Train/railroad simulators, virtual railroading and V-scale modeling

Also of interest:
Virtual Railroader web site
VR Reading Room
Virtual Railroader 'Zine
VMR Journal 'Zine
VR Blogger
Train Simulation Craftsman

Welcome to V-Scale

By Alfred Barten

You say you never heard of V-scale? You're wondering what it's all about? Why should you bother? In this and future articles I'll be discussing all of the above and more.

To begin, V-scale is just another name for train simulation on a computer, or virtual railroading, as I like to call it. V-scale means no more space limitations and no more dirty track. It means - depending on your simulator - such things as train dispatching and signalling, railroad empire building, complete railway simulation, train driving and simulation, and even model railway simulation. It also means being able to run 2-foot narrow gauge one day, urban rapid transit another, and class 1 steam, diesel, or electric on yet another day. You can even run prototypes from around the world and have your choice of weather condition and time of day and year.

Not too long ago I counted over 70 simulators and listed them in an article entitled "Train Sim Webfinder." The article is in the VR Reading Room located on my Virtual Railroader web site. Which is best? Sorry, I'm not going near that. It's really a matter of what you like to do; and there's nothing that says you can't enjoy more than one simulator. Many are free, and those that cost something are typically $40 or less. Compared to the cost of a model railroad locomotive, that's cheap.

Of course, different simulators have different requirements. Generally speaking, the more graphically exciting the simulator, the more demands it will place on your computer in the form of faster CPU, larger hard drive, more RAM, and separate graphics card. Perhaps the biggest impediment will be finding sims for Macintosh and Linux computers. There are some, but not many. The game consoles are also lagging in this respect. If you're one of the millions who have a home PC, there's almost certainly some sort of train or train-related sim that will work for you; and if your PC is of recent vintage, you're golden.

If you're new to the idea of train simulators, let's have a look at some of what's available and what you can do with them.


The first sim I encountered was Train Dispatcher, back in the 1980s. It ran on MS-DOS and let you control trains in CTC fashion, following lights on the big board and throwing switches. The game has evolved along with the move from DOS to Windows and is now quite colorful and graphic, though still big board in concept.

A separate program, Track Builder, let's you build your own track plans. There are also a number of prototypical plans available for download.

Train Dispatcher 2 is available free from Signal Computer Consultants. Train Dispatcher 3 is available from Softrail.

Empire Building

The next type of sim was Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, which I picked up in 1991 for my all-in-one Macintosh. The game has moved on to other designers and publishers, but it still exists for PC and Mac, and sports beautiful graphics, though still in the isometric (God) view that typifies this tycoon-type, or strategy, game. The game begins with a sparsely populated landscape with towns, resources and factories. Your job is to provide rail transportation in order to make money, expand your holdings, and keep your board of directors happy. Railroad Tycoon has competition from the likes of Transport Deluxe and its sequel, Locomotion, Transport Giant, and others. These games can be played at varying levels of competitiveness (there's the buit-in competitors as well as the potential for online play against real opponents) and can be a lot of fun. In the interests of being able to see what's going on, dimensions in the game are compressed, as is time; but once you're in the game, you'll find the graphics and time to be just right.

Strategy games can usually be gotten from electronic game stores, big box retailers, and online from the game's publisher.

Railway Modeling

Next came the isometric-view railway simulations in which building complete networks and operations of trains, trolleys, and buses was the goal. The first of its kind that I'm aware of was JBSS Bahn, which is still available from its creator's, Jan Bochmann, web site. Bahn has provision for creating add-on routes and vehicles. You can follow the links from the Bahn web site to sources of free simulations of transit systems around the world.

Another simulator along the lines of Bahn is Rail3D, created by Mark Goodspeed. When Mark came out with his newer, fully 3D version, he renamed the original version Rail3D Classic. You can get both free at the Rail3D web site. The programs come with a library of vehicles and demo routes. Building vehicles is relatively easy and building routes is very easy. Mark Hodson has written some excellent manuals for Rail3D.

Cab-View Driving

How often have you wished you could climb inside the cab of a locomotive and drive the train? To do so realistically, one must have a proper cab layout and controls, and realistic sounds and controls. Perhaps the best known cab-view simulator is Boso View Express, a free program first released by a then-14-year-old Japanese student who goes bythe nickname Mackoy. BVE, as it's called, is in its third major iteration and has gained a worldwide following. It allows for third-party add-on train and route creation using simple tools. The process is not hard for someone with a zest for working with numbers. If you don't have that zest, there's no need to worry. You can find all sorts of trains and routes freely available on the Internet. BVE users adhere to a code of non-commercialsim fostered by its founder. You can get BVE only from its creator's web site.


BVE routes are set up with timetables that will challenge your driving ability. You can, of course, ignore the timetable if you just want to drive.

Full 3D Train Simulation

The simulators that gain the most attention at train show demonstrations are the full 3D versions, most notably Microsoft Train Simulator and Auran's Trainz Railroad Simulator. A third, TrainMaster Train Simulator by P.I. Engineering is in the development stage and, we hope, will be released sometime in 2006. These sims let you drive from inside and outside the cab. They let you view the train and its setting from all angles, and permit shunting of cars. Building add-on trains and routes is possible, though in some cases this is not easy. Trainz is particularly well known for its extreme ease in building routes. Both have many thousands of freeware third-party add-ons available on the web.

You can operate these sims in free form play or with structured tasks or challenges designed by the route builder.

Train Simulator and Trainz are both available at the VR Pro Shop.

Model Railroad Simulation

If we can simulate a real railroad, why not a model railroad? One British model manufacturer, Hornby, has created a model railroad simulator based on the products the company sells. Jim Dill, on the other hand, has created a program that lets you operate trains in overhead view on track plans of model railroads. The program, named TrainPlayer and available from Jim's web site, comes with preloaded plans from Kalmbach's 101 Track Plans for Model Railroaders and has provision for creating your own plans and sharing them with other users.

Whatever your interest, there's bound to be a train sim just right for you.


2006 Alfred Barten. All rights reserved.