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