In defense of the much-ridiculed train simulator, Railworks

[Video Link] Kirk Demarais (author of the great Mail Order Mysteries book) wrote a positive review of the PC train simulator Railworks, which is frequently derided for its lack of monsters, magic, aliens, or eastern european gangsters.

My respect for the Railworks community began to grow as it occurred to me that their passion does not require thrills, instead they are contented by life's subtleties. Their fantasies don't rely upon adrenaline or destruction, they just wish to peacefully command a Class 47 Triple Grey all the way from Oxford to Paddington. They bask in the sights of the uninterrupted countryside. Their serenity is found in the rhythmic valley echos of rumbling tracks. Hobbies are supposed to be relaxing, right? Most of my video gaming ends up driving me to internet walkthoughs in fits of frustration.

It wasn't just the Railworks state of mind that I envied, I also fantasized about having enough spare hours to leisurely delve into each sauntering level, gazing at my monitor blissfully, pausing only to adjust the camera angle every few minutes, or turn on the windshield wipers.

By the time Railworks 2 went on sale for eight bucks I was primed to join the ranks of the noble virtual conductors. I proudly bought a copy.

The cross-country journeys were as soothing as anticipated and I even felt like I was getting a pixelated glimpse into the United Kingdom where most of the missions take place.

Near the end of his review Kirk admits, "Such simple pleasures go a long way, but the truth is I can't say that I've been able to become one of them. I've played for twenty plus hours, but I rarely complete a level without acting on the urge to derail."

In defense of Train Simulator


  1. Not, I think, for me – but I can understand the attraction. It’s some of the same pleasure I can get from sitting back and watching a busy and well-tuned OpenTTD train network. :)

    (I’m not sure if it’s coincidental that both involve trains.)

    1.  If you like transport simulators, have you tried Simutrans? It has more features than OpenTTD, as well as a lot of fan mods that are region specific (UK, Japan, Germany, etc), and allow you to play as far back as the early 19th century.

    1. Though Desert Bus was deliberately built to be the most tedious game possible, not because there’s a bunch of bus enthusiasts that would want to play it.

  2. I remember when I last visited Japan, I found out that train simulator games were some of the most popular games to be had… not surprising given the cultural importance (and superb service) of their trains. I don’t know if it was the same game as reviewed above, but here is a pic of it, as well as me at the Tokyo “Railway Museum”, and about to ride this glorious train with a panorama window right at the nose of the train…

    1. The Japanese ones are not the one reviewed, and I would argue that they’re different from the reviewed sim in an important way. The most popular train sims in Japan are metro train and subway lines. It isn’t about making a leisurely ride from one country station to another, but getting a train full of people between stations on time, safely, and with minimum of jostling, every 3 minutes.

      They are _hard_! When I lived in Tokyo I would regularly play a portable version of the Yamanote line (Tokyo’s central loop) while riding the same train.  The fidelity of the simulation was impressive, enough that you could drive the simulation 1:1 with the real train, arriving and departing stations at the same time, overpasses passing overhead at the same time as they pass on screen, signals passing at the same time in game as they did out the window. When you bring it into the station you’re docked for each inch you’re off being aligned from the platform, and you only get one chance. Stop to suddenly and it’s game over. You’re late by 15 seconds? Sorry.

      They take the humdrum commute that anyone in Japan is familiar with, and show  the nail biting finesse that it takes to get that 12-car commuter train to stop on time, on a dime, without knocking all the passengers on their butt. These and flight sims are the only computer games I can think of where it really does take finesse to play. I like my video games pretty agressive, and toy train sets when I was a kid were regularly turned into smoking rail disasters, but I never play Japanese rail sims with the intent to destroy, the existing challenge was intense enough.

  3. Aren’t train simulators pretty much low-level flight simulators?  Where the challenge in one is to land a 747 on a runway with tricky crosswinds and the other is to pull into a station without getting off schedule, all any kind of simulator is really doing is pretty much what someone considers just another day on the job. 

    Sim City devolves into planning and budgets pretty quickly if you don’t send up an earthquake every once and a while.

  4. Simulators are supposed to be realistic, that’s the whole point. They’re not for everyone, and never have been. I actually use an RC aircraft simulator for practice, so that I don’t crash real planes that cost hundreds of dollars when I  fly them.

    But no, they don’t have guns, and there are no enemies, and much of what you’re trying to do is perfect landing and maneuvering techniques.

    1. Well, if first person shooter were realistic, player would lose weight, be dead much faster,  and stay dead.

  5. Back when I had more free time to burn, I was involved with the flight simming community through VATSIM – it has much the same feel of the train sim – you basically pretend to be an airline pilot and an uneventful fight is a “good” flight. Granted there was a bit more human interaction (people would act as air traffic controllers as well), but for the most part it was a solitary, quiet hobby.
    Some folks would even do long-haul flights of 6+ hours… blew my mind that anyone would have that kind of time when 90% of the flight would be on autopilot.

    1. I’m a flight simmer- I fly a Super Constellation around the “world”! My wife HATES  it!!! :)

      I know a fellow flight simmer that runs his own virtual airline. This is actually common as there are software packages that help make this happen. However, this guy flies a Grumman Goose around the Caribbean Islands- using spreadsheets to manage fuel costs, charge passengers and freight, maintenance costs, etc.

      But anyway- Train Simulator was never intended for the gamer demographic- no points, no level ups, no finish line. The funny thing is listening to the basement dwelling gamer community making fun of anyone.

  6. Does it have moose on the tracks when you’re in Northern Ontario – where you have to learn to gun the engine at just the right time to throw the carcass off to one side?

    That’d be worth something.

    1. I used to go to college every morning on the London-Manchester train. One morning I was in the back carriage and a number of rail workers were riding the same train. The conversation inevitably came to ‘rail suicides I have cleaned up’. Apparently one time one of the workers was walking back to sort out the mess, and the first thing he saw was a heart on the track. If they can recreate that kind of realism, as well as the subsequent heavy fining of families on the Japanese version, I think they’ll attract a whole new set of gamers.

  7. Its much more than going from town to town.  I have enjoyed RailWorks since it came out.
    Along with different locomotives (steam & diesel)  You can switch freight cars into industrial sidings, control 100+freight trains, and make your own routes.
    If intrested

  8. Pretty cool, actually.  My one quibble is where does the water go when the windshield wiper makes a pass?  It seems to just vanish.  The rest of the rain physics looks pretty good, small drops combining to form larger ones and eventually running down the glass.

    And speaking of physics, can you derail the train by taking curves too fast, crash with other trains or anything like that?  (Not that I’d want to, mind you…)

  9. Has the entire games press only just discovered all these games simultaneously, or something? Articles on Gamespot, Eurogamer, Kotaku etc all in a very short time.

    Although, it could do without the eye-roll-inducing “which is frequently derided for its lack of monsters, magic, aliens, or eastern european gangsters.” comments, mind.

  10. ok- if you have kiddies- THIS GAME IS AMAZING they can sit in the cockpit and totally fiddle all the realistically rendered buttons and levers and switches (they spend some serious geek hours getting it all accurate up front there.. i think I could jump in one and have a go now), 50% are mapped to real world functions, so you CAN operate a steam train proper.  The real downsides:  levels take like 5 minutes to load.  Derailed, because a 4 yr old is operating the train?  5 minutes.  The only bought like a passenger model sampler pack, so there’s only the same 12 passengers again and again and again… and the just fade into and out of existance NEAR the train doors.  The maps are based on real places.. but real real rough approximations.  It would work alot better if it were linked into google earth or sth similar, and if the community could collaborate on building up a world for it.

    1. Because it’s all built around legitimate, licensed (read: $$$) rail lines and liveries. If you want to drive an AEM-7 engine in Amtrak livery down the Northeastern Corridor between Boston and DC, you CAN.

  11. When it went on sale, I picked up Railworks 3 and the most awesomely-named DLC in the universe: Trains vs Zombies. Yes, I’m not kidding.

    (Unless you’re a rail fan, however, you’re apt to be disappointed.)

  12. I could go to sleep listening to that, in a good way.

    (Also, the engineer in the video is insane.  He clearly progressed through a Class 2 Bulmer-Fessinger type underpass without deploying freblesters, while the second car’s thirpworthe was engaged, and without reducing engine load to the required 15 rods to the hogshead.)

  13. I do work on the UK railway. It is interesting that the cabins have the warning systems, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t be interesting to have these go off if they don’t operate a control every 90 seconds, that need to be cancelled within 2 or the train comes to a halt. Now that, would be a simulator.

  14. This straddles the toy/game question for me.  Is there actually a challenge or are you just playing with it? 

    There’s a lot of background to train-sets-being-turned-into-quasi-games; long ago I read a hand-typed account of a card game system to be played with your model train system.  You draw up cards with loads, locations, and destinations and then run the train to the different spots.  The instructions were very specific about how the cards were handled, you were to pick a card at random and then place it in this box, then upon delivery you put it in that other box over there.  You slowly worked through the stack of cards until you were done.

    No points, no nothing.  It has me thinking about “games that you operate”, something I saw written about some of the solo wargames from the 70s-80s.  You don’t make decisions, you just roll dice and consult charts, this feels similar. 

  15. I wish more games captured this sort of feeling. 

    Kelly Slater Pro Surfer had a mode where you could turn off all the HUD items, clock and music and just float and surf without distractions. Most of my time playing Shadow of the Colossus I was just running around riding a horse, same for GTA San Andreas, but taking a motorcycle out on desert roads.

  16. I genuinely wish that my grandfather had lived to see Train Simulator. Probably the only video game we could’ve enjoyed together…

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