Not all Steam Locomotives are created equal! Now there’s a non-contentious statement. If you look at an express passenger locomotive and one designed for heavy freight, clearly they will be different and thus not equal. Then there is the difference between the humble shunter and the mixed-traffic locomotive. There is a huge diversity between locomotives with some having more power available than others (though it isn’t necessarily obvious which is the more powerful in a given set of circumstances!)

Anyway – getting away from stating the obvious and moving to the world of Train Simulation. I repeat – Not all Steam Locomotives are created equal! And that goes for the Diesels and Electrics too. It’s not their real world personas that we’re dealing with here but rather how they are implemented within the code and thus, how they drive.

Train Simulations have been around for quite a few years now. Computer simulations started appearing in a basic form while the Commodore 64 and Spectrum 48 were around – Elite was an early step into that market. One of my early PC games (back when I had an Amstrad 512) was Balance of Power – an attempt to simulate cold war world politics. It’s fortunate that it was a computer game because I successfully caused the nuclear holocaust on many occasions 😉

Microsoft produced a much loved stunner with MS Flight Simulator – a genuine attempt at simulation rather than flight as part of a wider game. It literally flew off the shelves and the simulation market has never looked back because… A lot of us want to do what we dreamt of doing as a career but got side-tracked! So many people who wanted to be pilots but maybe never had the real world chance to achieve that dream could now fly.

Logically, a train simulator would follow. Railworks is the ongoing development of MS Train Simulator. It matches the ideal of real world places recreated on screen like the airports of Flight Simulator. And the Locomotives are just a visually correct as the aircraft. But like all games, and simulations particularly, the limitation comes in transferring the real world controls and mechanics to the keyboard and joystick. I can remember wincing as I tried flying a Cessna 172 in Flight Sim… It was so insensitive compared with the real thing! And the approach to land felt wrong – I couldn’t judge the correct point to flare because the visual cues were not there… And the moral is – don’t fly a real Cessna if you want to be good at the Flight Sim version! Actually, the moral is – wait until they perfect the code.

And that is true of Train Simulator. The graphics and controls have improved significantly over time. The older locomotives in the game have been slowly improved to perform more accurately and the market has grown to allow more independent developers to move in and offer other improvements in the immersion factor that all experienced players of simulations need. What that does is leave us with a conundrum which I suspect has given us a range of Steam Locomotive simulations. You see, for a beginner in the simulation world, there needs to be a basic level that allows the noob to drive a train successfully and feel happy in the game. That level is catered for by the locomotives supplied in the base game – just challenging enough to require concentration but not to obstruct successful completion of the easier career scenarios that give the player achievement points (assuming the player can read the signals and speed limits and the instructions in the way-bill).

For the more experienced player there are the ‘Advanced’ locomotives – the ones where all the controls that you would need to operate the train are simulated and you need to use them correctly to successfully drive the locomotive. And there is the middle ground where there is a bit of simplification with the locomotive either requiring the correct use of all the controls or biting harder if you muck up the simplified control set.

Driving an advanced diesel or electric locomotive differs from the lower level simulations mainly in the control actions you have to take to get the thing moving – master key, engine starts, etc. They really aren’t a problem for the modern enthusiast. With the steam locomotives it’s different. You see, it’s a little less realistic because you will need to do the work of two people. The Advanced versions (and even the medium versions) expect you to manage the fire and water feed to the boiler (Fireman’s job) as well as controlling the engine via the regulator, reverser and vacuum brake which the driver would normally do. This really ups the level of the challenge – even without having a timetable to drive to! Of course, that’s why we like simulation games… The challenges we would have liked to be doing for a living.

This week, rather than flying my spaceship around the rarely travelled parts of the galaxy, I have been back in time to a period when diesels were brand new and steam was still the main way to move trains in the UK. I had the pleasure of driving A4 Class 60009 ‘Union of South Africa’ – Nine as she is known – along the run from Carlisle to Dumfries. A beauty to behold and drive (intermediate level of control).
60009 between Annan and Dumfries

Then I started putting myself through my paces with one of the Advanced steam locomotives – a Fowler 3F (often called a Jinty) shunting engine. Misuse her and she bites – Get it wrong and you will be scratching your head and asking ‘Why is she doing that?’ But when you get it right – such a sense of achievement and enjoyment to master the tasks with this little lady! If you ask me which I prefer, I’ll admit to loving the glamour of the A4 and others of her ilk but I’ve always had a soft spot for the engines that do the dirty work down among the staithes – So the good old Jinty gets my vote 🙂 The images below were taken during a local run from Kirkcudbright up via Tarff to Bridge of Dee in Dumfries and Galloway…

ps – most of the controls you can see in the cab actually can/should be used to drive the locomotive!