Virtual Railroading: Train Simulation Games
Transportation simulation games are almost as old as video games themselves, with flight simulation games dating back to the Atari 2600 and early home computers. Train simulation games are the same principle as a flight simulator, but for railroads. The first train simulator was Microsoft Train Simulator (or MSTS) in 2001, followed closely by TRAINZ in the same year. While MSTS never updated to new versions, TRAINZ did, and others came along as well.
Train simulation games – depending on the specific game and the allowances of the programming – can allow you to build a train, drive it to a destination, break the train down, refuel the power, and park the power. Many simulators allow you to load and unload cargo of various types, from coal to cement to lumber, and more. For many rail enthusiasts that do not or have never worked for a railroad, this is about as close as possible to doing so. A number of retired railroad employees (such as my father) are also fans of the games as it allows them to simulate the thing they enjoyed doing so much.
For model railroaders, virtual railroading can be a companion to model railroading. I know several people besides myself that enjoy both. Virtual railroading can also be a good substitute for model railroading if you are in a position where you have limited or no space and can’t actually build a model railroad. You get some of the same functions out of train simulators as you do model railroads, and if you choose the overhead view that most simulators allow it is like watching model trains.
There are three primary leaders in train simulators today – Run8, TRAINZ: A New Era, and Train Simulator 2016. I can’t speak in detail about the first two as I have never played either, but I have played TS2016 extensively, including building my own scenarios and having custom reskin paint jobs made for me.
Note: Since I have not played the other two games nor dug into the community support for either one, I can’t say that the things I like about TS2016 are “better” than the other two. All I can say is that these are the various things I do like about TS2016.
TS2016 has allowed me to continue the fun experience of “playing with trains” even when my living situation didn’t permit me to build a layout. With the simulator I could run one of the multitude of scenarios or do a “quick drive” where I put together my own power lash-up and consist. I could run locals on the Northern Plains, fast freights over Cajon Pass, or unit coal trains in the Appalachian Mountains. There are also European, Asian, and South African routes, but I tend to run North American routes. I could also run steam or diesel or even electric power, from the 1920s to the modern day.
In addition to the routes, engines, and cars included with the base game, there are hundreds of add ons (DLC or downloadable content) – extra routes, more engines, more train cars. A few of the reviews of the game do complain about the cost of the DLCs, but I am guessing those are people who don’t also do model railroading. TS2016 is far less expensive than building and maintaining a large model railroad. I can buy 3 – 5 DLCs, each complete with a new route, new engine, and/or new cars, for the same price I would spend on a single HO scale Bachmann locomotive (as an example – I could buy 10 or 15 DLCs for the cost of an Athearn Genesis locomotive).
Also, in addition to the official DLCs that can be purchased, there are a number of third-party producers of content for TS2016. Some offer their “reskins” (the term for putting a different paint scheme on an officially released locomotive or car) for free, others create brand new locomotives entirely and offer them for sale at very reasonable prices. There are entire communities for developing new scenarios, new routes, new reskins, and more.
Thanks to both the official and unofficial content, I literally have hundreds of different locomotives for TS2016 and thousands of different cars. Almost all locomotives and cars, whether official or unofficial, come with auto-numbering, meaning if I put two of the same thing – say two Burlington Northern SD70MACs – on the same train, they each have different numbers. And if you are really specific, you can build your own scenario, place the locomotives and give them the numbers you want them to have.
If you have never tried a train simulator and you are interested, pick up one of the three I mentioned. They really are a great way to spend some time with trains if you can’t work with an actual layout.
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