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Transport Blog
01 December 2007
Live Rails
Rob Fisher

The London Paper today has a story (unfortunately not linkable) about a man named Tim Burke who pulled a man to safety from tube tracks at Gloucester Road.  Apparently the man fell down there during a row, and was frozen rabbit-like at the sight of an oncoming train.  Burke says:

I instinctively went to help.  I jumped down and grabbed him but he was rigid with fear.  I led him across two tracks and tried to lift him up and then people on the platform lifted him up to safety.

While I admire the getting on and solving the problem attitude, what confuses me about this story is that neither man was electrocuted by the live rails.  The tube uses a four rail system.  I find it implausible that it’s possible to fall onto the tracks, and be led across two tracks, one of which was presumably the central live rail, without getting a zap.  The central rail is at -210 Volts DC.  I’d expect a nasty burn at least.

It’s important to know, because my instict would have been to stay well clear of the fallen man and advise others likewise.  It’s easy to judge the relative dangers of approaching trains, but the danger or not of live rails remains a mystery.


  1. What about the insulating properties of shoes?  I’ve heard stories of track workers happily wandering over live rails.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  01 December 2007 at 03:48 pm

  2. ‘Frozen rabbit-like’? Would it not be more likely that the man was actually unable to move? An electric shock will disrupt your muscle movements. Then again, the rescuer didn’t say anything about a shock- who knows?

    Plausible, anyway.

    Posted by James Harrison on  01 December 2007 at 07:35 pm

  3. I would imagine it’s not too terribly difficult to avoid the rails.  Do the Underground 3rd and 4th rails have those covers over top of them?  Looking at this picture they would seem to, and that typically prevents direct contact with the rail.

    Posted by Highway on  01 December 2007 at 09:23 pm

  4. I’d be surprised.  The 3rd and 4th rails have always looked pretty solid/one-piece to me.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  02 December 2007 at 02:57 am

  5. Well, all the images I can find do seem to have a ‘notch’ in the power rails, and that might be a cover, although you’re right, they do seem to have a solid look to them, but not nearly the anchorage that the main support rails do.  Also, the tops of the power rails don’t seem to have wear marks on them like I would expect to see if there was something continuously moving on them.  Not necessarily that shiny look that in-use trackage has, but at least some lengthwise markings to indicate wear.  But I also haven’t found any pictures that would be particularly definitive.  Surprisingly (not really) all the pictures seem to be of something ON the tracks, or over the tracks, not of the tracks themselves… smile

    Posted by Highway on  02 December 2007 at 03:46 am

  6. I think the insulating shoes could be the answer.  There’s some information on Wikipedia about the current required for various electricity-caused injuries and the resistance of skin.  Rubber soles would have much higher resistance.  It seems likely that the 200V rail is safe to step over.

    I grew up in a village with a diesel railway that was later upgraded to a third rail system, so they sent health-n-safety types round to the school to make sure we were properly afraid of playing on the tracks.  This is probably the source of my fear of live rails.

    Posted by Rob Fisher on  02 December 2007 at 09:39 pm

  7. Wikipedia link

    Posted by Rob Fisher on  02 December 2007 at 09:40 pm

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