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August 2001 - Page 48


A

COMPTER A PPLICATIONS

Microsoft Train Simulator
by Jeff Scherb

nyone whos been around computers for any length of time is probably familiar with Microsoft Flight Simulator. The first version of Flight Sim was released about 18 years ago, and today it is far and away the standard in consumer flight simulators. A pilot friend tells me it is so realistic that he uses it to practice approaches to new airports. Microsoft worked closely with people and companies in the aviation industry, training and pilot organizations, data suppliers, and flight instructors to make Flight Simulator the most realistic experience possible, and they are taking the same approach with their new Train Simulator. The results are not disappointing, especially for a release 1.0 product. Train Sim offers six different routes, two in the United States BNSFs Marias Pass freight line in Montana and Amtraks Northeast Corridor passenger line between Washington, DC, and Philadelphia and four others in Japan, Europe and England. Train Sim offers a number of realism options and driving options to help the novice engineer. The Simple Controls option works much like the throttle on your layout you can increase or decrease power and change direction. This mode was great for my seven- and five-year-old sons. Train Sim also offers a very realistic simulation of most of the aspects of operating a locomotive, but without further training in these controls and techniques, I wasnt likely to move a train very far. Never having driven a locomotive before, I found I couldnt get a train started with full prototype controls, so the Simple Controls were great for starting out. After I had a few miles under my belt using the Simple Controls, I switched to the tutorials to learn about driving with full controls. These tutorials provide a series of lessons in basic train operations. The tutorials are quite good, and start with the basics of train operation and the Train Sim user interface, and progress through more complicated tasks such as switching freight cars. Plenty of commentary and pop-up text is available in the tutorials that explains each aspect of operation. There are tutorials for diesel, electric and steam engine operation, as well as both freight and passenger operations. The diesel tutorial is done with the GE Dash 9 and takes about ten minutes. The tutorial provided a fairly good explanation of the basic controls of the locomotive, but for more detail the tutorial referred me to the help system. The meanings of the brake gauges and ammeter were not explained in the tutorial, and I needed to go though the help system in order to understand these.

The Operations Notebook. Properly trained, I was ready for my first road assignment. I chose to run freight on the Marias Pass line, using an EMD GP38-2 for power. In addition to simply exploring the route, I was offered 17 other activities, including prototypical challenges like running with a hotbox. I chose the Freight Tutorial, since my earlier diesel tutorial only covered the basic controls of the locomotive, and I needed to learn the basics of freight operations. The Operations Notebook told me I was to uncouple one car from the train and then proceed to a siding to pick up another cut of cars. Before setting out, I checked Train Sims GP38-2 controls against a prototype EMD manual to see how realistic the controls were and to determine if the EMD manual would be helpful while using the simulator. The controls in the Simulator are a slightly simplified view of the real EMD controls, but all the most important controls were in approximately the same positions as on the prototype. I did find the prototype EMD manual helpful, because it explained the operations of the controls in a little more detail than the tutorials did, and it also clearly explained the interlocking between the controls. The Operations Notebook gave me the basic orders for my assignment. The Briefing gave me a short overview of what I was expected to do, so I went on to the Work Order, which gave me the specific details of the cars I needed to set out and pick up. The software doesnt have the capability to print out the work order, which I would have found very helpful. Prototypical train orders and waybills would be a great enhancement to the realism of the simulation, and having these in front of me during the simulation would made it much easier to perform the operations. Switching cars out of a consist is fairly simple using the Train Operations window, a double-click on the appropriate couplers performs the uncoupling. The train can then be moved away from the uncoupled cars. Since my consist didnt have a caboose, the car I was to set out was at the end of the train. I didnt find an option to add a caboose to the train, so it appears the simulations provided with this release of the product are restricted to the era after railroads eliminated the caboose. Either the mouse or the keyboard can be used to control the locomotive. Using the mouse, you can directly manipulate the levers and switches in the cab, although I found it difficult to grab the controls with the mouse and move them to the desired positions. I also found that it was much more helpful to have one of the exterior views of the train on the screen while performing switching operations, so I ended up using the keyboard interface more than the mouse interface. You can choose from a number of cab and external views, including several helicopter views and a trackside view. You can zoom and pan most of these views as well to see the scene from different angles and distances. I found myself using the in-cab view for main-

Train Sims GP38-2 controls.

48 MODEL RAILROADING

AUGUST 2001

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