What is a Cow Catcher?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

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.

Charles Babbage invented the cow catcher in 1838.
Charles Babbage invented the cow catcher in 1838.

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.

Now referred to as a "pilot", cow catchers on modern locomotives still act to clear small obstacles from the track.
Now referred to as a "pilot", cow catchers on modern locomotives still act to clear small obstacles from the track.

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.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


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


@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.


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?


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!


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.


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!!

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