TRANSPORT SIMULATION UK

Trainz Railway Simulator - Review

INTRODUCTION

There's been so many changes in Trainz that I decided the two previous reviews on the site (TRS2006 and TC3) are somewhat outdated and not really representative of the current situation (2010).

In the beginning, there was a man who ran a software company who had a vision. The man was Greg Lane and he was CEO of Australian software house Auran. The vision was Trainz, born in the heady days of the early 2000's and conceived as a very different take on the genre. The idea was to provide a platform which could be continually expanded, ease of use for route builders and operators alike and (although subsequently dropped) the possibility of selling limited edition "collectible" items which could be traded as virtual models. A central Download Station (DLS) was provided as a central repository where assets and routes created for the programme could be hosted.

The ongoing history of Trainz has been complex and not without a little controversy.

The first iterations -- Trainz 1.0, Trainz CE and Trainz UTC were, in truth, little more than slightly extended model railways. The first major evolution in concept came with TRS2004 (actually released in 2003) and the later upgraded TRS2004 Passenger Edition. This version made the creation of prototype length and style routes much more practical, there was improvement to the physics and support - albeit simplified - for steam locomotive operation.

Two years later in 2005, TRS2006 followed and this contained some significant changes. The first was the inclusion of several longer routes and expanded content - though it turned out some of these were actually demos for commercial products which had to be purchased separately. A new database manager Content Manager Plus (CMP) was introduced which was intended to streamline the downloading of content and dependent assets from the DLS. TRS2006 was not without problems and required several patches to address issues with the software but it is probably the widest sold and most successful version of the programme and appeared in various guises over the next couple of years.

By now, many of the original team had left Auran and moved on - including Greg Lane, leaving the future of Trainz in other hands. In 2007 Auran announced that TRS2006 would be the last full release of the software and they would now be concentating on themed packs, known as Trainz Classics (TC). These would contain only the items required to run the particular route but would be culmative, i.e. TC2 could be added over TC1 and TC3 over both its predecessors. However there was to be no backward link to all the legacy content from TRS2006. This caused some controversy in the community not least due to the confusion that might arise from so many different TC configurations, when planning to build a route (particularly after the community discovered a backdoor means to copy in all the content from TRS2006). TC1/2 were released as a joint pack and featured a fictional tramway and US suburban route. TC3 featured the UK Settle & Carlisle line with a massive collection of UK stock and is regarded by many as one of the finest moments in Trainz history.

In 2008, Auran did a U-turn on their TC policy and announced they were returning to a mainstream release which would be known as TS2009 World Builders Edition, followed in a few months by an "Engineer's Edition". The content in TS2009 was expanded with more routes and rolling stock. The product also incorporated the TC1/2 routes and content but somewhat controversially, left out the TC3 content which went on to be sold as a separate add on pack (I think readers will have realised by now, that buying things over again is a particular feature of Auran). TS2009 contained a fair few bugs and while a number of enhancements - such as 5m terrain grid - were supposed to boost the software potential, this was at the cost of a hit on performance as the aging core and Jet graphics engine struggled to keep up with what was now being asked of it.

Cue late 2009/early 2010 and Auran are now part of the larger NeverFail (sic) gaming group. The "Engineer's Edition" upgrade to TS2009 morphed into TS2010, another full scale/full price re-release of the whole core programme (though still not including the TC3 content).


TS2010

In fairness to Neverfail/Auran it has to be said that this version of the programme is probably one of the best train sim products released, in terms of content. There are several new routes including the showpiece UK ECML, Kings Cross to York and numerous branches and several German/Eastern Europe routes - my favourite being the Niddertalbahn. There's enough content in terms of objects, terrain textures and rolling stock that you could build whole routes without touching the DLS for any additional resources. The downside is that TS2010 is even more of a resource hog than TS2009. The developer actually recommends users run on a 64 bit system to ensure maximum performance. My own personal experience is that, even after installing up to date drivers and optimising the software, any route building in Surveyor soon slows to a single FPS crawl, particularly once starting to paint terrain textures or place scenery - the Speedtree foliage also introduced with TS2010 really drags things down. I would add this issue seems particular to Surveyor, the problems aren't encountered in Driver mode however it makes it difficult at best to create any content in TS2010, or even just go into Surveyor to set up an operating session.

With the release of TS2010, Neverfail have adopted a fairly aggressive stance towards users of previous versions of the software who are regarded as "former" customers (even though many like myself have bought every release and some of the add ons). From September 2010 support for older versions will be scaled down including no more uploads of content created in or for TRS2006/earlier to the DLS. Users of TRS2006 will only be able to download content if they have a DLS or a later version and then possibly via more restricted access (FTP instead of CMP thus no automatic acquisition of dependent assets). The company have stated this is to ensure uploaded content meets the more stringent requirements of TS2010, better QA and avoid the need to configure DLS access for different versions of CMP. As this is a review rather than an OpEd, I'll refrain from comment other than to say this is an insanely daft move likely to alienate many customers - who may well own the latest version - but for whatever reason find it necessary or preferable to stick with an earlier version. It remains to be seen what effect this policy may have in the longer term, given that TS2010 will itself - in time - become a former product.

So focusing on TS2010 let's take a quick look at what Trainz offer the discerning train simmer?


SURVEYOR

The strong point of Trainz has always been the route building sandbox. This was designed to be user friendly and to encourage people to build their favourite layouts or routes without having to jump through a variety of technical hoops first. Although there have been changes to the interface over the years, the basic principles of track laying and object placement are no different in TS2010 than Trainz 1.0. There's still a learning curve and anyone contemplating route building should start small and simple to develop their techniques. However it is probably far easier to get going in Surveyor than route building in MSTS, Railworks and most certainly Zusi!

Trainz uses a spline based system to lay track and other linear objects such as roads, rivers and even lines of vegetation. This is generally quicker than laying fixed pieces but getting good results can be something of a dark art. While some swear by the method it can be hard to avoid doglegs or kinks in the track. (Hint: The Straighten Tool is your friend). By default, Trainz still doesn't draw any frogs or checkrails on pointwork. Terrain texture painting is superb not just the variety of textures which can be blended and swirled together but an extremely useful copy and paste function which speeds up the texturing of large areas. The same tool can also copy and paste objects so ideal for creating large areas of (say) forest. The paste function drops the objects flush with the terrain and can be rotated to vary the placement. For more advanced users there are interactive industries and passenger stations which can be added to bring life to the route.

Despite almost ten years of development, tunnels remain a bit of a weak point. The original splined type tunnels can only be placed with the portals at angles of 0, 45, 90, 135, 180, 225, 270 and 315 degrees which may not fit in with the trackplan. They also look rather clunky and horrible. A new system known as the "dighole" offers a system more akin to the other sims but it requires a great deal of trial and error to get all the elements of the tunnel kit connected up and stabilised on the terrain.

TS2010 still has no direct means of importing real world "DEM" terrain data and for prototype based routes users are recommended to use third party programmes such as Transdem to set up the terrain.

I've successfully created a number of routes in earlier versions of Trainz but as mentioned in the overview, TS2010 in Surveyor is presenting severe performance issues on my current hardware (laptop and desktop) which I'm not convinced is at fault. The immediate solution is to build in an earlier version then import to TS2010 but with changes Auran/Neverfail have made even a route built with default items in TRS2006 may not transfer cleanly across to TS2010. This does present something of a dilemna particularly in light of Neverfail's stance to force users on to the latest version. I'm still actively pursuing a solution to the route building situation in TS2010 as, like it or not, this is the version current users are being herded into using.


OPERATIONS ETC.

Once you've built your route/layout or indeed to sample the considerable number of included routes you do so via the Driver function. Trainz visuals utilise the Auran Jet graphics engine. They do tend to have a softer perhaps less life-like appearance than other simulations, perhaps attributable to the original model based intentions. The game supports a diurnal cycle (night/day) and you can adjust the gamma as to how dark you want your nights. Changeable weather is offered so you can start a run in bright sunlight and end it in a raging thunderstorm. The ability to run a route in more than one season was not supported in earlier versions however TS2010 has introduced the concept of "layers" where the route builder can create sub versions of the same route and thus offer an autumn or winter version. It remains to be seen how many builders take this up as the process effectively means building substantial parts of the route over again - unlike MSTS or Railworks where seasonal variations are done by having different versions of the textures and objects used in the route.
Trainz relies on 3D "virtual" cabs some very good, others less so. As someone who primarily drives out of the front window you can't beat a crisp, sharp, detailed and functional 2D cab. You can scroll around or change your point of view. External and flyby views are available and essential when undertaking complex shunting or switching tasks. I have to admit, with an increased number of passenger cars featuring an interior view these days I like to retire on the "cushions" and watch the world from the carriage window while the AI drives.
Sound comes and goes with each Trainz version. TRS2006 had a few issues but TS2010 is much better. The track sound has been beefed up with much better effects for jointed rail and a satisfying crunch as you go through crossovers, or squeal on tight curves. However this is an all or nothing effect so sounds a bit incongruous blasting up the ECML at 100 MPH on what would be continuously welded rail. Largely thanks to third party contributions, there's a much better selection of motive power with custom sounds though a few of the older items rely on the default EMD or Alco sound packs.

So far as physics are concerned, the choice of simplified DCC model railway mode for beginners or more realistic cab control remains. It should be noted that AI trains always use DCC. The performance of train dynamics has never been a particularly strong point of the Trainz series and has always reflected the model orientated origins of the series. Things are a little better now in particular the third party configured models but still a bit simplistic. As an example, all stock is air braked and uses the lapped type of application, no vacuum brakes, stepped braking or EP braking as found on modern multiple unit stock. Largely as a result of third party input, steam physics is much better though the best example of this is on the TC3 steam locos not included in TS2010 but available via purchase of the S&C2009 pack.

Despite almost 10 years of evolution, TS2010 still comes a little unstuck on the operational side. Very early versions of Trainz had you touring your route or layout with your chosen consist, changing points or switches as you went if you wished to deviate from the pre-defined route in Surveyor. Other trains could be set running on the layout but with no central AI or despatch system co-ordinating it all. Later versions introduced the concept of sessions and driver commands, whereby you could order trains to a particular destination or to carry out a specific task. Collisions or derailments are not uncommon. Trainz is still more akin to setting up a model railway. Most other train simulations representing the driver's point of view place the responsibility for controlling other traffic and any routing/regulation in the hands of the AI signalman. In Trainz sessions you are not only the driver but the signalman, traffic controller and even traincrew supervisor. The upshot of this is (to me) simple branch line or single track routes are more suited than complex multiple track systems where numerous trains may be moving in different directions and trying to sort these out while manually throwing points in front of your own train is not how the prototype does it! The ECML in TS2010 is a prime example of this - arrive at a red signal in front of a complex junction and there is no real clue as to which points you need to move in order to get on the required route. Another reason for retiring with a beer to the comfort of the passenger cars and let Mr. AI drive!


CONCLUSIONS

Over the years I've enjoyed a love--hate relationship with Trainz and that continues to be my stance on TS2010. On the one hand it is train simming at an accessible level for all, on the other it frustrates with the lack of a basic AI despatcher or the ability to easily set up timetabled runs and sessions. However TS2010 has got to be a shining example of how to put together an outstanding content pack - both in terms of route building material and traction/rolling stock - which leaves the default iterations of the other sims looking a bit inadequate. Of course the $64,000 question as always when Trainz gets updated, is where do Auran/Neverfail go next? It's hard to see how they could do yet another major reissue of the core sim (TS2012 - Armageddon Edition?) without finally sitting down and addressing some of the more fundamental issues. There's also no denying that, no matter how many Speedtrees or denser terrain you pack in it, the Jet graphics engine still looks as if it comes from the early 2000's. On the flipside of course, where's the money for this coming from given the ongoing state of the world economy and that PC gaming in general and train sim software in particular seem to not be regarded as big money spinners. Nevertheless there will come a break point at which even the most ardent Trainz supporters will say "enough" and demand something more than the Emporer's new clothes next time round.

The bottom line is I can certainly recommend TS2010 to those who don't already own a previous version of Trainz and for those that do, well it seems to be the way of the future or at least the next 12 months!

I've gone out of favour of giving % marks or ratings to titles reviewed on this site as it can be a bit subjective, but if pressed I would probably rate TS2010 overall as 4/5.

 

FOOTNOTES:

My Routes

Over the years I've created a number of routes for Trainz:
Glasgow to Falkirk - This is part of the default TS2010 but sadly looking rather dated now (originally built for TRS2004).
Ayr to Stranraer - A condensed version of the well known Scottish route. Available off the Auran Download Station.
Fort William to Mallaig - Part of the famous West Highland line. Available off the Auran DLS.
Fort William to Crianlarich - Another section of the West Highland line. Available externally from Train-sim.com due to the file size.
NB: Power users may wish to attempt combing the two West Highland routes into one.
Sulitjelma Railway - Freelanced version of a long closed Norwegian scenic branch line. Available off the Auran DLS.

Also note, all of the above were created in earlier versions of Trainz and while they should work in TS2010 I cannot guarantee they will not be free of glitches, visual artefacts etc.


Transdem

Where would Trainz route builders be without this superb utility? Transdem started life as a utility for the specialist German Zusi train sim but the author adapted it and it has become the primary means of getting real world data for prototype based routes into Trainz Surveyor. In very simple terms, Transdem allows you to set up the digital terrain data (DEM), filling any holes that may exist. You then either import image files of the appropriate maps georeferencing these over the terrain or, where suitable facilities exist, directly download the mapping from Web Map or Tile servers. After tracing out the course of the route, Transdem will export the terrain overlaid with the mapping data into a file/folder structure which can be imported into Trainz via the CMP. With readily available data it can literally take less than an hour from thinking about starting a route to having the overlaid terrain in front of you in Surveyor, ready to be worked on. More information at the Transdem Website.

 

Auran Trainz Website

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(This page created 18/09/07 and last updated 07/05/10 review overhauled).