Third-rail systems are a means of providing electric traction power to trains using an additional rail (called a "conductor rail") for the purpose. On most systems, the conductor rail is placed on the sleeper ends outside the running rails, but in some systems a central conductor rail is used. The conductor rail is supported on ceramic insulators (known as "pots") or insulated brackets, typically at intervals of around 10 feet (3.0 m).
The trains have metal contact blocks called collector shoes (or contact shoes or pickup shoes) which make contact with the conductor rail. The traction current is returned to the generating station through the running rails. In North America, the conductor rail is usually made of high conductivity steel or steel bolted to aluminium to increase the conductivity. Elsewhere in the world, extruded aluminum conductors with stainless steel contact surface or cap, is the preferred technology due to its lower electrical resistance, longer life, and lighter weight.  The running rails are electrically connected using wire bonds or other devices, to minimise resistance in the electric circuit. Contact shoes can be positioned below, above, or beside the third rail, depending on the type of third rail used: these third rails are referred to as bottom-contact, top-contact, or side-contact, respectively.
The conductor rails have to be interrupted at level crossings, crossovers, and substation gaps. Tapered rails are provided at the ends of each section, to allow a smooth engagement of the train's contact shoes.
The position of contact between the train and the rail varies: some of the earliest systems used top contact, but later developments use side or bottom contact, which enabled the conductor rail to be covered, protecting track workers from accidental contact and protecting the conductor rail from frost, ice, snow and leaf-fall.