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April 11, 2017

I played with a train simulator and here’s what I learned

By Phil Hartup

When I was a child train sets seemed like the best toys. You built the track, you built a little town all around it, then you sent trains whizzing round as fast as you could until such time as you were ready to crash them into something. That was the theory, at least; in practice, I never got my hands on one. (Probably for the best.)

Those train sets feel like an anachronism today, probably still out there but seldom seen, like episodes of The Simpsons good enough to reference for comic effect. But their digital progeny live on in the form of train simulators.

The business model for those producing train simulators is not dissimilar from that of a company making those classic train sets. The basic game is limited; but over time, the owner expands it with new track, new stations and new trains.

From the outside, even as a gamer who has wasted shameful amounts of time in shamefully banal games, this still seems kind of odd. The desire to play a simulation rather than something structured more as a game is understandable enough; but given all the options out there what would lure somebody to a train? In search of answers I dug into the new train simulator from Dovetail Games, Train Sim World: CSX Heavy Haul.

No idea. Image: Dovetail Games.

My initial impression of the game was an awkward sense that something significant was flying over my head. TSW: CSX Heavy Haul is set on a stretch of track in the USA called the Sand Patch Grade, which runs through the Allegheny Mountains. Perhaps to people that know things about trains this has some importance; for myself, however, unless there’s a murder mystery on a particular route, the chances are I won’t have heard of it.

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The Sand Patch Grade itself has curves and steep gradients and the capacity for some very unpleasant weather. Given that I am used to soft southern commuter trains that are defeated by a light dusting of snow or a particularly determined fallen leaf, this to mw seems like an entirely different world.

The locomotives in the game are also unfamiliar, insomuch as my knowledge of specific locomotives only extends to the early Thomas the Tank Engine canon. The simulated trains would all have been viewed as the baddies on the island of Sodor: great hulking machines capable of hauling immense amounts of cargo over terrain thatn in a less determined country, might have been written off as impassable. The game simulates weather; but it equally simulates how little these machines are bothered by it.

The game at its root plays more like a first person adventure game than a simulator, i  that you control a train driver, not a train. You can disembark, wander about and handle other parts of the job like refuelling, operating turntables and attaching the freight cars. Control of the actual train itself can be done directly via controls, or you can use the mouse to pull the levers and hit buttons.

Darkness falls. Image: Dovetail Games.

There’s a sense of solidity to everything, even down to the fuse boxes that can be opened up and messed about with: not for any specific purpose I could see, but just being able to wander around on a locomotive seeing what different things do is fun for a while. (At time of writing I have broken five locomotives in TSW by seeing what different things do.)

Trains suit this kind of control method more than other vehicles thanks to their comparative simplicity. This is not to say the trains are actually simple, but in simulator terms, things don’t get much easier. It’s pretty common in modern flight simulators to spend several minutes starting the engines; getting off the ground and back down again without exploding can be a real challenge. A train is more sedate, more contemplative and more comfortable.


Snowy out. Image: Dovetail Games.

It is this sedate quality that feels vital to the appeal of the train simulator. You have the sense of control over a lumbering, powerful machine, but this control comes from planning, understanding and anticipation rather than reactions. The end result feels like a game of chess played not against an opposing phalanx of pieces but against physics, track conditions and a timetable

And in its own, uniquely nerdy way, this is actually fun.

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