Editorial Feature

Materials Used in Roller Coasters

Image Credit: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock.com

The heart-pounding, fast-paced thrills of roller coasters have been delighting carnival and theme park goers since 1804, when the first wheeled coaster opened in Paris, France.

What makes roller coasters so impressive is their ability to reach breakneck speeds without the use of an engine. All the kinetic energy required to power a fully loaded coaster through the track is loaded up in the first climb. The materials that are used in building the roller coaster also affect the kind of ride one can expect to have. There are generally two types of roller coasters: wooden and steel.

Wooden Roller Coaster Construction

Wooden roller coasters were the first type of coasters ever built. They are composed of steel strip running rails mounted on a laminated wooden track. Common types of wood used include Douglas fir and southern yellow pine. The wood is painted and treated to prevent short-term deterioration.

Wooden coasters support the track through the use of large trestle-style structures made of construction grade wood. The structures are supported by ‘bents’, which are made from pairs of 4 x 6’s spaced apart and attached with a series of cross braces and chords.

Concrete foundations joined with bolts and nails support the wooden components. Critical joints are reinforced with steel plates. Wooden roller coasters require an immense amount of parts in their construction.

The American Eagle roller coaster, build for Six Flags Great America in the state of Illinois used:

  • 2,000 concrete foundations
  • 1.6 million feet of wood
  • 69,720 bolts
  • 30,600 pounds of nails
  • 9,000 gallons of paint

In reality, the massive structure supporting the coaster is the only thing that’s wooden. The construction materials, track, lift chain, wheels, and cars themselves are composed of substructures and other materials made of metal or fiberglass.

A major part of the wooden coaster’s appeal comes in the way the track sways as the coaster makes its way around it. Many wooden tracks are designed to sway up to a foot or more for effect. Stress limits are built into the design, so there’s no inherent risk.

Because of the physical limits of wood, these coasters are mostly non-looping, softer banked, and slower than steel construction roller coasters, although there are exceptions.

Steel Roller Coaster Construction

The steel roller coaster began its dominance of modern roller coaster construction when Disneyland introduced the Matterhorn Bobsled in 1959. Modern steel construction has since come into prominence and was virtually completely replaced wooden coasters the world over.

Steel roller coasters use two types of configurations to support the track. One is a thin, trestle-style structure and the other uses thick tubular supports. The track itself is usually composed of pairs of welded round steel tubes sectioned in place by steel stanchions and supported by a rectangular girder box or tubular track supports.

As with wooden coasters, all surfaces are painted and polished once construction is complete. Also, like their wooden cousins, steel roller coasters use a lot of materials.

Located at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach in Blackpool, England, the Pepsi Max Big One coaster required:

  • 1,270 piles driven into the soil
  • 2,215 tons of steel
  • 60,000 bolts
  • 7,000 gallons of paint

On wooden coasters, the wood is cut to exact specifications, but still cannot bend past a certain degree before stress becomes critical. Tubular steel coasters on the other hand, are formed by heating and permanently bending the steel pipes into the desired shape. Each piece is then shipped to the site where they are all fit into place.

Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Video credit: PB Experience / YouTube

New manufacturing processes, like those seen on the New Texas Giant roller coaster, are using custom cut planar pieces. The pieces are welded together at the factory and use special jigs to hold them in place once they’re joined. Since no heating or bending is required, the tubular segments are much more precise and have a longer lifespan.

Because steel can tolerate much higher stress loads than wood, steel coasters can pack thrills into the ride that wood cannot match. Steel roller coasters can be constructed at hair-raising heights, include heart-stopping drops and inversions, and allow for extremely steep embankments.

Roller Coaster Construction of Tomorrow

As technology becomes more sophisticated, innovation happens. The roller coasters of tomorrow’s amusement parks are likely to be lighter, faster, safer, and smarter, employing technologies that people wouldn’t have dreamed would of half a century ago.

The latest roller coaster designs feature:

  • Advanced steel and aluminum alloys
  • Silent running urethane wheels
  • High strength fiberglass
  • Linear induction motors
  • Highly sensitive sensors
  • Gyroscopic units
  • Stator coils

With the constant development of new materials, coasters have evolved to encompass a variety of types. No longer are riders subjugated to just one seating position or ride type.

New coaster models come in such varieties as:

  • Suspended coasters: Hanging cars are attached to a pivoted joint and swing in a side-to-side motion.
  • Flying coasters: The rider starts out in a seated position, but is rotated to face the ground as the ride gets going, simulating flight.
  • Fourth dimension coasters: Two seats are positioned on either side of the track and spin on their own axis, either freely or in a controlled motion.

Advances in materials science and computer technology are likely to continue influencing the evolution of roller coasters. Look to see these ubiquitous scream machines inducing blood-curdling screams in a variety of creative ways for years to come.

Sources and Further Reading

Follow William Bessette on Twitter for more of his work - @WillBessette

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