There are times while I’m flying along over the countryside in DCS and IL-2 when I see a steam locomotive and have wondered what operating one of those would be like. How do you drive a steam locomotive? What’s involved with managing one as it trundles along the rails? Then, Dovetail Games released their Spirit of Steam update for Train Sim World 2 and everything came together for me. For this article, I’ll be dropping the gears, lowering the flaps, and putting my airplane down on the runway for a short time in favour of a bit of steam engine action instead. This is a look at the Spirit of Steam DLC pack for Train Sim World 2.
Train Sim World?
If you’ve been a long-time reader of Stormbirds.blog, you’ll know that I’ve become a fan of Train Sim World over the years. Yeah, there are other sims out there that do the same or similar things but this one has captured my attention. I’ve previously written about it here and here.
Developed by Dovetail Games, TSW2 is the latest iteration of their Unreal Engine powered train simulator first released in August of 2020. Confusingly, an older version of the series also continues on with new updates and content under the title of Train Simulator Classic. Although, perhaps its not so confusing for flight sim fans as its similar to how IL-2 Cliffs of Dover/Desert Wings Tobruk and the Great Battles series coexist.
The series has a core experience that you purchase with a couple of routes and then a ton of DLC packs that let you add on whatever experience you want to have. Just like flight sims, you can spend a ton of money if you want to have it all but most of the time you just buy the things that interest you. And that brings me to the Spirit of Steam.
The Spirit of Steam
The TSW2 development team have spent a couple of years working behind the scenes to develop the systems necessary to incorporate what is intended to be a realistic, physics driven, simulation model of a steam locomotive.
Quite different in operation from the series’ mix of diesel and electric driven trains, steam engines are complex beasts that have a temperamental and almost ‘living’ quality to them. So rather than make an electric engine have steam engine effects, the team built a whole separate physics system for their locomotives to make it all happen. That lengthy effort came together under the banner of Spirit of Steam and their UK based, 1950s era, Liverpool to Crewe route.
The DLC pack comes with two locomotives. The 8F and the Jubilee locomotive. Both are very similar in overall operation and appearance but they do have their unique looks and quirks as well. The 8F is a more powerful engine that pulls freight while the Jubilee is a passenger locomotive.
The route is based on historic England with a mix of city, industrial and countryside to take in. The era is the late1950s around the time where diesel locomotives were starting to be introduced and steam locomotives were still prevalent but clearly reaching the end of their tenure. It was also in the post WWII era where a lot of the old rail operators were going out of business and a lot of old infrastructure was about to be ripped up. It’s an interesting setting.
Spirit of Steam has made such an impact that BBC even did a news segment about it.
Driving the trains
The thing that drew me to this DLC pack the most was the steam locomotives themselves. Although I had no prior connection with these two historic locomotives, what I really wanted to experience was the operation of them and that’s proven to be quite interesting.
Dovetail Games developed a helper AI to take on the “fireman” role. This is the person who shovels the coal and manages the available power of the engine. At the moment, the player doesn’t have much to do with that. The player is the engineer and responsible for the movement of the train. I’m less familiar with the history of steam locomotives in train simulators but I am lead to believe that this may be one of the first if not the first to feature an animated fireman. The animation isn’t perfect. However… I can forgive it.
The brakes are modeled using a vacuum braking system that enables brakes to be turned on along the length of the train. It’s not unusual to have that feature, however, the vacuum system is a lot less direct than what you would find on modern trains. To make the starkest comparison, breaking on something like the German ICE3 high speed train is very quick, efficient and immediate. On these steam locomotives, turning on the brakes have very little effect at first and only after several seconds does the reaction begin to have an effect. It requires a great deal of experience and skill to get just the right braking effort – something I’m still mastering.
Letting off the brakes also takes some time although its nowhere near the 10-20 minutes required by a modern 100+ car freight train. Still, you need to wait for the system to clear before you can start to go. At that point you move the ‘reverser’ to the 75% position and use the ‘regulator’ handle to introduce just a bit of power to the wheels. Usually this is just a small movement on the control and the in game equivalent to 5-10%.
Here the graphics, sound and physics system combine together as the main wheels begin to move and there’s are terrific “puff” from the smoke stack. Those long pauses between puffs get shorter as speed begins to increase and you gradually open the regulator adding more power. As you get up to speed around 20mph you then need to pull the reverser back to 60% and then 50% and lower to further enable the engine to build speed. Speed builds slowly and it can take a while to get up to full speed before you can let off the power but it’s a terrific experience as speed builds and the engine rumbles along the mainlines.
The exact mechanics of the how and why behind the scenes are a bit of a mystery to me but suffice to say that this is the process and its absolutely fascinating in operation. You don’t need to fully understand a steam locomotives inner workings to get full enjoyment of this experience.
Be too aggressive at any point and you can get wheel slip which is fully modelled or dial in the wrong settings and watch as the locomotive uselessly chugs away without gaining much speed. It’s very well done and it requires a lot of attention to whats going on with the engine at all times. It’s a bit of a beast!
The little details but also some bugs
There are plenty of great little details spread out through the series. Each Jubilee locomotive has a name and there are dozens of nameplates for them. The end of freight trains have a brake van. North American readers would recognize this car under the name Caboose. In addition to providing an additional brake for the train, this car is also equipped with seating and shelter for the crew. In Spirit of Steam it even has a “functioning” fireplace that you can start up casting a warm glow over the rest of the car.
The passengers outfits are all modelled on period authentic wear and while there are only a limited number of outfits the route benefits from the work that the team did last summer to introduce the Rush Hour DLC pack which included a much higher variety of passengers and different outfit combinations. It does lead to some sometimes wacky combinations but then people can be wacky too. The overall effect is great.
The locomotive shakes and shudders as it goes down the tracks too replicating the less than smooth experience of this era of train. The comparison jumps again to the modern day with something like the aforementioned German ICE train, the electric powered Amtrak ALC-64 of the North East Corridor in the United States, or the popular EMU (electric multiple unit) units that dominate modern British rail. All which are far smoother than this.
On the downside, this route does come with a few bugs. There are issues with the brakes on some scenarios that make it difficult or impossible to get underway even after the brakes are released. There was also previously a weird bug with derailments that seemed to be less about player action and more about a glitch in the system. There are a few visual LOD issues on some surrounding scenery that the team needs to clean up too.
TSW2 comes with a few glitches in general. Graphics can look impressive or, on occasion, somewhat last gen. There are some bugs, primarily on consoles, that can cause problems with sound or even with just having more than a few routes installed. And the series has a terrific save game function that lets you break up long journeys but its not always reliable and the save game state can land you in a essentially non-functional train.
I love the idea of simulators in general. Flight simulators are my first love but there are times where I’ve ventured out into other kinds of sims. Train Sim World is just one of those experiences that I’m glad I got into as its let me experience a different kind of sim world and its also made me both appreciate and respect the hard work that all sim developers do.
Dovetail Games is both different and similar in many ways to the familiar names that I mention here on a regular basis. Like most of our favourite sims, it is made by a relatively small team of developers and artists that manage to put together some impressive stuff on what is decided not a huge budget. These are not AAA-titles, but they attempt and frequently do punch above their weight.
Spirit of Steam is a particularly impressive accomplishment as it represents a dream for both the developer team and for many community members who wanted to see this happen. It helps me answer a question about just how steam locomotives operate at the engineer level and its been tremendous fun to learn about it.
A recent accidental reveal has confirmed that more is coming with a third iteration of the Train Sim World series. Next to no information is available at this point but many of us hope that the series will continue to offer backwards compatibility with earlier routes. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to see more steam routes in the future including a few North American based experiences. Until then I will be more than happy to have fun with what we have.
TSW2 and the Spirit of Steam DLC can be purchased on Steam Store.
Images from Train Sim World 2: Spirit of Steam.