Main line (railway)

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The main line, or mainline in American English, of a railway is a track that is used for through trains or is the principal artery of the system[1][2][3] from which branch lines, yards, sidings and spurs are connected. It generally refers to a route between towns,[4][5] as opposed to a route providing suburban or metro services. For capacity reasons, main lines in many countries have at least a double track and often contain multiple parallel tracks. Main line tracks are typically operated at higher speeds than branch lines and are generally built and maintained to a higher standard than yards and branch lines.[6] Main lines may also be operated under shared access by a number of railway companies, with sidings and branches operated by private companies or single railway companies.

Railway points (UK) or switches (US) are usually set in the direction of the main line by default. Failure to do so has been a factor in several fatal railway accidents, for example the Buttevant Rail Disaster in Ireland,[7] and the Graniteville train disaster in the US.[8]


  1. ^ CSX Corporation. "Railroad Dictionary: M". Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  2. ^ Fox, Justin; Hirsch, Paula; Smith, CDM; Kanike, Om (2014). National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report 773: Capacity Modeling Guidebook for Shared-Use Passenger and Freight Rail Operations. Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board. p. 87. Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  3. ^ "Kansas Railroad Terms". Kansas Department of Transportation. Retrieved April 17, 2019. Cites the following as its sources: Encarta 2000 Encyclopedia, The World Book Encyclopedia, UPRR-Railroad Terms, and Webster's New World Dictionary.
  4. ^ "Glossary of Terms". World's Greatest Hobby. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing. Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  5. ^ "Parts of railway and tram systems - thesaurus". Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Education. Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  6. ^ "National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet - Railroads in Minnesota, 1862-1956 - Glossary" (PDF). United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. December 31, 2005. p. 302. Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  7. ^ "Report of the Investigation into the Accident on the CIE Railway at Buttevant, Co. Cork, on 1st August, 1980" (PDF). Department of Transport. April 1981. p. 31. Retrieved December 5, 2007.
  8. ^ United States National Transportation Safety Board (November 29, 2005). "Report of Railroad Accident: Collision of Norfolk Southern Freight Train 192 with Standing Norfolk Southern Local Train P22 With Subsequent Hazardous Materials Release. Graniteville, South Carolina; January 6, 2005. NTSB/RAR-05/04" (PDF). Retrieved November 29, 2005.