Roller Coaster Construction
How do engineers put together a roller coaster
so it can be better than all the rest? What elements are used?
Roller coaster design has many aspects. "Better" is a relative term. Is
"better" low maintenance cost, low product cost, structural lifetime, high
cycle time, high safety, high speed, high acceleration, air time, high
capacity, more fear, . . . ?
Instead of looking at all of these, I will address just the psychological
side. Creating anticipation (a slow, noisy climb, hesitation at the top, a
long drop) all contribute to the physiology of fear. A prolonged
weightlessness with the perception (but NOT reality) of an inadequate
restraint followed by a large acceleration causes an adrenaline response in
the body. One of the key things is the timing of the hesitation. If there
is too little, the sensations happen before the fear response. If it is
too slow, rationalization kicks in and, well, the psychological impact of
the ride is reduced.
Another aspect is visual. Sometimes there are reverse sequence lights in a
tunnel or a sudden shift in the number of supports (particularly in wooden
roller coasters. Sometimes false supports are put in.) This gives the
illusions of greater speed than what you are really going at. Sometimes
there is an intentional jerk with a visual cue (not always).
Exceedingly steep turns in an open car also gives the illusion of falling
out. A trim of speed on an uphill can cause concern about making it over
the hill, or a permanent oscillation in the previous valley. A sudden
closing in, such as a tunnel, has effects on the physiology of fear. Speed
If a ride is long enough, more than one process might be used.
It is the skillful design of these aspects that give the 'kick' that many
coaster enthusiasts enjoy.
Nathan A. Unterman
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Update: June 2012