As I explained in my last blog, this entry will attempt to examine the situation of train simulators at present. I should emphasize that I make many generalizations below based on experience. If you want me to elaborate further, get back to me. Sometimes I expect you'll know something that I don't.
Introduction and Background
Strangely, my experience as of late has been that train simulators are in a far better position than flight simulators, at least at the consumer level. They are more available, more expandable, more realistic, and cheaper, too. It is even possible to get them for smart phones, although very crude flight games are available for the same. This contradicts the stereotype that railfans and trainspotters are a small and deviant group. Perhaps it could be argued that we are far larger than is often supposed. What is even less known to most people, including railfans, is that train simulators have been along for a long time, especially in Britain. They certainly didn't begin with Microsoft Train Simulator in the early 2000's, or end with the demise of the Train Simulator 2.0 project. On the contrary, Train Simulator survives today, against all odds, being sold as Train Simulator 2013, the latest in a long line of updates. Given people's attitudes towards railfans, this is another surprising fact, as Microsoft Flight Simulator has not survived in its original mass-market form, but rather the rights have been sold to Lockheed, as I explained in my last blog post.
To demonstrate even the original MSTS's capabilities, I wanted to include the above screenshot from MSTS, or rather the Severn Valley Railway add-on pack. Notice the dynamic scenery in the upper right corner...the cars on the road. This is not a default feature in the original MSTS, but it was slated for Train Simulator 2.0 and ended up instead being included by independent developers. The sheer detail of this add-on shows just how far even the original, ten-year-old MSTS can take things. The detail is actually better than Trainz 2009, in my opinion (although Trainz 2009 does have traffic on the roads). Train Simulator 2013 is even better, if that can be believed. I recommend the main developer website's screenshots section for proof: railsimulator.com/media.php ...or you could check out their Flickr here: www.flickr.com/photos/railsimulator Train Simulator is but one of many train simulators available, however, so I should start by discussing the alternatives to it.
For a more complete history of train simulators, I recommend Vern Moorhouse's website, formerly known as Vern's Rail Pages, later known as TrainSim UK, and now known as Transport Simulation UK at transportsim.co.uk. In any case, his history of train simulators is far more thorough than anything I can provide here, but among the classics from the 1980's and 1990's that he reviews are Cab View Driver, Boso View Driver (BVE), Railsim, Trainmaster, Mechanik, and the original versions of Microsoft Train Simulator and Auran Trainz, which came out within a year of each other and effectively launched the modern era of train simulators. In fact, they altered Moorhouse's approach to his site, as it largely became a site for users of MSTS and Trainz, with technical tips and content creation getting the most emphasis. However, prior to MSTS and Trainz, Trainmaster got a lot more attention in the United States. This very-crude DOS program provided a scrolling grade map with a little pictogram (for lack of a better term) of the train. Full cab instrumentation was provided below the grade map, however, and the physics were considered realistic enough so that it was promoted as a training aid for real American railroads (I don't have the information on how many actually used it). The sound also got high marks, being vastly better, arguably better than most train simulators today. More surprising, and this would include to me, is that Trainmaster is still available, now in Version 4.3, with modern 3D graphics.
Railsim was more enthusiast-friendly, offering a cab-view interface (albeit a very crude one with awful sound). Railsim was German in origin, being developed by Jens Schubert, but it was capable of simulating the rail systems of Germany (East and West), Switzerland, the United States, and Australia. Vern Moorhouse also built a few British track layouts for it, as user-generated routes were easy to make with the editor that was included. Lacking adequate editing software, Moorhouse chose to use the USA/CAN version of Railsim (both were included on the installation CD), meaning you could easily find yourself driving an EMD SD40-2 or other large American locomotive on the Great Western Mainline. Third-party software for content creation was available at the time, but quickly became unavailable as MSTS came in, and Windows was upgraded beyond what the older editors could support. Regrettably, few of these editors work on Windows 7 or 8, and when they do they require 32-bit mode. Try as I might, I have been unable so far to get any of them running. Note that the station is Yonkers, on the Hudson Line. That's one of my add-ons.
As soon as the newer generation of simulators came out, Moorhouse concentrated his efforts on generating content for MSTS (whether himself or through contributors to his site), as well as Auran Trainz. As I understand it, he authored the Glasgow-Falkirk route that now comes with Trainz (He has a list here: transportsim.co.uk/trainz.html). Having said all of this, though, the operational realism of Railsim can sometimes surpass other simulators currently popular, so I still use it in DOSBox, a popular (and free) DOS emulator. The main drawback of Railsim, other than its outdated graphics and horrible sound, is probably that it is only usable for line-haul operation. In other words, you can't switch a train or operate in reverse (although rolling backwards down a hill is possible). This is a limitation that Railsim has in common with all true rail simulators of its era, although 3D Railroad Master, arguably only a game without realistic physics, was switching-oriented. 3D Railroad Master was produced by the now- defunct company Abracadata, who were also responsible for Design Your Own Railroad, which was essentially a CAD program for model railroads that allowed you to operate model trains, and Train Engineer (both original and Deluxe), a line-haul train driving game that lacked realistic physics. As an additional note on DOS emulation, FreeDOS can run Railsim in VirtualBox, but thus far I have been unable to get the sound to work. Although the sound in Railsim is terrible, it is irritating driving a silent train. In addition, the realistically-simulated cab signals and alerters don't work properly without it. I shouldn't fail to praise them here, though. I'd really like to see something comparable for Auran Trainz, but so far only a few locomotive have very-crude cab signals, and mostly they aren't the best candidates for them. For example, I have yet to find a high-speed train for Trainz that has cab signaling, even though all real-life high-speed trains have them. I admit here that I have no knowledge of whether a proper FreeDOS partition can support sound for Railsim. DOSBox clearly works, so why not use it? Another use of DOSBox, theoretically, would be to run the original versions of Design Your Own Railroad and Train Engineer, although I admit I haven't tried them in DOS. I do possess copies of the Mac versions, which require a Mac OS Classic emulator such as Sheepshaver (or a genuine vintage Mac). The Abracadata software is still being sold, as payware, by The Liquid Ate Her, a software company that, presumably, is the liquidator of the original Abracadata.
Although Trainmaster was (and I guess is) impressive in its own way, especially once Version 4.0 was released, doing away with the grade map in favor of a crude cab view (albeit with a 3D world which was very good for the time when 4.0 was released), the real turning point came when rumors began circulating that Microsoft would release the original Train Simulator. This was very good news in the railfanning world, as most of us were familiar with Flight Simulator, and many of us loved it. This to some extent led to the (undeserved) mediocre reception that Trainmaster 4.0 received, although to be honest it was always a niche program, being so much a professional simulator rather than a game, with little thought given to enthusiasts who wanted cool graphics and easy content generation. In fact, content generation was the frontier of computer gaming (and arguably computing generally) in the early 2000's, and although it had existed before, previously it had been only for the technically-trained (i.e., the geeks). Any new train simulator would therefore benefit from following this trend, and it was the technical difficulty of modding Train Master and other rail-oriented games that limited them, even if a lot of content was produced for niche simulators like BVE and Mechanik, just about all of it by serious, trained programmers.
Microsoft Train Simulator
The original Microsoft Train Simulator actually offered a great deal of content already built-in. It was already possible to drive trains on real-life routes such as the BNSF Marias Pass route, the Hisatsu Line, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the Okudaku Electric Railway, and the Settle & Carlisle line (in its entirety), part of the OBB (I know the least about this one) and to drive mostly-authentic equipment for all of these lines, the exception being the Settle & Carlisle, originally a Midland Railway route, and later an LMS route, but never an LNER route, the only drivable British locomotive being the LNER A1 4-6-2 #4472, the famous “Flying Scotsman.” There was more to MSTS than met the eye, though, as it was also possible to add cabs to AI-only locomotives like the Golsdorf 310, the LMS Royal Scot Class 4-6-0, the G.E. E60CH and P40, and the EMD SD40-2. The “Train Simulator Editors & Tools” included a cab editor to make this even easier, in fact. A service pack also made a BR Class 50 diesel available, complete with a rake of BR Mk. I coaches in BR blue livery (which would also be appropriate for a 1960's-era Flying Scotsman charter). Building additional content, though, was generally easy for anyone familiar with games modding. The units used for train performance were very standard, graphics could be produced using more or less standard applications like GMax (if I'm not mistaken), and the construction of routes and scenarios required no special software, as everything was included, just as with Railsim. Mileposts and other navigational aids were also easy (and just as importantly, fast) to install, signaling was (miraculously) intuitive, and MSTS included route scenario editors that not only were easy on system resources, but allowed the importation of geographical data (an enormous labor-saver just as in Flight Simulator, as Train Simulator included a virtual world, albeit minus buildings and such).
The physics model, however, did get some criticism from serious railfans and railroad workers for not being on a par with Train Master. Indeed, taking a 105 m.p.h. curve on the Settle & Carlisle at 105 would usually result in a derailment, as the MSTS physics model assumed that every curve had to be taken well below line speed, something obviously false in real life. Indeed, the line speed is determined by what is safe on the line being regulated, which would include speed restrictions for tight curves, or superelevation to compensate. In short, if a curve is not safe for 105, then the speed limit will be lower. Trains are never expected to operate significantly below line speed unless the rolling stock is speed-restricted or damaged, and then the limits are well-defined by regulations. Unlike on a race car, guesswork is simply not involved. Of course, speed limits defined by the signal indication (or a TSR/bulletin order) are another matter that I'm not referring to. As in Railsim, these were accurately simulated in MSTS. Pull-aparts in MSTS were arguably too easy (I've often split a 20 or 30 car freight on the Settle & Carlisle while driving very conservatively at less than 60 m.p.h.), although it would take a proper engineer (train driving or mechanical) to determine how much this was true. Thankfully, Microsoft opted to measure drawbar and buffer forces in newton/metres, a familiar unit to engineers (more on this later). There were also a few other odd behaviors in MSTS, like braking often appearing too easy on American freight trains, although again a proper engineer would be more capable of analyzing this than me. Much of the worst of MSTS's weaknesses could be addressed by turning off the derailment model in the options. That left the pull-apart issue unaddressed, but usually this could be avoided by driving very gently, or when that failed, by putting a helper on the rear of the train (at least that was realistic). Driving a long train in MSTS could and can provide a realistic challenge, as a real train driver/railroad engineer is supposed to operate as smoothly as possible, well within engineering limits and never at them. In Railsim, this is one of the principles on which you're scored, being called “Quality” in the USA/CAN version. If a train is really too flimsy to be realistic, it is also possible to mod (patch?) it by improving the drawbar strength on the offending equipment. Some more good news is that I have been experimenting with MSTS a bit lately, and it still appears to run fine in Windows 7. Any input on Windows 8 compatibility would be welcome in your comments below, although I should note that Train Simulator 2013 is a much more current program than the original MSTS. In addition, it has support for Steam....not steam locomotives, as it's always had that, but the website that allows you to run your games without an install disk (I prefer disks, since I don't like someone else telling me whether or not I can have a game on my computer.).
It's good to see that Train Simulator hasn't died in the manner of Microsoft Flight Simulator. However, there are issues with distribution. Regrettably, without Microsoft's marketing muscle, few railfans are aware it's still being supported. Trainz is therefore (probably) the most popular train simulator today, and Vern Moorhouse and others have thrown their efforts behind developing content for it, whatever it's limitations. I especially like the North Bay County and Metro-North Harlem Line maps, although I don't think either of them are Vern Moorhouse projects. His Glasgow-Falkirk line is worth checking out, though. When Trainz was originally proposed in the early 2000's, roughly at the same time that Railsim, Trainmaster 4.0, and Train Simulator were all released, it was meant to be built largely by users, in spite of being a payware program. In a sense, this was a ripoff, as users had to buy a payware program that came with almost nothing. Its physics model was also a joke at first, and its strongest defenders tried to emphasize that it was just a cheap substitute for model railroading in the way that 3D Railroad Master had been. Given that 'Master was still in production at the time, this was a dubious sales pitch, so initially Microsoft Train Simulator continued to dominate. At the time, I built a lot of scenarios for the Northeast Corridor route, supported by downloaded add-on trains, and although I had a copy of the original Trainz, I didn't use it. Of course, this was about more than Trainz's limitations. On the contrary, one of the main reasons, perhaps the only one, that I rejected it was that it was a superdetailed system hog, whereas Train Simulator was deliberately designed to run on lower-powered systems with only 266Mhz of CPU clock speed. The route editor, which in spite of the lack of a virtual world, was more reliable than the MSTS one. However, Vern Moorhouse points out that you can use Transdem to get real world data:
Getting back to Trainz, I should note that the original version couldn't even boot on the PC I was using. Even today, an easy criticism of Trainz 12 is that it can't run on most PC's, so I'm still using Trainz 2009, like a lot of people. An exception is the iPad version, which must be stripped down (right?) to suit the iPad's laughably awful performance (slower than the computers that were current when the original Trainz was released). Given the limitations of the full version, though, I suspect that the iPad version is even worse on accuracy. How could it not be?
The gross inaccuracies are maybe my first criticism of Trainz. MSTS was better when it was brand new than Trainz is now, after over 10 years in development. Worst of all, most of the bug fixes would be so easy that I've set about correcting some of them, in spite of the data files being coded in perhaps the most confusing and inaccurate way possible (more on this next). Some of the developers have even released defective content, and then applied write protection to prevent anyone patching it (like the SD70 that came built into Trainz 2009). Trainz, in spite being lacking in some areas (indeed, no train simulator is complete to every railfan), was already, at the 2009 version, a giant program, so I can only begin to enumerate the inaccuracies here. Indeed, I haven't pulled the guts out of it properly yet, even several years after buying it. However, several problems stand out as blatantly wrong. First of all, many, many of the locomotives, all of them vastly different from one another, use the physics files from the freight F7 and the SD40-2. See any problems here? I thought so. The F40PH, for example, has twice the horsepower of an F7 in real life, plus 103 m.p.h. gears (not 65 m.p.h.), and 110 psi brake pressure (not 80 psi). For that matter, the ATSF Warbonnet F7 that's included isn't even accurate. Most importantly, it would have had high-speed passenger gearing (probably 102 m.p.h., although ATSF historians may correct me on this), and 110 psi brake pressure. The E8 which is included uses the SD40-2 physics file. Again, this is wildly inaccurate. The considerable weight difference isn't really the problem, as weight is modeled separately from Train physics (really, that's how stupid the physics are in Trainz). Rather......E8's were designed to operate at over 100 m.p.h. (even if they rarely did), SD40-2's were usually geared for 65, E8's had 110 psi brake pressure, whereas the Trainz SD40-2 has 90 psi pressure (some real ones operate at 80), SD40-2's had six powered axles, E8's had four (although they had six axles in total, for an A1A-A1A configuration), and most importantly, any fast E8 would have cab signaling, whereas the Trainz one doesn't have it. This is not to mention the horsepower, which is 2250 on an E8 versus 3000 on an SD40-2 (although UP have hot rodded their E9's with 645 prime movers in order to have about 3000). In fact, the real E8 and the SD40-2 designs (as built) don't even use the same engine block, as the E8 uses two 567B V-12's, while the SD40-2 uses a single 645E3 V-16. Although I haven't unplugged it to find out why, the BR Intercity 125 is also a dog in Trainz. A real one, with a full rake of eight coaches and two Class 43 power units, can easily crack 130 m.p.h. (they were tested to 146), the Trainz one, with six coaches, tops out at 121 m.p.h., below even the cruising speed of 125. Surely, some patching is in order. This is before we even get into the steam locomotives, although they don't appear to be as far off. Indeed the Flying Scotsman can do about 110 m.p.h., whereas the fastest Gresley A3 in real life, “Papyrus,” set a record for the class of 108. One of the ways you can tell Auran made a better effort on the A3 is that its physics file, at least, is different from the Gresley A4. That seems like a really pathetic standard to set, though, that the files are merely different, as opposed to a wide range of locomotives getting the F7 or SD40-2 physics file. Many other high-powered steam locomotives, such as the Canadian National U-2 Class 4-8-4, have been paired with the Union Pacific Big Boy, while many high powered diesels have been paired with the EMD DD40X. Each is about as wrong as the other.
Some of the reason, no doubt, that so few authentic physics files are included with Trainz is that their format is so illogical, even enough to perplex even a professional engineer. MSTS handled this far better, as you can see from the screenshots below:
The specifications used in MSTS physics files are in real-life units like metres, newton/metres, kg/cm3, kilowatts, etc. In Trainz, to be honest, I have no idea what most of the units are. One thing for certain is that the power curve on a Trainz locomotive can be set to absolutely anything, which by itself calls into question the accuracy of the Trainz physics model. Clearly, this calculation should be determined by the real-world specifications of the locomotive, which are nowhere to be found. If you search the internet like crazy, you can locate an Excel sheet for diesel (and presumably electric) locomotives to get these figures, but who's to say that it's accurate? I know nothing about the qualifications of the author, although I can say that the physics models I've authored with it seem to run correctly. “Seem” is the magic word. How am I to know? I'm only a railfan, so I've only driven one locomotive in real life....light. Also, it should be said that the sheet fails to address how to set up the air brakes (I've had to wing this based on a Wiki that I don't know the accuracy of, other than that it's slightly wrong, requiring tweaking of any resulting work), or even the dynamics, which as far as I know are not a mirror-image of the horsepower ratings (even if many real-world engineers would wish this to be so). Again, Auran should have done the legwork on this, rather than forcing developers to decipher their twisted minds with no manual (that covers train development), and no (complete) Wiki until Trainz 2009 came out (and then only with the help of the now-deceased independent developer Bill Hock). Although the diesel and electric physics files are bad, the steam physics files really seem to have nothing obvious to do with real-life units. There don't appear to be any fields for bore and stroke (although there seem to be a set of fields, in nonstandard unknown units, for displacement), driver diameter, grate area, back pressure, superheater area, and other key specifications for any steam locomotive. Bill Hock, mentioned in parenthesis above, released an Excel table for building a Trainz steam physics file (he must have been a mathematical genius), but why should you need it? It certainly wasn't necessary in MSTS. I've put a screenshot of the Trainz Flying Scotsman below to compare with the MSTS Flying Scotsman above.
Apparently, the brake pressures (below the flow in the screenshot) are said in the Wiki to be measured in grams per cubic metre. Really....cubic, not square. I'm not an engineer, and even I know that that's blatantly wrong. Gases, including air, are measured in mass (grams or kilograms) and volume (cubic meters or liters), and gas pressures are measured in kilograms or grams per SQUARE metre or centimetre, atmospheres, or millibars. Traditional American railroads have continued to use pounds per square inch (psi). Kidding about the metric system aside, the emphasis is on SQUARE. In engineering (I can know this without being an engineer), pressure and volume are two entirely separate things, like voltage and amperage. With pressurized gases, volume is only relevant with relation to a given mass, which equals.....pressure. The choice of grams over kilograms is also preposterous, as it produces gigantic numbers for no good reason. A real train, even a brand-new high-speed train, isn't going to be that precise anyway, and the specs certainly won't give you numbers that precise.
Another glaring problem with the locomotive models lies with the controls. In addition to the braking systems being inaccurate (Bill Hock regrettably never released a table to set up dynamic brakes before he died, either), there is also the issue of cab signaling. The instructions don't make clear how to operate an alerter system (it's the Insert key, if you search long enough, and if your computer has one that Trainz recognizes), and in any case hardly any of the locomotives have support for cab signaling. Obviously, in places like the United States and Canada, cab signaling (or for that matter all signaling) is often sparse. However, cab signals have been a key component in mainline locomotives for about 100 years, regardless of whether they've been in full-time use. Even worse, Trainz (as of version 2009) simulates cab signaling with an arcane collection of scripts, rather than one system that works universally in the program, as in MSTS or even Railsim. I've had to jump through a number of hoops, copying and pasting scripts from the EMD FL9, in order to install cab signaling into the E-units and F-units that would have had it, and I still don't have the cab signals working in all the Amtrak Genesis units (I picked one, modded it, and made it mine). The Metro-North Genesis diesels that come with Trainz have them, but the add-on ones don't, as it appears the developers were even more perplexed by the scripts than me.
Finally, Trainz appears to be riddled with technical bugs. Every time I open the Content Manager (which admittedly is a necessary component of Trainz, given that all the content is placed in folders named with hashes otherwise, although you can get around this with indexing), I get a flood of errors, including from the built-in content. “Progressive meshes are no longer supported by Trainz,” in spite of representing a large proportion, perhaps the majority, of content, and I could go on, and on, and on. Textures and scripts to seem to be the other banes of any Trainz user. Somehow, like the meshes, they often work in compatibility mode, but it could be argued that Trainz shouldn't need one. All of the content should work, and incompatibilities shouldn't exist. The textures, especially for thumbnails, often are in the .texture format, rather than the standard for add-ons, which is Targa. A converter is included with Trainz, called Texture2Targa, but I've installed it and it hasn't worked so far. Trainz, after all, was developed to have mostly user-generated content. Therefore, the content should remain compatible over time, with users choosing whether or not it still satisfies them. Given the flagrant mistakes in the content, any user should also be able to patch it. Write protection should only be allowed when everything works, and will work for the foreseeable future. There's at least one mainline locomotive that runs out of fuel after 10 minutes, and it's unfixable because it's write protected. That sounds like a problem to me. What do you think?
This EMD AEM-7 electric was built by another developer by modding an OBB 1044 Class. Yeah, really. I don't feel like ridiculing them, since visually it came out surprisingly well. I would never have guessed it would work, so I'd say it was pretty clever. The obvious underlying problem with doing such a thing has more to do with the physics model, which the developer didn't upgrade (originally). In fact, this was simply a repaint file originally, but it seems to have been developed more thoroughly since. The original release had 70psi brake pressure, a 79 m.p.h. top speed, and some sort of British cab interior (it looks like maybe it came from a BR Class 87, flipped to make it right-hand drive). Wrong, wrong, wrong....but understandable if it was only a clever repaint with existing resources. A realistic AEM-7 should have 110 psi pressure, roughly a 150 m.p.h. top speed (I don't have a reliable source for this top speed, but the cruising speed would be 125), and a unique cab not found in other units. I'm not skilled enough with Trainz's arcane interfaces to build a proper cab for it, but what I did do was fix the physics. However, this meant copying the entire 1044 Class and rebuilding it as a new locomotive. Now I have the problem you see above. See the white patch on the locomotive? The number is supposed to go there, as the 1044 supports multiple numbers when you set up the scenario. For some reason, because this 1044 is copied, the script has crashed. It seems to be a font issue, but I haven't managed to fix it yet. All the resources are present, in the correct directory (as far as I know), but it still doesn't work. That's Trainz for you. It's supposed to be about user-generated content, but support for such content is patchy at best. I obviously won't release this AEM-7 without the permission of the original developer, but the error message is below if any of you want to help me (or them) patch this locomotive...
I note that the bad script isn't mentioned in the errors, only the icon (That's the Texture2Targa problem again), so I'm not sure what to do. I know below that.... ...the dependencies all report that they're working, including the “NumberItRandomRunningNumberLibrary,” so that makes it only more of a mystery. Switching between numbers in the Trainz “Surveyor” when setting up a scenario doesn't fix anything, either. So.....count this as a call for technical assistance. If I can fix this problem, I think I'll send this mod of a mod to the developer so that they can properly release an update.
The Positive Side of Trainz, and my Trainz Projects
Speaking of Trainz repaints, here's my first one...
This one is based on the Sub Par Productions B&O 0-4-0T Dockside, and while inauthentic, it's based on an equally inauthentic HO Scale model that I have. I made this repaint not so much because I desperately wanted my model in the game, which I didn't, but because of another bug in Trainz with AI tender steam locomotives.... ......words fail me. As of version 2009, Trainz had been around for minimally (depending on whether you count the betas seven years. Yes, seven years. With most applications and games, a bug this blatant would be fixed in less than seven months, and an apology issued by the company, but while Auran eventually (apparently) developed some sort of script to fix this problem...
...it was still not automatically built into steam locomotive tenders as of 2009. Unbelievable. Sub Par Productions, who also built the 4-4-0 American two screenshots above, aren't a fly-by-night developer, either, so if they are unable to figure this out, then it seems unreasonable to expect it of a beginner. Shouldn't this be fixed? I think everyone knows the answer.
Finally, I'll make one more criticism of Trainz before getting onto the positive stuff. Like Railsim, Trainz has two different modes, one for driving and one for map and scenario editing. These are called “Driver” and “Surveyor,” respectively. I could be misunderstanding, but it seems that the iPad version has only “Driver.” There is also a third mode, already pictured in the Dockside and AEM-7 screenshots, called “Railyard.” This is a 3D gallery of the traincars and trams loaded into Trainz, and can also include some AI road vehicles, horsedrawn wagons, and boats. It has no other function than to show off the work of the developers, but it's a cool feature. There is also another, fourth program already mentioned called the “Content Manager.”
Content Manager isn't an extra, but a necessity for anyone who wants to use most Trainz content. It “commits” the content files for the simulator, which are otherwise unreadable. I've already condemned the needless nuisance of this feature, but if it didn't exist, Content Manager would still be useful for other things. For example, notice the exclamation points indicating faulty content. Selecting it and using Right Click>Errors & Warnings....
...can sometimes yield useful debugging information, as can “View Dependencies,” although in truth the problems are often too complex to fix, and Trainz really should be a more robust program so that this endless debugging isn't necessary. The dependencies are a particular problem, as downloading content (although possible to do directly from Content Manager) will only sometimes include the dependencies. I currently have a long list of dependencies that I've been unable to find anywhere on the Internet, and developers don't usually include the dependencies with their downloads even in CDP format (sometimes copyright is an issue, but not usually since Trainz content is mostly freeware). CDP's are the file archives that you would download from a standard FTP client or Internet browser if you weren't using Content Manager, although Content Manager is still necessary to encode the CDP's into Trainz. This is done via File>Import CDPs... Often, it's the only way, as much of the content available directly from Auran's Download Station (via Content Manager) won't download properly into Content Manager, another glaring oversight. Surely, Auran should have figured this out by now.
At the most basic level, though, Surveyor and Driver are the core of Trainz. Surveyor allows you to build gigantic track layouts spanning.....distances that I haven't found the limits of yet. I started a project for this blog post three months ago....and it's still nowhere close to done. An express passenger train can get from one end of it to the other in about 2 hours. In one sense, it's a chance to build the model train layout that I planned many years ago, but never was able to build due to physical space constraints, and of course money. However, for this blog project, I wanted to build it because Trainz comes with relatively few good layouts for line-haul operation. As already stated, cab signaling is poor (and sparsely available) in Trainz, and in addition mileposts aren't added exactly. Frighteningly, even after four months of work I haven't started adding mileposts to my layout. Just this one detail could take me a month or two, given that I have.......a job (teaching) plus studies (in IT, interestingly enough). For comparison, MSTS and Railsim have this feature built in, but this is a reflection of how the original developers had line-haul much more in mind, whereas the older Trainz layouts make it clear that originally it was meant more as a switching-oriented simulation. Surveyor has many other features that Railsim lacks, though, and is easily the equal of MSTS's editor in everything but the importation of real-life grades. Grading is really the main weakness of the Trainz Surveyor, as once you grade a track, you have to fill in the Earth underneath it (or at least, this is usually how I've been forced to do it. There is little automation, which is a time-consuming pain. As with the trains themselves, most of the scenery objects are developed by third party developers, and include almost everything. I've been unable to find good beach scenery or a wide variety of American houses and farm buildings, but those are maybe my only complaints so far. The scenery that does exist includes dynamic scenery of cars (which changes with the geographic region), dynamic scenery of boats and ships (which like the cars can be added several ways), trams (which can be driven in Driver, of course), and many miscellaneous dynamic and static scenery for anything that you would want. One irritating feature is that the track menu includes one sub-menu for the track itself, one for “trackside,” which really means signaling, and one for track markers, but doesn't include catenary. Catenary has to be added as a scenery spline, which is really annoying, although having a spline feature in the scenery menu is a great idea in and of itself. It's especially useful for fencing, powerlines, and roads. Getting the curve radius right can sometimes only involve the use of section track, which currently appears in the scenery menu rather than the track menu. It would just be nicer to have the catenary included either with the “trackside” menu, or to have track splines (in the track menu) that include it as in (even) Railroad Tycoon 2 and 3. In spite of the limitations, though, my personal opinion is that the Surveyor is the nicest feature of Trainz, with the most potential for hours of trouble-free modding. Here's a screenshot of the above-mentioned project in Surveyor...
The limitations you see, like that extreme, sheer cliff that probably isn't realistic, are my fault. I would expect a skilled developer (or artist) would do a better job than me. Here's another shot of a branch line that I made off of my main line...
Most of the trees in Trainz include sound effects of chirping birds and insects. If you're a serious birdwatcher, you may feel that they don't match every region, but you could mod the trees, of course.
The other core component of Trainz, of course, is the Driver. This is the only part (as I understand it) included in the iPad version, which is a shame since to get a realistic experience you have to add a bunch of patches to the original program, something that Auran should have addressed a long time ago. However, the Driver has all the basic features that you need for train simulation. It has a 3D cab view, multiple external views, throttle control, air brake control with lap, dynamic brake control, reverser (with a cutoff on the steam locomotives), light switches (including a separate control for the flashing ditchlights), bell control (for the American trains), horn control, and sometimes an opening door or two. The gauges mostly work as well. The steam locomotives have additional controls like the injector, coal shovel, and blower, but in this regard MSTS is far better, particularly in that it's easier to water or refuel a steam locomotive than in Trainz. The cylinder cocks can also be turned on and off in MSTS, which is far more realistic as well, not to mention the fact that water vapor and smoke are more accurately simulated in MSTS. In Trainz, all smoke is the same (given the initial settings in the config files), whereas in MSTS the type of exhaust generated depends on the type of fire, how thick the firebed is, how hot it is, etc. For one thing, most related scenery objects such as water towers and coal bunkers have to have their servicing functionality added later through modding, which is, to say the least, infuriating. Trainz version 12 (the current version, not 2009) has also been criticized for cutting back drastically on the steam locomotives that come with the game (and some of the steam support), ignoring the fact that the vast majority of railfans, serious or not, prefer steam locomotives over all other modes of motive power. At the very least, the simulator should grow, rather than shrink, with each version. On balance, though, I've already mentioned that some of the diesels are also quite badly simulated, exhausting their fuel in 10 minutes and so on. There are clearly a lot of problems to address. Just in brief, here's a shot of the Union Pacific SD40-2's cab in Driver:
All of it's there...except for that it has an alerter button but no cab signals. Hmmm...... The alerter doesn't seem to work anyway, although I haven't tried driving this locomotive yet. I chose it for the screenshot because it's one of the most basic that comes with the game, and as far as I know the physics aren't too terrible (again, watch this space, I could be wrong).
Of course, all of these problems with Trainz, the most current and available train simulator, bring up the question of what the alternatives are. I've already mentioned Train Simulator 2013, but much of its content is payware and in any case its partial dependance on Steam (the website) could doom it yet. Trainmaster 4.3 would be another option, although I don't know how much it's improved since 4.0. I only found out it was still going toward the end of my research for this blog. One advantage to it is that it's much cheaper than it used to be, at only $19.95 U.S. versus 49.99-80.96 Euros for TS2013 on Steam, which doesn't count the payware add-ons, including, I'm not making this up, “Trains vs. Zombies.” Trainz usually goes for about $30.00-75.00, depending on where you buy it and what version it is, but the content is mostly free. I think that, while Trainz could be debugged with only minimal effort by Auran (like for example making progressive meshes allowed again, or including some scripts like for cab signaling or tender engine runarounds built-in), it could take forever for independent developers to do so. The problems are such that they resemble open-source projects run by amateurs, that have the advantage of being both free and of unlimited lifespan, another concern if Auran's (actual N3V's) fortunes were to go south. Therefore, the time for a new, modern open source replacement for BVE may be with us, although it goes without saying that such a project would be enormous, and would require the involvement of many, many people. In the meantime, I plan to keep fiddling with Auran Trainz, as the ability build enormous layouts for zero cost is still a major draw for me. I also expect that I may post screenshots, proposals, questions, and so on here on iPernity, as games development is indeed art. Meanwhile, my photography will continue, and in fact I have a considerable number of photo uploads due soon.