In the mid 1950s, US freight kings Union Pacific stuck a jet on a locomotive. More plane than train, the GTEL ticked over on a diesel engine in the yard – but switched over to the turbine once it picked up speed, mustering 8500 horsepower to the Bugatti Veyron’s 1000. You were in for a wait if you didn’t beat it to the crossing – the 610 tons the leviathan pulled behind it snaked across the countryside for miles.
“It’s a freak of nature,” says still-baffled Dovetail director of brand Doug McConkey. “You can imagine, the Americans like everything on a large scale anyway, but especially when it comes to trains – it just gets way too carried away.
“It’s like one of those ridiculous world land speed record type of efforts you read about – just bonkers. But if you want to haul half of Surrey or whatever behind a train, you just get the biggest engine you can possibly get.”
The most powerful GTEL braved the slopes of the great American railroads for just a decade before retirement – succumbing to more sensible trains, and to Californians driven insensible by the jet’s deafening racket. But Train Simulator 2016 isn’t about sensible – it’s about celebrating the extreme.
This year, hobbyists will wrestle with conditions that are exactly that, plus complicated operations and unreasonable timetables. They’ll face not just the American railroad, but the brave new world of German electric trains and, perhaps most frighteningly, throngs of holidaymakers along the 1950s English riviera.
In Devon, players will contend with the pressures of squeezing mainline traffic onto branch line facilities – shunting coaching stock and hauling hordes of the bucket-and-spade wielding public while sticking strictly to schedule.
On the West Rhine Railway they’ll get to grips with the BR 155, working to master the complexities and precision of the “father of modern electro-motive traction”. And on a snowy day in Wyoming, only the lure of a lost wonder will persuade players to stick with the GTEL long enough to appreciate its advanced air features and dynamic braking. Not extreme by Just Cause standards, perhaps, but then Scorpio’s never grappled with twin gas turbine and auxiliary diesel power plants.
“We’re trying to basically please two ends of the spectrum,” says McConkey. “One is, our existing userbase, which is pretty significant – giving them some real challenges to get under.
“The extreme thing [for them] is really about the difficulty level, and the experience level you’re going to have to have to complete the more complicated scenarios.”
At the same time, the series is becoming more accessible. Dovetail show their games at events for model railway hobbyists – where nice old men are overcome with emotion at the sight of ‘50s locomotives they can reach through the screen and drive.
“The hurdle we have to overcome is, ok, then they get a gaming PC to try to play it on,” explains McConkey. “They’ve got to make the leap to being able to use all these controls and software. They’re interested in trains, but it doesn’t mean to say they’re a qualified train driver.”
On top of the existing TS Academy, Dovetail now offer driver assist for their steam trains. Start to slow down, and the game can tell you which lever you need to pull to apply a little more pressure.
What’s more, the studio have introduced ridealong modes for each of the routes’ ‘hero’ trains. If players don’t fancy driving the GTEL, they can simply admire the beast from their chosen angle as the Utah desert whips by. Or passively soak up the magic of the Devon seaside run – where the Dawlish sea wall was wiped out last year – in an era when the trains were so packed operators couldn’t keep up with demand.
In the same spirit, Dovetail have developed a rail fan mode. Players can stand on the Hohenzollernbrücke bridge in Cologne, where couples affix padlocks to the chainlink fencing and drop the keys into the Rhine below, and watch the world go by.
“It’s a fantasy of a lot of people to just stand by a railway line and watch stuff happening,” reveals McConkey. “What we’ve found is, it’s not just about driving trains.”
In fact, many of the thousands of hours Train Sim players rack up on Steam are already spent not in but around trains. Around 30% while away most of their time creating routes using Dovetail’s tools – joining a huge community of builders.
“The mentality we have is, if I sell you Train Simulator 2016, that’s the equivalent of you buying a starter kit for a model railway,” reckons McConkey. “It’s a similar sort of mentality. The only real limit is your ability. You never have to buy anything from us ever again.”
So why so much DLC? Train Simulator 2015’s Steam page names 241 add-ons – a ginormous list of British, US and German routes and machines totalling £3,174.65.
“There’s probably about three [people who own everything] in the whole world, and it’s not something we’d ever encourage,” says McConkey. ““Everybody wants something different.”
Some packs are only ever sold a handful of times. Train Simulator players aren’t, by and large, trying to cover continents – they just want to drive a train near their house.
“You put out a route, and some guy will say, ‘Why haven’t you got the branch line that leads off the such-and-such-and-such where I live?,’” laughs McConkey.
Dovetail build “every yard” of their routes, and it can take years to recreate a network. They’ve carefully tuned their development structure so that there’s always lots in production at any one time. But like the operators in Devon 60 years ago, they simply cannot keep up with demand.
“What you see on Steam is the tip of the iceberg. If we could make all the content people wanted us to, we’d have about 500 million quid’s worth of stuff on there by now,” says McConkey. “All our users ever ask us for is more stuff.”
Train Simulator 2016 is out on September 17th.