Iron Horse Whispering in the Old West

One of the reasons Train Simulator remains twice as popular* as its successor, Train Sim World, has to be its packed roundhouse of high-fidelity steam locomotive add-ons. In the past, whenever I got the urge to crew a kettle, I climbed aboard one of Bossman Games‘ or Victory Works‘ British creations. Lately, though, I’ve been doing most of my firebox feeding and boiler tending in all-American antiques made by an outfit called Smokebox.

* According to steamcharts.com

Just as third-party Flight Simulator and X-Plane devs show relatively little interest in the aerodynes of the early 20th Century, most Train Sim add-on artisans seem content to cold-shoulder 19th Century railway history. While recreating plausible Victoriania is undoubtedly difficult (working survivors are few so research can be challenging) the charismatic Old West buffalo-spookers produced by Smokebox illustrate what can be achieved when passion, skill and scholarship are combined.

Jupiter, Idaho and Omaha, Union Pacific no.119*… it doesn’t matter much which of the studio’s ‘American Standards’ you purchase – all are beautifully crafted and great fun to operate.

* Smokebox also sell an 1860s ‘ten-wheeler’, the 4-6-0 ‘Buffalo’

Fifteen pounds buys you an example of a truly iconic class (you’ll need to spend a bit more to obtain an appropriate environment for your purchase). Produced in staggering numbers*, the ‘American Type 4-4-0s’ were, by a long chalk, the most common form of motive power in the USA between 1855 and the turn of the Century. These are the machines that cameo in countless Westerns, that witnessed the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in 1869, and participated in the American Civil War locomotive chase that inspired Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’.

* Think the Class 47s were ubiquitous? There were fifty times more Americans.

Stepping on to the footplate of an American for the first time, chances are you’ll be struck by the familiarity rather than the strangeness of the surroundings. Most of the controls and instruments present in the cabs of these cowcatcher-equipped continent shrinkers would be instantly recognisable to the driver of a post-WW2 steam loco. The big regulator lever that governs how much steam is delivered to the twin cylinders isn’t hard to find, nor is the similarly hefty reverser lever, a control not disimilar in effect to a car’s gear selector. High on the backhead is the prominent steam gauge, and low down by your feet the small door behind which the all-important inferno blazes. You’ve got handles to activate a sander to help the wheels grip, a blower to rouse the fire when the loco is stationary or coasting, and front and rear dampers to encourage/discourage combustion when you’re in motion. Naturally there are also valves for replenishing the boiler with water from the tender, and a handle that allows the cylinders to be drained of potentially disastrous condensation as the loco moves off.

Where these ancient iron horses differ significantly from their ‘modern’ relations is in their decidedly basic boiler management aids and primitive braking arrangements. Conspicuous by their absence are sight glasses, the thermometer-style gizmos that, in the likes of Flying Scotsman and Mallard, inform crews how much H2O is left in the boiler. The stewards of colourful characters like Jupiter, Leviathan, and Storm, have to rely on three ‘try cocks’ – valves set at different heights in the boiler. Depending on the water level, when turned these valves either emit steam, steam and water, or water.

Searching for anything resembling a brake lever is a pointless pastime. Ignore the largely irrelevant wheel-operated handbrake on the tender, and the only retardation devices at your disposal are the reverser and the whistle. Assuming you’re not running ‘light’, one short toot on the latter sends an invisible brakeman scampering through the train, applying brakes. Give two long wails, and he’ll busy himself releasing them.

Thanks to bespoke wheelslip algorithms (even the amount of water in the boiler effects the chances of your driving wheels spinning in place) and sophisticated steam propagation simulation, starting a Smokebox loco can be just as challenging as stopping one. As per the prototype, adjusting the regulator doesn’t instantly alter loco speed*. Because the journey of steam from steam dome to steam chest to cylinder is fully modelled and impacted by things like reverser position and current piston speed, we get authentic throttle lag that must be anticipated and accommodated.

* There is an ‘easy’ control option that eliminates the delay.

Listening for the sound of trickling water from the try cocks, the percussive stammer that accompanies wheelslip, the changes in track noise that indicate gathering speed (Did I mention there’s no speedo?)… the Americans are machines you drive as much by ear as eye.

Knackering one isn’t easy, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never managed it. Overfill your boiler or allow it to boil dry. Forget to open the cylinder cocks before setting off. Overspeed the valve gear when descending or wheelslipping. Ask too much of the reverser when using it as a brake. All of these blunders can generate fun-fracturing pop-ups.

While most of the type’s quirks are explained in the excellent manuals, book learning will only take you so far. To get the best out of the Americans, you must be willing to experiment with cut-off (reverser) and throttle (regulator) positions under different conditions. There are a few clues to optimal settings in the briefings for the scenarios that come with each DLC, but until you’ve wrestled heavily laden Americans up a few inclines, and battled to slow them during a few steep descents, complete confidence will be elusive.

Although I’ve yet to encounter anything I’d describe as a bug, locos such as Jupiter can be reluctant to sup water from their tenders at times (an almost neutral reverser position seems to help). Their bespoke systems also don’t always cooperate with the ‘F4’ HUD perfectly, so I tend to avoid using that when I’m plying the plains or traversing the Great Salt Lake.

Arguably the most disappointing feature of these fabulous locos is the lack of sympathetic sceneries. Right now, there are only two routes specially built for them. Both the 26-mile Cheyenne-anchored line (included in the Union Pacific No.119 add-on) and the 68-mile Promontory Summit route (£18 when bought separately, £26-£30 when purchased bundled with a loco) are dominated by seriously desolate rural stretches.

Although apt and fairly atmospheric, these tracts of framerate-friendly wilderness would benefit from a few touches of Western whimsy – wagon trains, cattle drives, buffalo herds… that sort of thing. Sometimes when I’m staring out at endless sage brush or salt flats, I find myself picturing an American Civil War scenery and scenario pack, or a trainrobber-infested ‘Tombstone’ map. Comforting mundanity might be one of rail simulation’s secret weapons, but I’m convinced, given the chance, the genre could excel at drama too.

11 Comments

  1. It’s funny, I’ve always enjoyed reading Tim’s train pieces, but never really felt an inclination to pull the levers. But with this, I… I feel my other pastimes are suddenly in jeopardy.

    • Train sims can be a fairly big rabbit hole to fall in to. So be careful…
      My advice is if you want to get into train sims and specifically the Train Simulator series is to pick what appeals to you in terms of routes and trains and stick to those at first. Mostly to see if you’ll enjoy it and put up with it. Train Simulator is not the most well put together piece of software let me put it that way even if I myself put many hours and money into it. Also always wait for a sale. Most of the addons go on sale fairly often and most aren’t worth spending the full normal price on.

  2. The `journey of steam` link was pretty informative. Then, even after having watched the union pacific intro video on steam, I could not tell you if I did it with fascination or horror. OTOH I find it incredible to what lenghts the simulator goes to depict such a complex piece of machinery (including a sand sprayer device to increase traction) and on the other hand I was left puzzled on why on earth anyone would do this.

    • Compared to many MSFS add-on aircraft, ‘TS Pro’ steam locos are simple creatures. Once you’ve grasped basic principles like…

      – Keep the boiler topped up and the fire hearty
      – Reduce cut-off once you’ve got going
      – Open cylinder cocks after being stationary for a while
      – Use the blower in tunnels, and the sander when the wheels are struggling for purchase

      …you’re well on the way to competence.

  3. I really like the look of the historic routes here, as with many other types of vehile sim, historic vehicles need well modelled historic environments to drive them in. Despite my past aversion to steam powered trains I have now wishlisted this one.

    I still find the Dovetail dual product setup a bit strange. I had kind of assumed that content for TS would die down as developers got their WIP completed and then moved on to TSW/TSW2, but that seems to be a very slow process if it is happening at all. It seems indeed, that new route projects are still being generated under the TS platform and the core sim still gets its yearly update.

    I’m not overly sad about this, as there seems to be more varied and interesting content available for TS, while TSW2 concerns itself with shorter, but prettier routes. It just seems very odd for Dovetail as a business model.

    • I just bought it, tried it and it is awesome. Both the route and the loco. I bought UP119 bundle, because you also get the mini route with it. The routes are fine, they have that wild west vibe to them, but I agree that they feel a bit without life, which given the setting is somewhat ok, and to be fair I`m not sure if it`s possible to model apropriate traffic in ts without it looking weird.
      But man, the loco is hard to drive, especially in expert mode and without hud:) Stopping it is harder than stopping an angry horde of bufalloes. It sure takes a lot of practice, but it’s super satisfying to get it under control. Now to save money for the other locos 🙂

      Disclaimer: Beginning a rant about DTG.

      As to why there not that many routes for tsw/tsw 2. It is really easy, they simply scrapped editor, so you cannot make your own routes. As for DTG business model, it is simple, just make bunch of expensive content and shovel it down the throat of fanboys, sometimes fix a bug, promise features and fixes for bugs then quietly take them of the list. It is really borderline scam. But yeah DTG. Hopefully new train sims like Sim Rail and couple others will finally kick them in the butt to wake them up, so they realize they no longer have monopol on railsims and they will start to do something.
      End of rant.

      Also thanks Tim for an excellent article as always.

      • Ah, so all of the TSW2 routes are in house? I wasn’t aware of this, but I guess Ihadn’t paid much attention.

        I had seen some indication that Union Workshop were working on an add-on for TSW2, but nothing official. It certainly limits the scope.

        • Yeah. It only has a limited scenario editor and timetable editor. Maybe they are outsourcing some of the work to external devs, but ultimately all route building is done in house. In theory it should be good, because they have more control about quality. The problem is, that unlike Run8, which has also only in the house route editor, it has very broad scope. Run8 only has US stuff, so it is managable for the dev to make routes and rolling stock. TSW 2 has UK,US, DE which is a bit too much for one dev. Also them releasing buggy routes before they are ready, just to make money quick doesn’t help either.
          So yeah, TS will stay for a long time. But considering that msts, or better to say its modern implemantation in the form of open rails, which is free btw, is going still strong after like 20 or so years it is kinda normal thing in simulation 🙂

          ALso worth checking is Sim Rail 2021 from polish devs. They have a free demo on steam and it looks like it will deliver where TSW 2 failed. It will have multiplayer, dispatcher mode, I think also a route editor.

          Then there is Train Life, looks like interesting blend between ETS2/ATS and train simulator. Aimed more at casual more arcady simulation with management aspect of ETS/ATS. Still has a lot of road ahead as it is in EA.

          For steam era locomotives there is Railroads Online!. Also EA, also needs a lot of work. But the theme and locos are unique as it portrays us narrow gauge operations. It is aimed mainly at multiplayer. Worth checking out and keeping and eye out. Unless you really like the idea and want to support the dev, then I would’nt recommend buying it yet as it is not very polished yet. But I believe that after couple of months it will be worth its asking price. And it is fun if you have friends to play with. Although pain in the ass sometimes, mainly the track building needs a lot of work, because it is quirky. But they are working on it, and for a small team doing a good job.

          And Trans-SIberian Railway Simulator looks promising too. Blend of train sim with survival aspects. But given the track record of the publisher I’m bit sceptic about it.

          And for something relaxing there is Train Travel Simulator, EA and lot of work ahead, but the devs are working on it dilligently. And it is the best train passenger simulator out there, well probably the only one :))

          • Don’t forget Derail Valley and Diesel Railcar sim too! I’ve not kept up with Trainz either since more recent versions seemed a bit, lacking…

            I suppose it isn’t really that TS is hanging on that is a surprise to me, as you say it is common in simulation that the better ones stick around (Wings over Flanders, Grand Prix Legends, etc). What is more of a surprise is that Dovetail are still supporting their old sim.

            So in some ways, sure we can bash them for some of their antics with the TSW games, but I think it is fairly honourable that they haven’t just dropped TS hard.

            I can see a lot of promise in SimRail, but it is very early days.

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