Crazy Train out of Barstow

My goal for the dread Steam Summer Sale (so much temptation) was pretty simple this year.  Despite all of the crazy deals, I was only going to purchase games I was sure I was going to play.

And I did pretty well.

I picked up Portal 2 for 75% off. (And Steam just sent me a coupon for 75% off of Portal 2… not so useful at this point.)

I definitely got my money’s worth out of that.

I also picked up Harvest: Massive Encounter, a game that sits in one corner of the tower defense genre.  I don’t feel like I lost on that, but I went back to playing Defense Grid for my tower defense needs pretty quickly.

And then, at the last minute, I swooped in and grabbed Railworks 3: Train Simulator 2012, which was 90% off list price.

This was clearly counter to the plan, and a perfect example of the rule about not buying anything on the internet after 8pm.  Your brain seems to go into a “just get it” mode after that point.  My brain succumbed to the 90% off and the idea of playing a game with over $2,000 worth of DLC on Steam, something that got the game injected into a column over at Cracked.

So, I had to do the reverse to keep to my plan, and play the game to enough to get my money out of it… and at least one blog post.  Tales of terror on the rails after the cut.

Are you ready to roll?

I let Steam download and install the game for me and then launched it, at which point Steam spent another 10 minutes installing Microsoft runtime libraries required by the game.  And then it took the game another five minutes to actually get to the game, as a launcher comes up that launches the game that takes it time loading.

All in all, it was about 15 minutes from when I wanted to play to the point where I could actually select a tutorial to try.  This wouldn’t be so bad, except that Steam feels it needs to install the Microsoft stuff every time I launch the game, so that 15 minute wait is an every time affair.

My computer may be getting to the two year mark, but it is still a decent setup I think, and should not be the bottleneck in this launch scenario.  The game is just sluggish in launching and loading.

I ran through a couple of the tutorials  that showed me how to use the key controls.  On some trains it is just an accelerator lever and a brake lever.  On more complicated diesel-electric locomotives, there is an accelerator level, a brake lever, and a lever to set the output of the diesel generator.  So it is generator, throttle, brake.

I am not sure how the color scheme got picked.

There there is a small pad of controls for other minor operations.

You can turn on the windshield wipers, turn on the headlights, allow passengers to embark or disembark, bash goombas with a shovel, sound the horn, and ring some sort of bell I think.  The goombas and the bell are guesses, as I never really use those buttons.

And then there is the most important control panel in the game, the camera controls.

These are the most important because for long stretches of time, there is fuck all to do but look out the window and honk the horn.  So you might as well see the train from different angles, since it is the best rendered thing in the game.  Plus you can use the track-side camera to demonstrate the Doppler effect.

Here we get to the essential “problem” of a railroad simulation, which involves the scope of control allowed the player.

In a flight simulation you operate in three dimensions.  You are free to roam the skies at will, barring where the sky happens to intersect with the ground and other objects that may reach up to smite you.  Navigation is a real thing as is simply figuring out where the hell you are if you have had a lapse of attention.

In a driving simulation you operate in two dimensions.  You are limited by the capabilities of the vehicle and how much map there is, but theoretically at least every intersection represents a decision.  Navigation is still an issue with which one must deal, along with traffic and the rules surrounding it.

In a train simulation, you operate in just one dimension.  It is stop and go.  Here is, literally, the original game on rails.  So the “game” aspect of things becomes a matter of regulating speed to meet the restrictions of a given section of track while trying to maximize efficiency to meet a schedule, which is the key aspect of any given scenario.  You have to get stuff done while on a clock.

And then there is the “me” aspect of the whole equation.  I cannot play a pure flight simulator for very long without buzzing roads, flying under bridges, or crashing into things.

Outside of the primitive devices we had in drivers education classes, I have never seen something that I would call a pure driving simulator.  There is always some sort of racing, crashing, or other things that would be considered breaking the law if you tried them with your own car.  Probably because actually driving is something a good chunk of us can do already.  And even then, I end up pushing the envelope for the sheer hell of it.

So being limited to an aspect of control which can be both fiddly and difficult as well as extremely limited in actual impact seems like a bad idea. (Hint: This is the blatant admission that I am not the target audience and am unlikely to “get” the appeal of the package.  Take this as read when thinking of commenting.)

Still, I gave it a shot and loaded up some of the scenarios to try my hand as an engineer.  I was subjected to endless railroad songs when I was a kid, time to see if that had any impact.

That is when the first issue came up.  This is a real time simulation.  There were scenarios on the list that asked me to control the speed of a train for up to two hours at a stretch.  That is a whole lot of commitment.

On the bright side, the pack I bought included some rail lines in areas I knew.  So I started out on the Reno to Roseville route, driving a large freight train up the Sierra Nevada grade and then down into the Central Valley.

Things started okay.

I’ve been to that “Harhar” casino

Later, I got myself stuck going 5 miles per hour on an uphill grade, a situation I blame on the combination of my own incompetence and the ridiculously slow speed limits at the bottom of the grade.  How was I supposed to build up some momentum?

I left my train grinding slowly up the hill and took a shower.

When I came back I found, unsurprisingly, that the train hadn’t gotten very far.  In fact, it had slowed down to 3 miles per hour.  I was done with that.

So I reversed the drives to see if things would go better the other direction.  That got me a bit more speed.

I passed a passenger train going the other direction as I built up speed on my way back to Reno.  I tore through the rail yard, speed limit 15 MPH at nearly 60.

Coming Through!

I got some nice tilt out of the coal hoppers as we hit switches, but nothing bad happened.  I just kept heading east at about 55 MPH until I was well past Sparks before I had had enough.  As far as I know, I could have just kept going.  The problem is that in real time, 55 MPH just isn’t that fast.  Even Microsoft provided a fast cruise for their flight simulator at one point, and in aircraft you are generally going much faster.

After giving up on that, I decided that I should probably find a shorter course, and preferably one that was down hill, for my next attempt.

For this I chose a Barstow to San Bernadino run, which is all down hill and, really, getting the hell out of Barstow has always seemed like the best plan.  I once heard the place described as “Bakersfield without joy.” (Though I might be remembering that the wrong way around.)

Take the train down the hill in 40 minutes or less.  Piece of cake.  I picked this scenario, in career mode because I discovered you could only get achievements in career mode, and set off to my destination.

This is where the finicky bits come into play.  While the last time around I couldn’t go fast enough, this train seemed quite determined to go down hill at a rate well beyond the posted limit.  The whole thing became a matter of balancing throttle and brake to keep as close to the sadistically changing speed limits as possible.

I made it in time, then had to read the listing of how I was docked points from my final score for every time I exceeded the posted limit or applied too much brake or did something that might overly discomfort the passengers.

Clearly there is some skill to finessing a perfect score out of a seemingly simple run.  A pity I have no patience to acquire that skill.  Instead I decided to do that run again to see just how fast I could go and what would happen when I got there.  The answer to the first was, “pretty fast indeed.”

We are 4 minutes ahead of schedule!

Granted, in the world of fast trains, 101 MPH isn’t a big deal.  The Japanese have been going that fast and more since the mid-60s on the Tokyo-Osaka line,  and the TGV cruises much faster as well.  But they are not doing those speeds on a roadbed with a 30 MPH limit!

As for what happens… well… the lyrics to a certain song tell the story well enough.

Mental wounds still screaming, driving me insane

I’m goin’ off the rails on a crazy train

Everything ended up pretty much as my child hood train sets used to, the engines on their side along the track.

that’s what we’ve become

That was the end of the scenario.  But at least we were out of Barstow.

Consist tilt?  Well, there was indeed some tilting going on.

While there was no final score since I failed the mission, so to speak, the game did list out all my transgressions in detail.  There were plenty of “quality of service” issues.  Passengers had not been made aware that this was an E ticket ride.

That has been my experience so far.  All of this took place over the course of a month.  I am good for about one train session a week.  The game certainly seems to deliver the whole train driving experience, and I certainly gained new appreciation for why they have to drug test rail workers.  I would probably seek some distraction to make the time go by as well.


  • Lets you drive a train! Whoo woooooooo!
  • Doppler effect!
  • Can probably buy any train or route you want from DLC.
  • Can build your own routes.
  • Let’s you derail that mother!

Not so good:

  • Very slow to launch via Steam.
  • Seems to bog down some even at the lowest settings on my system.
  • Will destroy most of your childhood train driving fantasies.
  • Auto-pauses when you alt-tab out to play Peggle.
  • $20 for a virtual train? Are you shitting me?

This is clearly a niche product and it likely serves that niche well enough, if at the usual niche prices.  I just don’t belong to that niche.

11 thoughts on “Crazy Train out of Barstow

  1. mbp

    I must admit you got further into Train simulator than I did. I managed one easy journey before putting it away. Mind you I think do “get it” . This is not a game, it is a hobby with the emphasis on accurate simulation rather than gameplay. There are forums on the internet of folk who spend in-ordinate amount of time spotting real trains and building up their virtual railroad collections. Many of them even painstakingly create their own train models and scenery to add to the game. I am not quite sure why it is on Steam though, it isn’t really a game.


  2. Aufero

    As a lifetime California resident (well, except for a few years of college in the midwest) a game entitled “Get the Hell Out of Barstow” would have considerably more appeal for me than any real-time train simulator.


  3. bhagpuss

    Bah! SynCaine got Discovery. I just got the poxy achievement.

    Why is it that driving a train is, even nowadays, conceivably seen as romantic while trainspotting… isn’t? And where does driving an imaginary train stand?


  4. Bristal

    I just got to the “Reno to Roseville is a local route” part. I’ve taken that route! Round trip! Being on the real train was pretty disappointing, too.

    Damn, trains are slow. And every station some 80 year old train enthusiast gets on the PA and gives 5 minutes of station history and you CAN’T TURN IT OFF.


  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    The closest I could find was a DLC pack called Trains vs. Zombies. While it was just $4.99, making it the cheapest DLC for the game by a few dollars, I couldn’t quite bring myself to spend more money on the game.

    I might actually pay money for a Caltrain peninsula rail corridor DLC package, if only to see how fast I could blast into the SF terminal. I want a “final scene of Silver Streak” sort of option, slo-mo gift-shop destruction and all.


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