The track on a railway or railroad, also known as the permanent way, is the structure consisting of the rails, fasteners, railroad ties (sleepers, British English) and ballast (or slab track), plus the underlying subgrade. It enables trains to move by providing a dependable surface for their wheels to roll upon. For clarity it is often referred to as railway track (British English and UIC terminology) or railroad track (predominantly in the United States). Tracks where electric trains or electric trams run are equipped with an electrification system such as an overhead electrical power line or an additional electrified rail.
The term permanent way also refers to the track in addition to lineside structures such as fences.
Notwithstanding modern technical developments, the overwhelmingly dominant track form worldwide consists of flat-bottom steel rails supported on timber or pre-stressed concrete sleepers, which are themselves laid on crushed stone ballast.
Most railroads with heavy traffic utilize continuously welded rails supported by sleepers attached via base plates that spread the load. A plastic or rubber pad is usually placed between the rail and the tie plate where concrete sleepers are used. The rail is usually held down to the sleeper with resilient fastenings, although cut spikes are widely used in North American practice. For much of the 20th century, rail track used softwood timber sleepers and jointed rails, and a considerable extent of this track type remains on secondary and tertiary routes. The rails were typically of flat bottom section fastened to the sleepers with dog spikes through a flat tie plate in North America and Australia, and typically of bullhead section carried in cast iron chairs in British and Irish practice. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway pioneered the conversion to flat-bottomed rail and the supposed advantage of bullhead rail - that the rail could be turned over and re-used when the top surface had become worn - turned out to be unworkable in practice because the underside was usually ruined by fretting from the chairs.
Jointed rails were used at first because contemporary technology did not offer any alternative. However, the intrinsic weakness in resisting vertical loading results in the ballast becoming depressed and a heavy maintenance workload is imposed to prevent unacceptable geometrical defects at the joints. The joints also needed to be lubricated, and wear at the fishplate (joint bar) mating surfaces needed to be rectified by shimming. For this reason jointed track is not financially appropriate for heavily operated railroads.
Timber sleepers are of many available timbers, and are often treated with creosote, copper-chrome-arsenate, or other wood preservative. Pre-stressed concrete sleepers are often used where timber is scarce and where tonnage or speeds are high. Steel is used in some applications.
The track ballast is customarily crushed stone, and the purpose of this is to support the sleepers and allow some adjustment of their position, while allowing free drainage.