Monday, December 26, 2005

Season Finale

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanuka, Happy Kwansaa, Season's Greetings. They all say Peace, Joy, Blessing! To this we can add Happy New Year!

Here's a wee giftee for you. I've compiled a full year's worth of VR Blogger into a single PDF file - VR Blogger 2005 - and made it available at . It includes all postings except announcements such as this.

See you in 2006!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Have a Happy ...

You can fill in the rest. It's no small coincidence that the major religions chose to mark the winter solstice with festivals. Historically, the summer solstice has also been a time for festivals. What's significant about the winter festival - here in the northern hemisphere - is the turning from increasing darkness to increasing light. In other words, the victory of light over dark. Let's hope that this year, and every year, we use this opportunity to bring a little more light into a dark world.

God bless, everyone!


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Respond If You Please

I remember my first snow storm as a very young boy in New York City. I grabbed a sheet of blue construction paper and some colored pencils, sketched a brown tree, and added a thick line of white to both sides of the trunk and the tops and bottoms of the branches to represent the heavy snow. My father was so impressed he took it to the office the next day to show his fellow workers. Responding this way to things we experience is natural and, I think, what lies behind hobbies like model railroading and train simulation.

Historically, people first built models of locomotives, then cars. Soon they placed them on track, electrified the whole affair and launched the hobby of model railroading. Because of size limitations, most model railroaders take liberties with representation of scenery - simplifying, selectively reducing size, compressing distances, and omitting buildings and other features.

With the advent of computerized train simulation we have become able to model scenery more realistically - at least as far as distances and other measurements are concerned. We still tend to omit buildings and features for practical purposes, such as time and effort, and limitations of computing power. Still, we have seen some remarkable simulations, rendering the prototype quite accurately. One of the best examples you could hope to find is Luigi Cartello's Genova Casella Railway modeled in BVE (see the Ocober 2004 issue of Virtual Railroader ).

The cab-view drive-it sims, of which BVE is my favorite, have gone further than any when it comes to prototypically accurate representation of routes. One reason may be that since the sim is cab-view only, the route designer can treat 3D objects as stage props, knowing the driver will never see certain views, or views from angles other than those intended. This makes it possible to use photographs applied to flat surfaces to represent three-dimensional reality. If you could see the photograph from all angles, its flatness would become apparent. Full-featured, all-views-possible simulators, such as MSTS and Trainz, have a tougher challenge to meet since with them you CAN see all views.

If you haven't tried BVE, and want to experience the real thing as the engine driver does (at least to the extent possible with a simulation), I suggest you visit Trainsimcentral ( for all the information you need to get started. Steve Green, the site's owner, is a long-time developer of BVE add-ons. The information and downloads on his site are top notch. Give it a try! You may even get the urge to model your own favorite route in BVE. That's how I got started.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Fun is in Getting There

"And now comes Miller Time," proclaims a well known beer commercial. The implication is that a glass of Miller beer is a just reward for a job well done. Most, if not all, American advertising focuses on the reward, the light at the end of the tunnel, as being the ultimate bliss; but as the long-suffering Red Sox fans here in Massachusetts now know, that feeling of bliss is short-lived because as soon as the celebration is over it's time to plan for next year.

Students of life tell us that true happiness is in the doing, not the having. Getting there is more enjoyable than being there. I certainly know from my early days with wind-up trains, then electric trains and model railroads, that building the layout was more engrossing than running it. That's not to say one can't find happiness in operations. It's just that thoroughly engrossing operation, after the get-acquainted period, entails setting goals and trying achieve them. That could be operating to a schedule, completing train orders, and so forth.

What's interesting to me is that different types of simulations hold different types of interest for me. While many people can find happiness operating scenarios in Trainz or activities in MSTS, my form of "getting there" is to build things (as in Trainz routes) or to set up switching challenges (as in the MSTS Timesaver Route) or to try to capture the "decisive moment" "photographing" trains in action by grabbing screen shots.

Strategy sims offer a completely different form of "getting there." Strategy sims include building the route and managing operations as part of the game. "Getting there" IS the sim. There's no possibility of resting on one's laurels, freezing one's creation at a certain point in time, continuing to watch the trains endlessly. It can't be done because the game keeps moving forward. True, you can save the game at certain point and always come back to that point, but the game will always move forward, even as you are watching the trains. In other words, you have to go out of your way to make the game stagnant. That may make it hard to display your accomplishment for others to see, but it is certainly in keeping with life's rythms.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Challenge is in the Process

I'm fascinated by the builders of the first railroads in America - especially the railroads west of the Mississippi. They had to survey the route and its alternatives, plot the most cost-effective/time-effective route, in some cases buy the land, and finally build the line. As a matter of practical economics, they had to build something inexpensively and quickly in order to get the trains rolling in order to generate income for more building. In many cases, this process was undertaken in trying conditions - rugged terrain, early snows, hostile Indians, robbers, and so forth. I wish more first-hand accounts were available. Those that are describe challenging times in vivid terms.

Strategy-based train sims give you some of the flavor of having to determine and build a route in practical terms. (One sim - Railroad Pioneer - even gives you the chance to send out surveying parties.) Failure here could lead to an early bankruptcy and end-of-game. In other words, these sims simulate the process of building a railroad. This a major distinction from other sims, which are operational sims or modeling sims. Planning a new metro, for example, requires all the elements found in Transport Tycoon or Locomotion. You have to examine the initial need, the possible routes and obstacles, and the necesary construction and cost. You also need to think in terms of building usable sections in order to get things running and producing income. Then you can implement your plan and see how it plays out.

If you haven't tried a strategy sim, you've missed part of what railroading is all about, especially from an historical perspective, but also a perspective that is as valid today as it ever was. In case you think strategy sims are all planning and calculating, rest assured that there is plenty of train watching as well. I can certainly recommend the free demo of Locomotion available at the Atari web site (


Thursday, December 01, 2005

It's All About the Money

For the past several months I've been focused on strategy-based transport sims. While my main interest has been Locomotion, I've also had brief looks at Transport Tycoon (Deluxe and Patched), Railroad Tycoon, Transport Giant, and SimuTrans. My choice of Locomotion is at least in part a result of the excellent demo available for free download from the Atari web site. The demo gives a clear understanding of how the sim works and allows me to use the sim for limited time periods. What I want to say about strategy sims, however, is not limited to Locomotion, so the fact that I've been focusing on Locomotion is of little consequence.

First, let me dispel any idea that I have abandoned MSTS, Trainz, BVE, or any other sim that I have written about. The various sims - even those of similar purpose - are all unique and I love them all. None is truly perfect nor fully capable in all aspects, nor should we expect them to be. Each has its own reason for being and its own strengths and weaknesses. My purpose here is to point out the things that make Locomotion and its brethren interesting to me and why I've been able to zero in on them for so long and still think of them as fun and intriguing - not just something to write about.

In this and upcoming posts I plan to single out particluar aspects of the strategy sim genre that set it apart from other sims. Today, let's have a look at the most obvious thing that sets strategy sims apart from the others: MONEY.

Aside from any feelings or beliefs one might have about how society could or should work, money is a key element and it is here to stay. In a free economic society, free enterprise - success and failure in the market place - determines what gets built or made or created or performed, etc. (with some exceptions, thanks to amateurs and philanthropists). Thus, putting the economic factor at the center of a game is certainly a valid factor, especially for a simulation. It also has an educational component in that it identifies cause and effect.

The degree to which a simulation is valid depends on how realistic and how sophisticated the model is. Fortunately, the models are not overly realistic. If they were, we might find some of our transport systems meeting untimely deaths like the originals. From what I've seen so far - and that's admittedly limited - it has been possible to model systems that operated far more successfully than the originals. Then again, perhaps the simulation is suggesting that real people in real situations may have made the wrong decisions when viewed from a distant vantage point over greater timespans than were available to those real people making decisions based on short term, real factors. I'm thinking here of how successful my Locomotion tram systems are when compared to the reality here in America, where trams died out in all but a few cities only to be rediscovered (at great expense) decades later. (Of course, tram systems in Europe fared much better than those in America or the UK, and the game does not distinguish between countries.)

It does seem that the sims are based on principles more than reality. I'm happy with that, but it does leave open the possibility for creating sims that are historically based with the potential for examining alternative outcomes for alternative decisions. This would require a high degree of sophistication and enormous amounts of input, but it would still be interesting. Meanwhile, perhaps games with well designed principles will play some role in decision making when players find themselves in a position to act on principle.


News at Virtual Railroader

In case you haven't been keeping up with events at Virtual Railroader (, there are new issues for November and December, available free.

We've also made our list of available train sim software more accessible at our VR Pro Shop.


Friday, September 30, 2005

Does It Make Sense?

"How did it get that way?" is a question I often asked myself while growing up. One area in particular - the entrance from New York's East Side Drive in Manhattan onto the Triboro Bridge - always made me puzzle. This particular stretch in a tight urban setting, is particularly tortured, involving a left-side exit, steep uphill ramp, sharp right turn and merge with fast traffic curling in from the left. We drove through this nightmare every summer Sunday afternoon on our way to Jones's Beach on Long Island back in the late 1940s.

In school, meanwhile, we were learning about the early settlers arriving in the new world, sailing up the Hudson River, and eventually buying Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for $24 worth of trinkets and beads. The transformation of untouched nature to modern-day New York City in my mind took a bit of imagination. Later, as an architect, I could understand the process by which changes occurred, especially the compromises that must have taken place in the planning and building of the Triboro Bridge.

The same kind of thinking infuses my efforts at designing train simulation routes. My conscience, like a bird perched on my left shulder, whispers in my ear: "Does it make sense, Matey?"

Most of us, unless we are building a route to match the prototype, do as the model railroaders do - at least those who are challenged by space limitations: lay the track and then form the scenery ("existing conditions" in the architect's language). We then do our best to make the existing conditions appear to have been there all along, providing a challenge for the railroad's builders and a formative influence on its final configuration. This is truly reverse engineering, even if not exactly what the term usually infers.

When planning our railroad, we also think in terms of traffic: what are we going to haul and why? Again we are forced to think about how things are really done and try to carry that over into our design.

Interestingly, an entire class of simulators - the strategy-based games, many named Tycoon - come at things from the opposite direction. They begin with existing conditions and ask you, the game player, to construct and operate a transport system that makes sense: economic sense, determined by how successfully you satisfy the needs and desires of your patrons. You have to please your customers and your board of directors, or be fired - GAME OVER!!!

The instruction manual for some of these games - RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 is a particularly good example - read like a class you would expect to hear in architectural school, except our teachers preferred to let us figure out such things on our own. You read such warnings that your patrons, while coming to the amusement park primarily to enjoy the rides, will have other expectations once they get there. These include food vendors and comfort stations. Where you place them bears some thought. Do you really want to place a food vendor next to a thrill ride where patrons are apt to get sick? You may also want to think about organizing things to advantage, such as using a gentle ride on a waterway to give patrons a good overview of the amusement park. The same kind of thinking applies to building a transport system. Factories and industries will draw more traffic than seaside resorts. Newer, faster, more attractive and reliable vehicles will attract more patrons than aging clunkers; and so on.

If you're tired of reverse engineering your sims, why not take a break and work in the normal direction by using a strategy-based sim?


Thursday, September 15, 2005

September issue of Virtual Railroader is ready

You can get the September issue of Virtual Railroader at - it's free with NO strings. We've got 61 train sims listed in the issue.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

I found 31 train sims

How Many Train Sims Can You Name? I've listed 31 unique ones below (one is listed under two categories). I think there are more.

Signalling Centre Software. (
Train Dispatcher. (

Railway Modeling
Rail3D. (
JBSS Bahn. (
Zusi - Der Zugsimulator. (

Cab-View Drive-It
BVE. (
Loksim3D. (
Mechanik. (
Real Railway. (
Simulatore di treno 3.00. (
Train Cab Simyulator. (
Train Simulator. (
TrainMaster. (
YKTrain. (

Full-Featured 3D
Eisenbahn Professional. (
Micrososft Train Simulator. (
Rail Simulator. (
SpoorSim. (
Trainz. (

A Train 6. (
Densya de Go! (Let's Go By Train!). (
Train Simulator. (

A Train 6. (
Locomotion. (
RR Tycoon. (
Transport Giant. (


Train Games (
Black Five (devleopment suspended -
Amiga Train Driver

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

How Many Train Sims Can You Name?

How many train sims can you name? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Next week I'll give you my list.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Japanese Drive-it Sims

While certain game companies are going all out to give us can-do-everything train simulators at break-even prices, other clever manufacturers are preparing to skin the cream of the drive-it sim market (HUGE in Japan) with simplicity iteself. Imagine filming a real route from the cab of a locomotive, transferring the results to a computer screen, and placing a computerized cab over the displayed film. Then adding 3D train controls and proper train physics, and selling the package as a train simulator. When the user masters the route, or just gets tired of it, sell them another with a different route.

Smart? You bet! Not that I wouldn't rather build my own route in BVE or Trainz or Rail3D, but I have to admit that plenty of people, especially kids, will go for these action-packed, simple entries into the market. Being available for Play Station 2, Play Station Portable, Windows, and Macintosh platforms makes them all the more attractive.

Check out these two web sites and be prepared to use you Babelfish translator.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

More VR in RMC

What the acronyms are saying is that Railroad Model Craftsman (RMC) has published part 2 of Mark Baldwin's excellent article, "Virtual Gilpin" in the September issue, which is now available. In the same issue is my guest editorial on virtual railroading (VR) in the Editors Notebook column. A couple of minor errors slipped in during the editing process, but the essential thing is that a mainstream model railroad magazine has taken a chance and published a significant virtual railroading effort - Mark's Gilpin. Thank you, Mark, for a great series; and thank you, RMC, for publishing it.


Monday, August 01, 2005

Sociology, Anyone?

I'm loaded down with preparing the next issue of Virtual Railroader and working on a few other projects, so I'm going to let John Bruce do the talking. Have a look at his article "The Sociology of Model Railroading" here:

This is a fascinating bit of writing, and I should say a LOT of writing rather than a BIT. If this is too much to handle at one sitting - it is for me - try copying and pasting the entire article into a WordPad document on your computer for liesurely reading in small sections.

Speaking of WordPad, I've found the perfect replacement. It's called Jarte and is available free at
I've been using Jarte steadiliy for nearly a month now for creating drafts of all my lengthy correspondence, articles, ideas, and so forth. It produces Rich Text Files - the universal word processing format - and stores them wherever you like. The nice thing is that it displays all your open RTFs in a tabbed environment in which the program interface gives the feeling of working in a notebook. That's great - all my stuff is in one place, yet it is not in a proprietary setting.


Monday, July 25, 2005

A Great Time To Be a Model Railroader

There's probably never been a better time to be a model railroader. I just received my copy of Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette today and looked through the ads and reviews with envy. I especially like the On30 equipment because it represents an easy way to get into narrow gauge modeling.

On second look, it seems to me that prices are getting out of sight - just the thing On30 was meant to combat. It makes me glad I made the switch to virtual railroading 4 years ago. I won't try to tell you VR is free. After all, computers need to be upgraded, and the more you spend the better. Still, $1000 for a new PC every 4 years equates to not that much model railroading equipment. Scanning the reviews, I spotted a gorgeous DRGW K-27 that goes for $489 - a bargain considering the quality. That's half my 4-year new computer budget. Yikes! There's also a laser-cut boxcar kit for $138. DOUBLE YIKES!!

Speaking of bargains, check out the prices of niche publications like Tall Timber Short Line. Meaning no disrespect for this fine publication, but you can see that Virtual Railroader, which is absolutely free, including all the back issues, is a bargain that's hard to beat. Come see us at .


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I Finally Got Broadband

Well, I finally did it. I signed up for DSL and am loving every minute of it. My wife and I had been planning to do it for quite awhile, but there were all these questions we had that weren't answered by the carriers' web sites. So we looked for a blockof time and just called. We asked and found out everything we needed to know. In the end, DSL is costing us exactly what our old dial-up was costing, but DSL is lightning fast. It's a no-brainer in our case. I no longer plan my day around a 10-20MB download or have to stay offline because we need the phone for something else. If you're big on train simulation, broadband Internet access should be high on your wish list.

Broadband - cable or DSL - also makes email via Google an attractive proposition. The Gmail interface is great and has some neat organizational features. By having my email based in a central location, rather than on my computer, I can access my mail from anyplace via any computer with Internet access. Google even provides me with a notification icon on the Windows tray that lets me know when an email has arrived. Google also does a great job of filing junk mail in itsown folder so I don't have to sift through it to get rid of it. Finally - and here's the great part - Google provides over 2 GB of space and takes care of the backups. I like that!


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Virtual Railroading is Gathering Steam

When Microsoft abandoned further development of its Train Simulator nearly two years ago there was a feeling among onlookers that virtual railroading was going nowhere fast and that it was doomed to a future in niche markets. While it would be foolish to suggest that VR has hit it big, one can certainly see signs of good times ahead. At least some game companies are thinking that way.

Through the "dark" times Auran continued to forge ahead with Trainz, and for all practical purposes should be considered the leader until someone else comes up with something more successful. Just as Auran is set to release its new version, TRS 2006, news of Kuju and Electronic Arts working together to develop a new product, Rail Simulator, arrived to fan the flames of enthusiasm.

For those who don't know, Kuju is the company that developed Train Simulator for Microsoft. They are now back at it with EA, a major game company. We have little knowledge of what the new product will be like or whether it will even be compatible with the earlier Train Simulator (a million owners of MSTS are probably hoping it WILL be compatible). There is something to be said for being able to start over (if that's what Kuju is doing) with the ability to learn from one's earlier experience and not be saddled with one's prior mistakes or lack of foresight. (I don't mean to accuse Kuju of being shortsighted, but things develop rapidly in the high tech world and one cannot always anticipate what lies around the bend.)

Not to be lost in the shuffle is the promised TrainMaster from RailDriver, which is expected to be compatible with MSTS while adding new features.

All of this bodes well for the VR community and its hobby.

-- Al

Friday, July 01, 2005

VR Coverage in RMC

Keep an eye out for the August issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. It will be featuring the first of a two-part series by Mark Baldwin on his Gilpin Tram.
-- Al

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Those Damned/Great JPEGs

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) images - the ones we all use on the web - are a blessing because they compress regular digital images so much that they have made common use of graphic images on the web a reality. JPEG images are also a bane because they rob your images of their original quality by throwing away information that you'll never get back. What many don't realize is that each time you alter and save a JPEG image you lose a little more quality. Here's how I handle JPEGs.

Rule One. Save the image only once. By that, I mean make all your adjustments in the original (non-JPEG) format first. Routine screen shots are usually BMP or other bitmap format. Keep a copy of the original bitmap. Make your changes in size, etc., and then save as JPEG. Some programs let you select a quality for your JPEG. I usually use 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Anything higher begins to defeat the purpose of JPEG, which is high compression and small file size.

Rule Two. For train sim screen shots, I usually sharpen the image before I save it. I use IrfanView (available free on the web - search for IrfanView). It has a batch conversion feature that lets me convert all my screen shots at once to JPEGs (while retaining the original format versions) and has a host of image adjusting features. Normally I just use the Sharpen function.

Rule Three. If your original JPEG is from a digital camera, it is probably a high quality image (9 or 10 on a scale of 10). If you plan to manipulate this image, you may want to save it to a more stable format, such as BMP or TIFF before working on it. Then save back to JPEG.

-- Al

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Now What?

So you're new to train simming. You've installed your sim and have it working properly. You've taken your favorite train out for a spin and you may even have tried a scenario (Trainz) or activity (MSTS). Now what?

If you like photography, you've come to the right place. Trainz and MSTS offer a world of potential for dramatic train "photography." I put that in quotes because it's not traditional photography in the sense that there's no camera to hold in your hand. Beyond that it really IS photography in my book because you are concerned with composition, lighting, and timing. The best part is that you don't have to drive miles to find an active railroad and you don't have to wait hours for a train to come by, or climb a mountain or rent an airplane to get a great vantage point. With train sim photography you get to choose the weather and time of day. You can even pose a setup - something only the company photographer or publicity studio ever gets to do.

With train sim photography you can take a diskfull of photos in very short order. Take adavantage of this capability to develop a critical eye, deciding which shot is most satisfying or appropriate or informative or dramatic - and why. In the end you may be surprised to see how good the results are. You may even find some great candidates for your next Christmas card. Print a few shots and hang them in your office - it's a great way to meet girls (or guys).

A few years ago I started a train sim gallery on my personal web site (see You may find some useful pointers there.

-- Al

Friday, May 27, 2005

Widescreen solutions

The new widescreen laptops feature viewing areas 1/3 wider than traditional computer screens. The widescreen aspect ratio is typically 16:10 or 16:9 vs. the traditional 12:9. Most programs display in windowed mode, which makes them indpendent of the screen's aspect ratio. Many games, however, use full screen mode, which can cause flattening or elongation of the images. Fixing this distortion seems to be a game-by-game proposition. My experience with Trainz, MSTS, and BVE resulted in three different solutions.

Trainz is easiest and most satisfactory. Open your TRS2004 folder and open the trainzoptions.txt file using Notepad. Add a line at the end of the file for the display width and another for the display height as follows:


I've used the numbers for a 17" widescreen. Use the appropriate numbers for your screen. The save the file. The Trainz display will now be full screen and without distortion.

The best I've been able to achieve with MSTS is a windowed display of 1600 x 1200. The trick here is to launch MSTS from the Start menu by selecting the Run... command and adding the -vm:w parameter as follows:

Select Start > Run...
When the Run dialog opens, browse to find and select the train.exe program file. It will then appear in the Open: field with quotes around it (e.g., "C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\Train Simulator\train.exe"). Add a space and then the parameter -vm:w and selectthe OK button.

MSTS will now open in windowed mode, free of distortion.

I expecte dthe method used for MSTS would work for BVE. It didn't. BVE DOES have a windowed mode option built in, but that mode produces a window with 640 x 480 resolution, which is a small on a large widescreen laptop.

-- Al

Friday, April 15, 2005

Another Short Line You Can Simulate

Here's another nifty short line you can build with your train simulator. This one's a freelance job and it's fully described in the May issue of Model Railroader. The layout as built is in On30 gauge (O scale using HO gauge track), but is perfectly adaptable to simulation. Simulators give us the chance to stretch the distances, which I would definitely do in order to get more running room.

The layout, called the Bay Point & Diablo RR, is by Bill Wilson, who fashioned it in a San Fancisco Bay setting in the early 20th Century. It could be adapted to other climbs, especially those with some water.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Short Line You Can Simulate

The April '05 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman includes a description of a nifty 10-mile granite hauling line in Northern Vermont. This a line you easily model in a train simulator in true scale. You could also base a fictional route on the proposed model railroad layout included with the article, though you might want to stretch it out a bit.

The article, "The Hardwick & Woodbury: A Vermont shortline" by Robert Jones, features history and a number of informative shots of this line that was built in the 1890s and lasted till the mid-1970s. It's prime movers were Shay locomotives. The line connected to the St. Johnsbury & Lake Champlain Railroad at Granite Junction, VT, and included 7% grades and a switchback. Having been built after the excitement of narrow gauge fever, the H&W was standard gauge, but certainly would have been plausible in 3-ft narrow gauge. If modeled in Trainz, the true-scale route would require 20 baseboards. Thanks to Rich Blake, there is already a 3-ft gauge Shay available at Sirgibby’s TrainZONE ( You will also find standard and narrow gauge Heislers and Climax’s at Sirgibby’s. Microsoft Train Simulator users will probably find similar models at the file library.


Saturday, February 19, 2005

Buyer beware

Buying previously owned games can be a way to save money. In the case of Trainz, it can lead to disappointment. Auran does not permit Trainz registration to be transferred. Once a copy has been registered, it cannot be registered again. The significance is that without registration you cannot access the Trainz Download Station, thereby cutting yourself out of about 35,000 free, downloadable items by third-party creators. That's hardly worth the $10 or so you might save by buying a previously registered copy.

-- Al

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

We've got a lot of explaining to do!

I just returned from a weekend at the biggest annual train show in Northeastern US. It's clear that we in the train sim community have a lot of explaining to do. Three buildings, hundreds upon hundreds of vendors and exhibitors, 21,000 visitors, and not one single copy of Microsoft Train Simulator or Auran Trainz for sale. Not even a display, unless you count the loose-leaf binder filled with the two most recent issues of Virtual Railroader that I snuck onto the corner of the museum's display table where I was helping out.

It's clear from chatting with various vendors, exhibitors, and visitors that train simulation is at best a fuzzy concept in the minds of most. Let's get the word out guys and gals! If you want the creators of our favorite sims to keep at it, we need to get the word out – and fast!

Feel free to refer people to my web site. I've added a Frequently Asked Questions section for newbies. I'll keep adding to it, and maybe throw in a few pics, but we need to lose the complacency before it's too late!

-- Al

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Don't forget to have fun!

Train simming for most of us is a hobby, something we do for enjoyment or relaxation. While investigating Yuuta Kawai’s YKTrain sim last month I was reminded of an aspect of train sims that appeals to many - the train sim driving challenge. Meet a schedule while obeying the rules and giving passengers a comfortable ride. YKTrain has some of the flavor of an arcade game, a "first person shooter" in gaming terms. Train simmers have never fully associated themselves with gaming, though they have much in common with gaming and, indeed, many train simmers have a dual interest in gaming or came from gaming.

Yuuta's effort was in the back of my mind when I created the Train Chase routes in Trainz. The message? Have fun!

I've always enjoyed chasing trains, though it's hard these days with so few trains or railroads around; but it was hard even under the best of circumstances, not to mention dangerous. The highway and railroad seldom ran parallel for long, nor were our cars in those days able to keep pace with the trains. Today our cars are faster, but so are the trains. My route, then, however impractical in terms of reality, is still fun. And that’s all I intended it to be,

See the January-February issue of Virtual Railroader for information about YKTrain and Train Chase.

-- Al

Sunday, January 23, 2005

SpoorSim 1.0

Charl Vockerodt has just released a brand new train sim called SpoorSim. It's free and available at his SpoorSim website. Feel free to make a donation to encourage him.

SpoorSim is the most realistic train sim I have yet seen - both visually and audibly. The two available trains are highly detailed and the steam and diesel sounds are well coordinated and realistic. In areas where there are no locomotives, such as sidings with cars, you get a beautiful sound of wind. Trees and trains alike cast realistic shadows. The route is 100 miles long in a ficticious South African setting. Three views are available: cab, external, and tracking. The external view provides a continuous circular panning, which is very smooth and beautifully done. Trains can be driven in AI or manual mode.

The sim is usable by computers running Win 98/ME/XP. The download is a 12.8 MB installer. This expands to 72 MB of disk space. Instructions are contained in the Readme.txt file.

SpoorSim is version 1.0. As such it does not permit switching tracks,shunting cars, or pausing the sim. Also, there is no mention of capability for third-party add-ons.

SpoorSim sets a new standard of realism and is well worth downloading and installing.

-- Al

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Now hear this!

I've come to the conclusion that sound is the most important factor in making a simulation believable. When I first got involved with train simulation I was duly impressed by the graphics and realistic movement. But what really got me excited was hearing the squeal of flange on rail when I tried Ernie Alston's BVE Flushing Line route (see Virtual Railroader, August 2004 It brought back all those boyhood memories of riding New York City subways.

In some ways sounds are the most advanced aspects of train sims and in other ways they are not. For example, the above-mentioned flange-on-rail is excellent. I've heard great diesel switcher sounds in Microsoft Train Simulator and outstanding track sounds in Boso View Express. But I've also been disappointed by the lack of coordination with steam locomotive sounds as "chugs" don't seem to be in sync with piston strokes. Also, the transition between various throttle steps are often unrealistic. Still, it is great having sounds, and they are certainly a major advancement from the inattention to sounds that accompanies most model railroads.

Now that I've got your ear, next time you're building a route or object or piece of rolling stock, be sure to take advantage of the many sounds available for your simulator. If you are handy with audio, consider recording your own. I'm not an expert, but from what I hear (sorry!), high-priced equipment is not required and good audio editing software costs as little as $50.

Over and out!
-- Al

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Who are we?

Flight simmers? Gamers? Model railroaders? All of the above ... and none of the above. We're train simmers, whatever that means.

I think Microsoft thought we were simply another flavor of flight simmer when they created Train Simulator. They created a program that was oriented toward "mission success!" Auran began their Trainz simulator with the idea of simulating a model railroad, shifted toward the “mainstream” before launching, and now avoids use of the word "model." They did, however, provide an environment in which anyone with a modest amount of computer savvy can build routes, something that appeals to many modelers. Last year they announced their pursuit of the professional railroader.

Before Microsoft and Auran, we had Railroad Tycoon, an empire-building strategy game; Train Dispatcher, a traffic control simulation; and Boso View Express, a train driving sim.

If you look at the categories in the various train sim forums you can see that we build routes, scenery, and rolling stock (not to mention other items); operate trains and railroads; and play tycoon. In short, one size does NOT fit all.

Welcome to train simulation - or is it virtual railroading? There's a lot to like!

-- Al

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Monday, January 10, 2005

BVE 4.1 Final is Now Available

Good news for Boso View Express (BVE) fans. The sim's creator, Mackoy, has released the final version of BVE 4 (actually 4.1). The previous version was Beta 4. The Beta and now the final mark a major upgrade from 640 x 480 graphics to 1024 x 768. The final installs in English format without a hitch. There do appear to be some inconsistencies between Beta 4 and the new 4.1, which are causing developers to go back through their work. I'm also having sound problems, as I did with the Beta version. I optimistically think it will all get worked out and we all love BVE 4 so much that earlier versions will soon be forgotten. Well, maybe not. There are some great routes in earlier versions that may never get updated, so don't throw away your various iterations of version 2. (You can still get version 2.6, but I advise you to get it soon.) You can get both BVE versions at Macoy's web site: .

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Say Goodbye to Faulty Starts, Dirty Track, and All That!

One of my great railroading experiences occurred when I was about 10 years old. I used to meet father at the train station in Harmon, New York, on his return from his job in New York City. Harmon was where the New York Central changed motive power on all long distance trains – electric from there to the City, steam or diesel from there north and west. One day I was standing on the platform (in the US most station platforms are at rail level) when a great Niagara 4-8-4 had hooked up to the overnighter to Chicago. The trains usually had about 16 or more heavyweight baggage, coach, and sleeper cars. The Niagaras were impressive to a 10-year-old: their 78-inch drivers were at least a foot taller than I was and the locomotives themselves were about 15 feet tall.

With a great commotion of steam release and sound blasts from the pistons the great locomotive attempted to start, wheels slipping with the first few thrusts until gradually they caught hold and the heavy train began to move. Soon the train was gliding swiftly past me on its way to Chicago. At that moment I felt the enormity of the forces at work.

Since then my number one goal in model railroading has been to achieve this sense of weight and force - the slow steady start, and gradual increase in speed. It has been an elusive goal, despite the great advances in model train motors and train control devices. I’ve never achieved it on a reliable basis, though I’ve had moderate success with my O-gauge trolleys. One car in particular, a big Cincinnati & Lake Erie box motor with a pair of DC-60 motors can slowly start a train of 10 or more freight cars and sustain a slow, freight-like pace.

Usually, even if motors and control are good, something will cause a train to stall. Dirt is the usual culprit and those with older, not well-sealed basements for running environments, have the most trouble. Trolleys, especially larger ones, may have some advantage here. O-gaugers usually bond their rails as a single return circuit and use the overhead wire as a supply. This provides for 8 wheels (on a normal double-truck car) contacting the rails (return circuit) and a single pole contacting the wire (supply circuit). The trolley pole exerts some upward pressure against the wire, helping to maintain good contact.

The other thing I like to do with model trains is shunt freight cars. This calls for slow, precise operation. Even with a smoothly operating locomotive and good electrical contact, I may have frustration as the car being picked up goes rolling down the track instead of coupling when contact is made.

My virtual trains, however, excel at slow, smooth, reliable operation. The Microsoft Train Simulator (MSTS) has fine momentum characteristics, making coupling a life-like challenge, and some of the diesel switchers have terrific sounds, giving the impression of being at the throttle of a live locomotive. Some MSTS cars are have problematic couplers that refuse to uncouple. The best solution is to identify those cars and not use them.

The Trainz simulator excels at switching operations, though the momentum effects are not quite as good. The reliability, however, is impeccable.

If you like to shunt cars and like slow, Smooth, reliable running, do yourself a favor and give virtual railroading a try. Also, don’t forget Boso View Express (BVE). This freeware simulator is a cab-view driving sim that has outstanding train dynamics. Some of the third-party routes have the most realistic scenery of any simulator I’ve seen.

We cover all aspects of train simulation at Virtual Railroader, which, by the way, is free!

-- Al

Thursday, January 06, 2005

What's it to You?

Train simulation is all about recreating the railroad experience. For me, a railfan, the railroad experience is something esthetic.

It's feeling the nearly imperceptible change from standing still to moving, as a heavy electric locomotive shoulders the load of my commuter train at Grand Central Terminal.

It's feeling the smooth, quiet, quickness of a Third Avenue Railway System lightweight trolley as it accelerates from a dead stop to rejoin the city traffic.

It's hearing the screech of steel flange against steel rail as a New York City subway train lurches around a sharp curve.

It's the jounce and sway of a Third Avenue Elevated train on the 80-year old superstructure.

It's standing in awe alongside a 4-8-4 Niagara at the station platform in Harmon, NY, as this marvel of steam technology struggles to gain a foothold on shiny rails, 78-inch drivers slipping with each piston stroke in an effort to start a heavy sleeper train on its overnight journey to Chicago.

It's speeding along the 4-lane Northeast Corridor, watching neighborhoods zip by at 130 mph.

It's snaking through Canadian forests, crossing the Great Plains, climbing the Rocky Mountains, and hugging the Fraser Canyon walls high above the river.

It's darting through tunnels, riding viaducts across valleys and clattering across trestles spanning rivers and highways.

It's gliding through lowlands, crossing pastures, waving at farmers, listening to the crossing gate’s bell as we slip by.

It's falling asleep to the rhythm of the rails.

It's the rumbling in the night of distant diesels.

All these things are within the domain of today's train simulations. These simulations let you drive trains, dispatch trains, shunt cars, set up system-wide operations, and build railroad empires. Soon we will have true multi-player capabilities and real railroads will have desktop PC training systems. We're just at the beginning; faster, brainier computers will enable dramatic future developments.

The railroad experiences of my youth, as described above, left indelible impressions on me. Train simulations are reawakening these memories and providing some new experiences I never had, such as operating narrow gauge equipment. I hope visitors will feel free to add their own comments as to what train simulation means to them.

-- Al

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


VR Blogger is an extension of Virtual Railroader, the 'zine of small computer railroading. I plan to use this as a place to comment on what's going on in virtual railroading and to share some of the thoughts and ideas I have along the way. I welcome participation from others.
-- Al