How Do Trains Switch Tracks?

Transportation is an often undervalued part of modern life and is more complex than some may think. From the scooter of a child to commercial airplanes, each machine and system are carefully crafted to enhance lives and bring them together. Of course, this includes how trains switch tracks.

While you may not think of it while riding one, trains run along a network of railroads and have to go on a specific line of tracks on their route. This is done with railway switches, which determine the path of a train.

For those interested in trains or just plain curious, learning about the system used for train tracks can pique your interest and give you peace of mind. Read on to find out how it works.

Matt Spencer

What Are Railway Switches?

Trains are a complex mode of transportation. This is not to say that cars and buses are simple, but switching tracks makes switching lanes look like a cake walk. The railroads that trains run on have many moving parts to them that require careful maintenance and planning. It is all made possible with railway switches.

A railway switch (sometimes referred to as the “machine”) is simply the device connected to tracks that guide a train on its path. By controlling different switch rails, the switch will ensure which switch rails do and do not have contact with the stock rail. Thus, the train is kept on the right track.

In the past, railway switches would be manually controlled, but they can now be done automatically with electricity. A computerized control center linked to the railway switches is aware of all the different paths and makes the proper switches for each train. Dispatchers working in the control center monitor train movements and coordinate them.

Trains also rely on a system known as “signaling.” In the US, signaling shows the engineer how fast the train is able to go in order to come to a stop at its destination. There are parts in the US where signaling is not used, usually when tracks are long and singular, making it easier to handle.

Types of Railway Switches

There are different types of railway switches, including the following:

  • Simple turnout: this switch sees a straight main track bifurcate into a left and a right side. This comprises 90% of all railway switches,
  • Equilateral turnout: involves a main track bifurcating into two different roads,
  • Three-way turnout: main track bifurcates into three different paths, typically one being straight and the other two being curved,
  • Slip switch: a combination of two different types into one switch. Is difficult to maintain and rarely applied to a main track due to its complexity and safety concerns.

Each of these types allow for different paths and directions between locations, helping to create an interconnected railroad system. However, they each follow the same basic idea of a railway switch moving switch rails for the trains.

railroad locomotives
Jeff Hampton

How Is This Maintained?

Since trains and railroads have so many heavy moving parts, it is entirely possible for there to be dangerous and fatal consequences. Mainly, a train can collide with another train if put on the wrong track or experience derailment. Derailment can occur if a machine is not properly set or a derailer is used to prevent a collision, which is more dangerous.

While these accidents do happen, trains have many workers in different positions to ensure that trains run as smoothly and safely as possible. Signaling engineers maintain the machine, while permanent way engineers maintain the rail blades. There are sometimes entire teams formed to handle these two tasks.

In order to ensure that switches work properly, sufficient cleaning and lubrication are used to keep the machines in working condition. If blades are in the wrong position and form the wrong gaps, train wheels can become damaged and trains can be derailed.

Careful training and education enable people in these positions to make sure that trains stay on the right track, allowing for a safe and swift ride for the passengers.


Trains are a remarkable staple in modern living, allowing for people to travel great distances in a short amount of time. While some countries may have more advanced trains than others, the mere existence of trains is a marvel of human invention and innovation.

This becomes more apparent when you begin to realize how complex transit systems are. Although many may not think too deeply into it, trains are able to follow the right track with the help of automated railway switches and those that take care of their maintenance.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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