How Do Rollercoasters Work?

21 June, 2024

Have you ever wondered how rollercoasters work? Whether you’re fascinated by their high speeds or are curious about all those cleverly engineered loops, drops and heights, we’ve got the inside track on exactly how they do what they do. So, sit back, relax, and let us guide you through everything from their major components to the inner workings of the design and construction processes.

The components of a rollercoaster

First things first, what do engineers and designers add to rollercoasters to make them move, twist and drop? Here are three of the main components:

Chain lift

If you’re a rollercoaster enthusiast, you’re probably familiar with the sound and motion of being hoisted up that first incline. Each rollercoaster starts its run around the track by being lifted to the top of the first drop on a chain running underneath the track. A simple motor powers the chain lift and allows the train to move forward, similar to how a conveyor belt works. Once the chain lets go, gravity takes over and pulls the train down the hill for a controlled free fall.

No engine

Rollercoasters don’t have engines. So, how do they fly around the tracks? It’s simple – rollercoaster trains move because of gravity and momentum. These forces are all it takes to push the train around the track once it’s released from the chain lift at the top of the first drop.


Rollercoasters are fitted with special brakes so that they can stop in their tracks. But instead of the brakes being fitted to the trains, they’re actually integrated into the track in the form of clamps. Rollercoaster brakes are operated using a combination of electrical positional sensors and pneumatically operated components which can close the clamps and bring the train to a stop if necessary.

How does the rollercoaster stay on the track?

So, how does a roller coaster stick to its tracks, even when it goes upside down? It’s really a simple matter of cheating gravity – for a few seconds, at least. The acceleration and momentum you’ve gained from being winched up the first incline is strong enough to defeat the tug of gravity as you loop the loop. You can thank the engineers and designers for their clever calculations that help make this possible!

Planning and building a rollercoaster

Many hours of skilled research, design and engineering are behind each rollercoaster found around the world. But before any of the actual building can get underway, a plan must be created for how thrills and excitement will be incorporated. Since psychologists have identified that the most exciting part of a rollercoaster is when the lap bar is secured, the anticipation needs to be built from this point.

Each loop and dip can take years to properly execute, and each inch of the track must be well-calculated from start to finish. Rollercoaster design teams are responsible for keeping on top of everything, which also includes perfecting the first drop to make sure enough energy is generated to propel the train around the track. The g-force also needs to be checked to make sure it stays below 10gs to keep riders safe. The average rollercoaster has a g-force of 3.5gs, so there’s nothing to worry about there.

The next step is to create a design prototype to test out any new rollercoaster features. Water-filled dummies get to have the first ride, and depending on how these tests go, final alterations and tweaks can be made as necessary.

Rollercoaster building takes place during the off-season in most theme parks. Coasters made from steel tend to be constructed bit-by-bit and then shipped in, while wooden coasters like our own Megafobia are carefully constructed on-site. The building process can be slow and careful, but this means that you can rest assured that every bolt has been tightened, checked and checked again.

Oakwood’s very own rollercoasters

Here, at Oakwood Theme Park, we’re proud to be the home of the UK’s number-one wooden rollercoaster raved about by coaster obsessives around  the world. Megafobia has been our crowning jewel for more than 20 years and after successfully completing the retrack project in 2023, it’s back and better than ever. Speed is another of our incredible rollercoasters, this time constructed from steel and featuring a beyond-vertical drop, speeds of up to 59 mph and multiple exciting loops, rolls and twists. Why not try both and decide for yourself which is better?

At Oakwood, we’re also chock full of attractions for families and large groups too, so we’ve got all bases covered for thrill seekers and attraction lovers alike.

Ready to experience the thrills and excitement at Oakwood? Book tickets and plan your next visit here.