When Flight Simulator 2021 was released, it was praised as an antidote to the doldrums of quarantine. The appeal of flying anywhere in the world was obvious, and sales quickly shot over two million. But the same praise hasn’t been heaped on train simulators, whose humbler mode of transportation has left them a niche product. Train Simulator 2021’s all-time peak player count is a mere 3,806, and when the title is mentioned on gaming sites it’s usually to gawk at the exorbitant cost of its DLC.
And yet there’s no shortage of train games; TS2021 and Train Sim World 2, both by developer Dovetail Games, are the most high-profile, but there’s also Trainz Railroad Simulator, Derail Valley, the Japanese Densha de Go!, German Zusi 3, and Polish MaSzyna, the open source Open Rails and OpenBVE, and the upcoming SimRail 2021, among others. There’s a clear demand, but why?
“The appeal for me is in being part of something larger than myself,” says Jane Kolešnik, a YouTuber and active member of the TrainSim community. “In [planes and cars], you do not have the same level of structural participation. Whenever I drive a train, I am involved in the comings and goings of a living network. Trains have schedules, and my delay could cause untold issues for an unseen participant. There’s also the fact that railways are the very image of sustainable, efficient mobility. The ability to move large numbers of people in a way which is so efficient that they do not even consider how they arrived at their destination, while being clean and sustainable, is incredible.”
The Need For Carefully Controlled Speed
Sure, trains are great, but what do you actually do in a train sim? MartinsRedditAccount, a moderator of Reddit’s friendly TrainSim community, explains that while “accelerating and braking is pretty much all you do,” it’s more complicated than it sounds.
“The compelling part is timing it right and not setting off the safety systems,” Martin tells me. “Train speed limits aren’t as simple as ‘go at this speed’ like in a car. You need to observe the upcoming speed limit sign and ensure that your several hundred to several thousand ton train reduces its speed accordingly. There is also stopping at stations, if you’re trying to keep a tight schedule this can require some practice.”
Learning various safety and signaling systems adds another level of complexity. German trains, for example, use a unique safety system called PZB. “It requires you to learn how exactly to respond to various signals and follow certain braking curves, or it triggers emergency braking and the train has to come to a full stop before you can continue,” Martin notes.
While games like TSW2 have a HUD to help players handle these factors, serious players can disable it. This forces them to carefully read signs and signals along the route, and memorize the route itself until they know that the church steeple in the distance means a stop is imminent. It’s not exactly a nonstop thrill ride, but you do have to pay attention if you don’t want to accidentally blast into a station at 60 km/h, desperately ratcheting up the brakes to try to stop before you run out of platform.
Martin adds that informative scenery is also part of the appeal, noting “in train simulators, you are much more subject to the actual terrain such as climbing mountains, going through tunnels, and traversing cities using amazing architecture like elevated railways.” When the virtual world you’re traveling through is all around you instead of 35,000 feet below, that world can feel more immersive. Even if it’s all simulated, there’s still something soothing about cruising through the German countryside on a snowy evening.
The Right Route And The Right Sounds
Kolešnik jokingly calls herself as a “techno-fetishist,” but there is undoubtedly a fetishistic quality to the virtual trains. Their interiors are always spotless, the passengers always docile. There’s an idealism to the fact that they’re never littered with empty coffee cups or delayed because some drunk is harassing people. And praise or criticism of DLC often comes down to whether the train feels right, whether its horn and engine and the way it hums over the rails measures up to reality.
“Especially fun are trains which give you a sensation of being there,” Kolešnik says. “It isn’t necessarily about a 1:1 reproduction of every procedure so much as it is about an adequate approximation of the sensation of driving. This includes brake squeals and pops, compressor surges, the sound of switches, and changes in engine noise. The Class 140 Pacer is hideous, just like the genuine article, and drives just as terribly. This is a compliment. It’s enchantingly hateful.”
What makes for a good train and route? That’s a matter of what you want to look at, do, and control. Kolešnik is a fan of British rail, saying “English railroads are incredible and, with the age and changes their system has undergone, incredibly varied for such a small geographic location.” She highlights the Chatham Main and Medway Valley Lines in particular, noting that “the scenery is breathtaking — the Medway is called ‘the Garden of England’ for a reason.”
YouTuber MysticZeenoz’s fascination with trains sprung from their childhood in New York City. “Whenever we’d get on the [subway], I’d love to listen to the traction motors,” they tell me. “Taking the train with my dad to Mets games and watching the trains fly through Queens was amazing.” Zeenoz loves the NYC and London subway systems, but has a special fondness for the Hauptstrecke Munchen – Augsburg route, set near Munich, for its speed and variety of commuter services. “I love operating these services because they are so fast-paced. In order to keep to the timetable, you must accelerate fast and brake at the last moment possible.”
For Zeenoz, a major appeal of sims is “the opportunity to operate and experience certain trains I’ll never be able to see in person,” such as the German BR 423, which offers a satisfying electric sound and challenging timetables that “never fail to keep you engaged.” But the ability to “operate trains that I’d normally see every day,” like the Long Island Rail Road, has also become a feature. Escapism can be fantastical, but it can also be mundane; one American player with French family noted that the accurate portrayal of French stations had sentimental value.
This explains how all of Train Simulator 2021’s DLC can add up to over $10,000 dollars; each add-on is dedicated to the many nuances of a specific route. Fans have quibbled over the quality of individual add-ons, and some “whales” have spent thousands of dollars, but players are generally fans of British rail or American rail, freight or commuter, electric or diesel. You’re picking what looks interesting to you, not collecting trains like Pokémon, a misconception common enough that irate fans feel the need to debunk the issue. That said, truly serious players can still sink money into accessories, or even build a whole room for their virtual career.
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A Whole World Of Transportation
If the appeal of train sims isn’t immediately obvious to outsiders, the joy of truck and bus sims is even more opaque. Bus Simulator, Tourist Bus Simulator, Euro Truck Simulator… there’s a whole world of niche sim experiences, often with an overlapping player base. Some add a financial element, so you’re not just driving a truck but managing a growing transportation empire. But you still have to really like vehicles. Zeenoz, who also plays Bus Simulator and moderates a fan community, notes that they have a more specific appeal.
“They are a more niche genre, I think because they are usually restricted to a fictional map. For me, I just love driving the buses that I see everyday. My cousin is a bus operator, and I remember when I was young, she used to always have me sit at the front of the bus and watch her drive. Now I’m able to drive those same buses myself.”
What goes into driving a bus? More than you’d think. “You’re in operation of a larger vehicle, making it more difficult to steer and brake. Players need to make sure they stay a safe distance from the car ahead, monitor their blind spots, and stay on time,” Zeenoz adds. “It gets even more difficult when you’re driving an articulated bus (the long ones that look like an accordion). Certain simulators will have the passengers block doors, play loud music, or forget stops. All of this leads to a tense, but enjoyable drive.”
Simulating an activity in such incredible detail, right down to getting the sound of the windshield wiper switch right, can make the mundane engrossing. It helps, of course, that a fictional vehicle can be driven from the comfort of your home, that you can pause for bathroom breaks and never have to worry about a passenger being rude to you. But there’s something meditative about keeping a virtual timetable, about contributing to the realism of a little world instead of destroying it.
Zeenoz said that playing transport sims has given them a lot more appreciation for those who operate trains and buses in reality. “I’ve learned how signals can impact trains being on time,” they note, “and how one small disturbance can cause major issues along the whole line.” And for Kolešnik, it’s even shaped her education.
“My love for trains goes so deep that it pressed me to do my masters’ thesis on the ethics of mobility technology and sustainability. And for that, I cannot thank Train Simulator (among others) enough. To be able to participate so directly in such marvels of engineering is immensely satisfying and personally important to me.”