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With the upcoming Redstone Update, I see the possibility of improving existing automated minecart station designs. One way of doing so is to vastly increase the storage capacity (or vastly reduce the required footprint) of the minecart storage area using hoppers, chests, and dispensers (or droppers, whichever is more appropriate).

My problem is, how can I reliably break a (presumably empty) minecart with just the environment such that it can be sucked up by a hopper? As far as I know, anything in the environment that can break a minecart can also destroy items, meaning instead of reusing them, they simply disappear.

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This has been solved by some smart redstone YouTubers, with one of their tutorial videos below:

They drop the cart next to a cactus, but in my testing, I haven't found this to be strictly necessary. Simply having the cart travel straight into a cactus also works. The key in both instances is to have a hopper ready to accept the itemized cart. Without it, there's a chance it'll be destroyed by the cactus. The design below shows this, and is inspired by BDoubleO100 in this video. It may be hard to see, but there is track on top of a hopper which feeds the dispenser. The slab above serves 2 purposes: prevent the cactus from growing, and prevent damage to a hapless player, should they enter the area by mistake.

Minecart breaker

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What happens if there's a player in the cart when it hits the cactus? –  SaintWacko Jan 28 '13 at 14:33
    
I my version, they appear on the track, or possibly on one of the blocks beside the track. There is also the possibility that they'll pick up the cart instead of having it deposited in the hopper. The vision for my design is to use this for empty carts only, however the version in the video breaks the carts while occupied, and the rider automagically pops out in the arrival area. –  MBraedley Jan 28 '13 at 15:17

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