Free-group automorphisms, train tracks and the beaded decomposition (with M.R. Bridson). Preprint (2005).

Abstract We study the automorphisms \phi of a finitely generated free group F. Building on the train-track technology of Bestvina, Feighn and Handel, we provide a topological representative f:G --> G of a power of \phi that behaves very much like the realization on the rose of a positive automorphism. This resemblance is encapsulated in the Beaded Decomposition Theorem which describes the structure of paths in G obtained by repeatedly passing to f-images of an edge and taking subpaths. This decomposition is the key to adapting our proof of the quadratic isoperimetric inequality for F \rtimes_\phi Z, with \phi positive, to the general case. To illustrate the wider utility of our topological normal form, we provide a short proof that for every w in F, the function n |--> |\phi^n(w)| grows either polynomially or exponentially.