How Do Trains Stay On the Tracks?

Britain’s Railways are more popular than ever with over 1.7bn journeys taking place every year and rising. Yet, for all our familiarity with Trains, have you ever considered how they actually stay on the track?

train tracks

Guided Tracks

Many people would wrongly assume that it is the tracks that are guiding the train in the vein of a children’s toy. If you ever played with Thomas The Tank Engine you might be familiar with having a track with raised edges that would guide the toy train as you pushed it along. (pictured) You might also think that the train has some sort of flange or end guard so that as the wheel runs on the track it can never fall off. Both of these ideas work perfectly fine where the train is on a straight track, or even with a very gradual corner. In any tighter bend, however the wheels on one side would need to travel further than on the other.


Most vehicles solve this problem by decoupling the wheels, so for example in a car the left and right wheels will turn at different speeds when rounding a corner, but this isn’t possible with a train as the wheels are connected together with a fixed axle, so the wheels need to turn at the same speed.

rail wheelsWheels Aren’t Circular

A side on view would make the casual observer think that the wheels on the train are circular, when in fact they are conical. This means that they have a varying diameter at different points of contact, as the tracks turns the wheels on one side will rotate around a larger diameter than the other. It's a very simple but effective design and allows trains to naviggate any number of corners and bumps.  

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