How to Choose a Roller Coaster System and the Role of Hydraulics

Posted: September 26th 2019  Author: Michele Baker Ph.D

Table of Contents

  1. How Do Roller Coasters Work?
  2. Parts of a Roller CoasterHow Do Roller Coasters Work?
  3. Roller Coaster Safety
  4. Roller Coaster Launch Systems
  5. Pneumatic Vs. Hydraulic Vs. Electromagnetic Launch Systems
  6. How to Choose the Best System for a Roller Coaster
  7. Avoiding Hydraulic Cylinder Failure
  8. Choose the Right Hydraulic System for Roller Coasters

 

 

Mechanical systems in roller coasters keep riders safe and having a good time, so choosing the right one for your ride is an important decision. Different types of systems launch train cars, allow them to stop and control other safety equipment. You need a system that will function safely and effectively in the ride design.

To choose what mechanism will work best in your ride, it's helpful to understand the role of hydraulic systems in a roller coaster as well as the other systems out there and how they function. It also helps to know the other parts of a roller coaster and how it works as a whole.

How Do Roller Coasters Work?

The simple answer to how roller coasters work — physics. Along with some mechanical systems, of course. Typically, once a roller coaster is launched, certain forces keep it moving, like:

  • Gravity
  • Inertia
  • Centripetal forces

 

Hills, turns, corkscrews and other features use physical forces applied to a roller coaster to send riders on an exciting journey. Natural forces on a roller coaster help slow it down to build riders' tension, then send them gliding down the tracks again. In those cases, roller coasters also use potential and kinetic energy to keep moving. Potential energy builds up as a car climbs the track, and it releases kinetic energy as it glides down hills. All of these forces on a roller coaster mean that the train itself doesn't need an engine to run.

Engineers must harness these forces in safe ways. A roller coaster will maintain speed or accelerate down hills and around curves depending on its design. Going up hills decreases the speed, making for fluctuating acceleration. These fluctuations can make a ride both exciting and safer since the car shouldn't pass certain speeds while heading into turns or hills. In those cases, the design is crucial, but so are particular parts of a roller coaster. Certain parts of a roller coaster function to keep riders safe on their journey.

Parts of a Roller Coaster

The construction of a roller coaster can vary depending on what type it is. There are steel and wooden roller coasters that feature different elements throughout the ride, depending on the design. Inverted or suspended rides have the car riding below the tracks, which requires a different type of train and harness setup. These various roller coaster designs still rely on physics and mechanical systems to keep them moving.

Under the train car and the track, roller coasters are complex mechanical systems. The car relies on other equipment and forces to keep it moving since it doesn't have its own engine. Those parts of a roller coaster include:

    1. Launch system: A launch system sets everything in motion. It is typically under the roller coaster train where the ride begins at the loading platform. There are a variety of launch mechanisms out there, as we'll explain in a bit.
    2. Chain lift: As riders approach that thrilling hill, one or several chains begin pulling the car. Gears at the top and bottom of the hill wind the chain as a motor turns the bottom gear. The chain lift is one of the essential components of a roller coaster since it helps get the ride going. If a design incorporates more than one large hill, it may use multiple chain lifts.
    3. Block brakes: The ride has to stop at some point, and that's where brakes come in. Block brakes appear wherever the ride terminates to allow riders a safe exit.
    4. Trim brakes: Sometimes, roller coasters must slow down or stop during certain points of the journey. Slowing down using trim brakes may build suspense before a drop or safely slow riders down before they build up too much speed. In an emergency, trim brakes can bring the ride to a stop, as well.

 

  1. Computers: Today's technology reduces risk to riders caused by possible human error. Computers are especially vital on rides that let more than one train on the tracks at once. The computer ensures that there is adequate space between each car to avoid potential accidents. Computers also control certain mechanical equipment, especially in the launch phase.

While those are the more mechanical aspects of a roller coaster, there are more straightforward parts that passengers see and use as they ride. Other parts of a roller coaster include safety features, which vary depending on the type of ride.

Roller Coaster Safety

Many components we've listed above serve to keep riders safe, but passengers don't interact with those components. Instead, they see safety features like harnesses and seat belts. These keep riders secure in their seats at launch, throughout the journey and until it's time to exit the ride.

The restraint bars on a roller coaster keep riders secure. Whether they are lap or shoulder bars, they need a reliable mechanism to lock them in place and unlock them once the ride is over. Roller coaster safety features may use:

 

  • Mechanical systems
  • Hydraulic systems
  • A combination of mechanical and hydraulic technologies

These systems lower and raise safety bars, so they must function well, no matter how many safety mechanisms a roller coaster uses. Depending on the construction of the ride, a car may have multiple security devices. Roller coasters with extreme twists and turns or upside-down loops require more secure harnesses. If there is any risk that lifts riders out of their seat, shoulder harnesses are the right choice. A ride will also need secure harnesses and bars if a roller coaster has a rapid and powerful launch.

Roller Coaster Launch Systems

It's one of the most thrilling parts of a roller coaster ride — the launch. Launch systems give riders a boost before the rest of their exciting journey. There isn't just one type of roller coaster launch system because different rides require different launch equipment. The right system for a given coaster depends on how fast the ride launches passengers, the amount of space there is for the equipment and other factors. Different types of launch equipment include:

  • Electromagnet
  • Hydraulic
  • Pneumatic
  • Flywheel
  • Catapult
  • Friction wheel

The type of system describes the mechanical process or component that launches the train car. Every system operates differently with varying results. The last three systems — flywheel, catapult and friction wheel— are the least common varieties of roller coaster launch systems. They are less common choices because they tend to use more energy than the other three options. They also work in different ways:

  1. Flywheel: A flywheel is a device that stores rotational energy as it spins at high speeds. That energy, when attached to a cable and roller coaster car, helps pull the train forward.
  2. Catapult: A diesel engine or a dropped weight wind a cable. The cable then pulls the roller coaster cars until they reach their full speed.
  3. Friction wheel: Horizontal wheels lie under the roller coaster train. Wheels on either side of a metal fin under the car spin in opposite directions, propelling the car forward.

 

These various systems use physics in different ways to get roller coasters moving. Roller coaster engineers do not use them as often as other varieties because they do not produce as much power. The power that they do create is not considered efficient either because they require a lot of energy to operate. The ratio between the power they need and what they provide does not make them the best roller coaster systems out there.

The three more popular launch systems use forces and equipment that are a bit more complex. Narrow down your choices by comparing pneumatic, hydraulic and electromagnetic launch systems.

Pneumatic Vs. Hydraulic Vs. Electromagnetic Launch Systems

These standard roller coaster launch systems propel roller coaster trains forward as the ride begins in various ways. In general, they work as follows:

  1. Electromagnets: Electrical impulses react with magnetic fins on the bottom of train cars. These impulses either attract the fin or repel it, causing it to stop or move forward on the tracks. The launch system uses stator and rotor components to create a linear force that achieves propulsion. Engineers select this option when they want to control speed precisely. An electromagnetic launch system produces higher acceleration at the start, which eventually dies down throughout the rest of the launch.
  2. Hydraulic: In a hydraulic system, a sled connects to the roller coaster train via a cable. As the hydraulic motor functions, the cable winds around a drum, which pulls the sled. The sled then releases the train, slows down and heads back to its starting spot. The motor uses incompressible hydraulic fluid in one compartment as it compresses nitrogen gas in another. The power generated throughout this process goes to the cable drum to wind the sled's cable. Engineers choose hydraulic options when they want faster and smoother acceleration, especially compared to an electromagnetic system. Some designs have more moving parts than an electromagnetic system, which can sometimes impact reliability.
  3. Pneumatic: A pneumatic system functions similarly to a hydraulic one. The primary difference between the two is that pneumatic launch systems replace nitrogen gas and hydraulic fluid with air. While these systems provide a constant acceleration, the loud noise they produce is a turn off for theme parks and guests. With their loud noise comes less powerful propulsion.

The most common launch systems are popular for a reason. They each come with their own strengths but, as with any mechanical system, there are the occasional drawbacks. Certain varieties within these different launch mechanism categories have their positives and negatives.

As we've described above, an electromagnetic system uses forces of repulsion and attraction to launch a roller coaster. There are two different options under this category:

  1. Linear induction motors (LIM): Sets of magnets with a gap in between them propel trains forward as a fin under the train passes through the gap. Currents applied to the magnets on the track create a magnetic field to affect the fin.
  2. Linear synchronous motors (LSM): This system uses rare earth magnets attached to the train car to repel or attract the train to electromagnets on the track. This system uses computers to reverse the magnets on the track as necessary.

 

Either variety of electromagnetic propulsion will produce a smooth launch. But no matter which electromagnetic system you choose, you'll need a lot of energy to run them. Variations between pneumatic and hydraulic mechanisms depend on where you get your equipment.

Any roller coaster launch system requires power to operate. It's just a matter of how much they use compared to how much they yield. You should compare pneumatic, hydraulic and electromagnetic launch systems as you choose a mechanical setup for a roller coaster.

How to Choose the Best System for a Roller Coaster

All of the systems above can be responsible for keeping riders safe, but you have to choose the best one for the ride. When selecting a system for a roller coaster, consider:

  • What you have to spend on the project
  • How much space you have for your roller coaster
  • Any height limitations on the build
  • How fast you need the ride to launch
  • The safety mechanisms you're using
  • How much power you can supply to the system

While passengers' safety is the top priority, it's not the only consideration when designing, updating or repairing a roller coaster. Think about the longevity of the product you choose and potential future repairs or replacements. Will the system you select always work for the ride? Will it be in the budget to conduct major repairs or replacements?


If you choose the right system, you'll realize a high-quality product is the answer to how to prevent roller coaster accidents. Installing the right mechanism on a ride will make it exciting and safe for passengers.

For faster, smoother and quieter acceleration, a hydraulic system may be your best option. Once you've chosen the type of system, you should also carefully consider the provider.

Avoiding Hydraulic Cylinder Failure

Selecting the right manufacturer for your machinery will help you avoid hydraulic cylinder failure. The main issue with particular hydraulic systems is the number of moving parts they require. More moving parts in a mechanism means:

  • More parts to keep track of and get inspected
  • More parts to repair
  • More possibilities of damage or breakage

You can ensure that you avoid these issues with proper maintenance. Without it, you could experience problems caused by:

  • Contaminated hydraulic fluid
  • Piston or seal damage
  • Pressure fluctuation
  • Improper installation or operation

 

Issues with hydraulic systems will impact roller coaster safety. While you should regularly maintain your mechanical systems, choosing a high-quality system will give you peace of mind. Choose locking hydraulic cylinders as they can prevent accidents. Locking hydraulic cylinders are versatile and built to last.

Choose the Right Hydraulic System for Roller Coasters

Hydraulic components will be the best choice for your roller coaster, whether you use them in launch or safety systems. You also have to make the right choice when choosing a particular hydraulic mechanism and locking components.

With a custom hydraulic cylinder and actuator from York Precision Machining & Hydraulics, your workers and park guests will be safer. Since the actuator controls the movement of a system, you want the best in the industry. Your riders will be safe at launch or other parts of their journey where you use our systems according to specifications.

Our Bear-Loc® locking feature for hydraulic components combines fail-safe reliability with an easy-to-use system. We offer a variety of custom configurations that suit any application's needs with high stiffness and zero backlash. Our high-quality parts are versatile and can even be used in confined spaces. With Bear-Loc® systems in place, passengers will experience an exciting and safe ride.

When you choose a hydraulic system for roller coasters, riders' safety is the top priority. We understand the risk of accidents on any machinery that requires a hydraulic system, and we want to provide the safest option for engineers. When operated according to specifications, our hydraulic actuators and cylinders keep riders and workers safe. If pressure is lost or removed, the Bear-Loc® locks in place, preventing harm to anyone near the system. We work hard to create a system with unique fail-safe properties to ensure secure operation.

Contact us online or give us a call at (717) 764-8855 if you're ready to see what our safe hydraulic locking systems can do for you.