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What Is a Cow Catcher?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cow catcher is a device attached to the front of a train in order to clear obstacles off the track. Invented in 1838 by British engineer Charles Babbage, this device is now used mostly in North America, as modern European railway systems tend to be fenced off and less susceptible to the danger of foreign objects on the track. In the locomotive industry, a cow catcher is more commonly referred to as a pilot.

A cow catcher is typically a shallow, V-shaped wedge, designed to deflect objects from the track at a fairly high speed without disrupting the smooth movement of the train. The shape serves to lift any object on the track and push it to the side, out of the way of the locomotive behind it. The first cow catcher models were constructed of a series of metal bars on a frame, but sheet metal and cast steel models became more popular, as they work more smoothly.

cow catcher

When steam-powered locomotives became more common, the cow catcher was often supplemented with a drop coupler. The front coupler, a device used to attach railroad cars to each other, was fashioned to hinge up and out of the way in order to prevent its catching on obstacles. Another bygone pilot model is the footboard pilot, which featured steps on which railway workers could stand and catch a ride. In the 1960s, these pilots were outlawed and replaced with safer platforms on the front and rear of the locomotive.

Today, people in the railroad industry frown upon the term "cow catcher," but the pilot is still in use. Today's pilots are much smaller and shallower than their predecessors. Since diesel locomotives feature front cabs carrying crew, the pilot must be constructed to prevent the cab from being struck by objects deflected from the road. A separate feature known as an anticlimber is typically installed above the pilot to protect the cab.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WikiMotors editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon989805 — On Mar 23, 2015

According to Wikipedia, it's usually a law that "cow catchers" pilots are required. Are you mistaken? Or is Wikipedia mistaken?

By anon285716 — On Aug 17, 2012

@anon170093: After driving into Canyonlands, UT at night, I can say that typically nocturnal bovine behavior is to get up on a track or roadway that is clear of obstacles. This is where they mill around calmly and scare you half to death when your beams hit them with just enough distance to stop.

Cows tend to use cleared paths for travel as well. "Cow path" is a term for a trampled path made by humans or animals, so they could be said to have invented cleared paths. Also, I guess a lot of train and coach roads followed on animal trails that led from salt sources to water sources.

By anon170093 — On Apr 25, 2011

I already knew what a the were for, but how did it get its name? Were train tracks covered in cows, back in the 1830s england?

By anon145038 — On Jan 21, 2011

My six year old loves trains of all kinds! He just asked me, "Mom, what are 'cow catchers' for?" This helped me explain it perfectly! Thank you!

By kindaDM — On Jun 02, 2010

You are old if you remember them actually catching cows. :D These days, they should be called something else- like "moveyourSUVouttatheway" catcher. Cars and trucks are what get stuck on the tracks anymore.

By wiseoledad — On Jun 02, 2010

This certainly makes me feel old. I was just explaining a cow catcher to my younger friend the other day. I wonder if newer trains have this on it...my memory is the trains have a smooth front. Something to look for next time we are stuck at the train tracks!!

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WikiMotors editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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