitable control electronics and on diesel-electric locomotives. See the article on AC and DC Motors.
Axle Brush
The means by which the power supply circuit is completed with the substation once power has been drawn on the locomotive. Current collected from the overhead line or third rail is returned via the axle brush and one of the running rails. See also Power Supply - return.
Balancing Speed

See here for description.

All trains are provided with a battery to provide start up current and for supplying essential circuits, such as emergency lighting, when the line supply fails. The battery is usually connected across the DC control supply circuit.

Bucholz Relay

A device inserted in the oil cooling circuits of electric locomotive transformers to detect low oil pressure. In this event the relay trips out the power system. Often a source of spurious circuit breaker trips if not carefully calibrated.


Most DC electric traction power circuits use a camshaft to open or close the contactors controlling the resistances of the traction motor power circuit. The camshaft is driven by an electric motor or pneumatic cylinder. The cams on the shaft are arranged to ensure that the contactors open and close in the correct sequence. It is controlled by commands from the driver's cab and regulated by the fall of current in the motor circuit as each section of resistance is cut out in steps. The sound of this camshaft stepping can be heard under many older (pre electronics) trains as they accelerate. See also Notching Relay.

Cannon Box

Sleeve used to mount a traction motor on axle in electric power bogies and sometimes including an axle brush.

Chopper Control

A development in electric traction control which eliminates the need for power resistors by causing the voltage to the traction motors to be switched on and off (chopped) very rapidly during acceleration. It is accomplished by the use of thyristors and will give up to 20% improvement in efficiency over conventional resistance control.

Circuit Breaker

An electric train is almost always provided with some sort of circuit breaker to isolate the power supply when there is a fault, or for maintenance. On AC systems they are usually on the roof near the pantograph. There are two types - the air blast circuit breaker and the vacuum circuit breaker or VCB. The air or vacuum part is used to extinguish the arc which occurs as the two tips of the circuit breaker are opened. The VCB is popular in the UK and the air blast circuit breaker is more often seen on the continent of Europe.


Similar to a relay in that it is a remotely operated switch used to control a higher power local circuit. The difference is that contactors normally latch or lock closed and have to be opened by a separate action. A lighting contactor will have two, low voltage operating coils, one to "set" the contactor closed to switch on the lights; the other to "trip" off the lights. Click here for diagrams and more detail.


Generic term for any solid state electronic system for converting alternating current to direct current or vice versa. Where an AC supply has to be converted to DC it is called a rectifier and where DC is converted to AC it is called an inverter. The word originated in the US but is now common elsewhere.
An electric locomotive is a locomotive powered by electricity from overhead lines, a third rail, or an energy storage on board, such as a battery or a fuel cell. Electric locomotives with on-board primary motors, such as diesel engines or gas turbines, are classified as diesel-electric or gas-electric turbine locomotives because the combination of electric / motor generator serves only as a power transmission system. Electricity is used to eliminate smoke and take advantage of the high efficiency of electric motors, but the cost of electrification means that usually only heavily used lines can be electrified.

An advantage of electrification is the lack of contamination of locomotives. Electrification results in higher efficiency, lower maintenance costs and lower energy costs. Power plants, even if they burn fossil fuels, are much cleaner than mobile sources, such as locomotive engines. Energy can come from clean or renewable sources, including geothermal energy, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, solar energy and wind turbines. Electric locomotives are quiet compared to diesel locomotives as there is no engine noise and exhaust noise and less mechanical noise. The lack of alternative parts means that electric locomotives are easier on the track, which reduces road maintenance. The capacity of the power plant is much higher than any single locomotive use, so electric locomotives can have a higher output power than diesel locomotives and can produce even higher short-term boost power for acceleration fast. Electric locomotives are ideal for suburban railway service with frequent stops. They are used on high speed lines such as ICE in Germany, Acela in the United States, Shinkansen in Japan, China Railway High Speed ​​in China and TGV in France. Electric locomotives are used on freight routes with constantly high traffic volumes or in areas with advanced railway networks.

Electric locomotives benefit from the high efficiency of electric motors, often above 90% (not including the inefficiency of generating electricity). Higher efficiency can be achieved thanks to regenerative braking, which allows the kinetic energy to be recovered during braking to restore the power to the line. Newer electric locomotives use drive systems of AC motor inverters that provide regenerative braking.

The main disadvantage of electrification is the cost of infrastructure: airlines or third lane, substations and control systems. US public policy interferes with electrification: higher property taxes are imposed on private railway facilities if they are electrified. The EPA regulates exhaust emissions in locomotive and marine engines, similar to the regulations on truck emissions, amount of carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, nitric oxides and the production of soot from these mobile energy sources.

In Europe and elsewhere, rail networks are considered part of the national transport infrastructure, as are roads, motorways and waterways, and are therefore often financed by the State. Rolling stock operators pay fees according to the use of the railway. This makes possible the large investments needed for technical electrification and, in the long run, also economically advantageous. Because rail infrastructure is privately owned in the United States, railroads are unwilling to make the necessary investments for electrification.

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