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Today, most trams use electrical power, usually fed by an overhead pantograph; in some cases by a sliding shoe on a third rail, trolley pole or bow collector.If necessary, they may have dual power systems — electricity in city streets, and diesel in more rural environments.
The word tram probably derived from Middle Flemish trame ("beam, handle of a barrow, bar, rung"), a Romanesque word meaning the beam or shaft of a barrow or sledge, also the barrow itself.
The identical word la trame with the meaning "crossbeam" is also used in the French language.
Etymologists believe that the word tram refers to the wooden beams the railway tracks were initially made of before the railroad pioneers switched to the much more resistant tracks made of steel.
Although the terms tram and tramway have been adopted by many languages, they are not used universally in English; North Americans prefer streetcar, trolley, or trolleycar.
A tram (also known as tramcar; and in North America known as streetcar, trolley or trolley car) is a rail vehicle which runs on tracks along public urban streets, and also sometimes on a segregated right of way.
The lines or networks operated by tramcars are called tramways.
Tramways powered by electricity, the most common type historically, were once called electric street railways.
However, trams were widely used in urban areas before the universal adoption of electrification; other methods of powering trams are listed below under "History".
Tram lines may also run between cities and/or towns (for example, interurbans, tram-train), and/or partially grade-separated even in the cities (light rail). Tram vehicles are usually lighter and shorter than conventional trains and rapid transit trains, but the size of trams (particularly light rail vehicles) is rapidly increasing.
Some trams (for instance tram-trains) may also run on ordinary railway tracks, a tramway may be upgraded to a light rail or a rapid transit line, two urban tramways may be connected to an interurban, etc.
For all these reasons, the differences between the various modes of rail transportation are often indistinct.
In the United States, the term tram has sometimes been used for rubber-tired trackless trains, which are not related to the other vehicles covered in this article.