How Do Train Couplers Work

You probably hear about them all the time when working with your model train, and you might even have a rough idea of what a train coupler is. That little bit that sticks out and joins the cars together. This article is a deep dive into what a train coupler is, how they work, the different types and why you should know about them if you want your layout to be as authentic possible.


What is A Train Coupler?

A railway coupling or train coupler is a mechanism used to join a train’s railway cars. The design of these devices are regular, and its importance is on the same level as that of a track gauge. Convenience and flexibility are optimized if the rolling stock (rail vehicles) can be “coupled” or interconnected.


What are the Different Kinds of Train Couplings?

Buffers and Chain

The most common coupling derived from its British roots, buffers and chain are still widespread to this day. A long, tri-chained link joins hooks of the connected wagons. The buffers resisted the impact loads. Although it was fine for mineral wagons, it was a whole different story for passenger coaches, and thus improvements were brought by switching the center link for a turnbuckle that keeps the vehicles together.

Albert Coupler

Karl Albert, the former director of Krefeld Tramway, came up with the Albert coupler in the year of 1921 to manage safety issues. The design features a slot coupler with a pair of pins and a key. The cars that had to be coupled were brought together, and both couplings were directed in the same way. After a pin was inserted, the cars were pulled to further align the coupling, followed up by the insertion of the second pin. This was quite a hit with narrow gauge lines and the tram systems.

Despite them becoming outdates in the 60s, the Albert couplers still get fitted into modern cars as an emergency measure for towing malfunctioning vehicles.

Link and Pin

The link-and-pin was popularized by usage on North American railways. The working principle is simple, but the system lacks due to the shortcoming of standardization.

The coupler includes a tube-like body with a cylindrical link. The procedure was rather long, complicated, and often times, dangerous for the brakemen.

Radial Couplers

Two kinds of radial couplers were used all through South Africa. The Johnston coupler, otherwise known as the bell link and-pink coupler was one – introduced in 1873. Like the name, it worked similar to the link and pin couplers, but they were bell-shaped. Bell-and-hook coupler was the other which was introduced in 1902.

Multi-Function Couplers

Multi-function couplers are fully automatic and can connect rail vehicles without human assistance. They’re not exactly auto couplers as the latter manages the mechanical sides. Most of the trains with these types of couplers installed in them have many units, especially those used in mass transportation.


What is the Best Train Coupler?

The originators of the knuckle couplers are still one of the best in the industry. Kadee features a wide range of couplers, some special versions for transforming older locomotive and care, shelf, and scale knuckles.

All of Kadee products are constructed of top-notch metal and are appreciated for being long-lasting, and the company itself has been ranking high on the reliability chart. The KADEE 206 Insulated Coupler has become a fan-favorite recently. It’s easy to use, of superior quality, and the design is very impressive.


What Couplers do Model Trains use?

Model trains mainly feature three kinds of couplers.

Horn Hook Couplers

The couplers you got with your original products? Horn hook couplers. They don’t resemble prototype couplers at well. They depend on side pressure to keep everything together. That causes an issue when backing up, as the excessive reliance on pressure causes derailment.

Rapido Couplers

The Rapido couplers look somewhat like squares with a side cut out. It doesn’t look like something you’d find in a real train, but it has been used for the past thirty years anyway. The purpose of the first N-scale models was to be considered simply as toys, so they came in an unimpressive “hook and loop” form. The makers were quick to realize that it wouldn’t remain for long, so they came up with the Rapido couplers. The couplers were standardized and became huge in the market.

Knuckle Couplers

These look better and have a more prototypical feel. Knuckle couplers complement magnetic uncouplers well. When the trains are backing up, there isn’t much derailment. Manufacturers like Kadee, Atlas, Athearn, and Kato make these.


So that’s it for train couplers! If you’d like to look more into model trains, you can have a look at our guide to the best brands of model trains, or even take a look at a model train for christmas coming up!

Leave a Comment