Train simulations get an unfair rap when it comes to system-level complexity. Train Simulator 2015’s Inter-City Express is fun high-speed adventure with an interface complex enough to keep you on your toes.
The Intercity-Express (ICE) is a system of high-speed trains that connect locations in Europe. There are five different versions of the main high-speed train on these lines: the ICE 1, ICE 2, ICE 3, ICE T, and ICE TD, connecting locations in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.
Today I’m driving an ICE 3 from the Deutsche-Bahn ICE 3 EMU Add-On DLC in the World Cup ICE mission from the Cologne-Dusseldorf route. More so than any other simulation product I know of, Train Simulator 2015 can nickel and dime you to death if you’re not careful about your purchases, but I bought the “German Collection” of DLC off Steam for a decent price which included my ICE 3, the ICE 2, the BR232, and the Munich-Augsburg and Cologne-Dusseldorf routes. It’s an older DLC, but it checks out.
The mission today is to take a load of Swedish
soccerfootball fans from Köln (Cologne) to Dusseldorf to watch their team play England in the World Cup. This will be a “fast” service, with a single stop in-between, a service the ICE 3 is quite literally made for.
This mission starts me off at a red signal – not the most complicated of starting positions, but it’s sure more interesting than the plethora of missions that start at green lights with no challenge at all. A relative veteran of the game, I quickly note that my first task starts at my current location: I have to load passengers here at the Dusseldorf station, a fact the briefing neglected to inform me.
Although TS2015 has in-game overlays, task lists, and other hints to help train drivers figure out where to go next and what to do when they get there, I feel too many mission designers bank on this convenience and fail to properly brush up their briefings or text messages to the driver. This often leads to confusion and destroys any immersion, disrupting the experience. I’ve played more than a few missions where it was impossible to succeed the first try through – you had to play, fail, figure out why you failed, and then remember the next time you played the scenario. Very frustrating, especially in a sim that is rightfully renown for being the king of DLC – why are we paying all this money for partial development and mediocre quality control? </rant>
Patiently – I SAID PATIENTLY – waiting for the signal to change, I take the time to configure my ICE 3 controls. First, I engage the Sicherheitsfahrschaltung, or “Sifa” system, which is a deadman’s safety switch for the train. When the Sifa light the dash pops on, the driver has a few seconds to press an acknowledgement switch which resets the light for another 30 seconds. If the driver fails to respond to the light, an audible alert is sounded “Zifa! Zifa!“, followed shortly after by an irrevocable engagement of the train’s emergency brake system and complete loss of the driver’s ability to maintain eye contact with anyone in the engine driver’s common room for at least a month.
The ICE 3’s cockpit is not the most visually stunning of the Train Simulator offerings, so you won’t see many more screenshots of it here, but this is not typical. Many of the TS2015 train interiors that I’ve seen are done quite well – the ICE 2, for example, is of much higher quality. Functional if not beautiful, the important parts of the ICE 3 cockpit are clickable, which would be even nicer if TS2015 supported a head-tracking solution like Track IR. I did note with some interest that there is an “Oculus Mode” option in the key-bindings – I will have to pull my DK1 Rift off the shelf and give it a try.
In addition to the Sifa, I also engage the Punktförmige Zugbeeinflussung or PZB system, which is another control system designed to keep the train under positive control despite even the most concerted efforts from the driver. The PZB enforces line signals, ensuring the driver acknowledges caution lights and changes in posted speed limits with the same penalty as failing to acknowledge Sifa – slamming on the emergency brakes.
Both the Sifa and PZB systems are off by default in TS2015, even with the Expert Controls setting, and have to be manually activated by the driver (shift+numpad enter for Sifa and shift+control+numpad enter for PZB) to take effect. These can be toggled at any time during a mission.
Another option available to TS2015 drivers is the Linienzugbeeinflussung or LZB system. Designed to make high-speed train operation safer (the typical stopping distance of a train at 160km/hr is 1,000 m, the standard distance between a speed reduction sign and the reduced speed limit), the system works like an advanced cruise control – the LZB controls the power and brakes of the train to maintain the current speed limit and to slow down for any upcoming reductions in speed. Engage the LZB, set the throttle to max, and you can sit back, sip your tea, and enjoy the ride! That is, until that dang Sifa starts crying out again. The Dusseldorf-Cologne route doesn’t have LZB on it, so I leave this system off and wistfully steal glances at my cooling tea throughout the rest of the trip.
Note: Engine Driver has a collection of articles how to operate TS2015, including the advanced controls. I personally find the site hard to navigate and the search function isn’t as useful as I’d like, but there are some real gems in there, like this walk-through on the PZB and AFB systems.
After a short wait, the passengers are embarked, doors are closed, and the signal ahead turns green. Yes, there is a yellow on that signal, but that indicates a Hauptsignal 2, meaning I can proceed at a reduced speed. The Vorsignal 1 underneath it tells me I can expect to proceed at normal speed at the next signal. Learning to interpret signals, especially as you’re whizzing past at 160 kilometers per hour (99.419391 miles per hour), is one of the great challenges of TS2015, especially the fast movers, and I’ve run across a disappointingly small number of good missions that test the driver’s knowledge.
For example, in this case, as I approach the caution signal, I have to press and hold the PZB acknowledge button to avoid setting off the emergency brakes. I also have to know that the alternating 70 and 85 lamps mean that the PZB is in Restrictive Monitoring mode and will slam on the brakes if I exceed 45km/hr. The Restrictive Monitoring mode will be lifted once I pass the next fully green light (Hauptsignal 1).
As I pull away from the platform, commuter trains are busy on the tracks around me. Maintaining an immersive environment is one thing that is consistently done well in TS2015 missions – the railways are always bustling with traffic scurrying to and fro, waiting for signals, stopping at stations, and roadways are bustling with cars and trucks. Luckily the signal system gives me (some) confidence that my line is clear, so I set the Automatische Fahr- und Bremssteuerung (AFB) control to the current speed limit (40 km/hr), and advance the power to full. I now control my speed with the AFB lever – it’s a one-dimensional autopilot!
Another opportunity missed in TS2015 is analog controls – there is no native support for mapping controller axes to the simulation inputs. Throttles, reversers, brakes, and regulators are all controlled via fat-finger keypresses, which can lead to some serious frustration when trying to control speed on steep slopes. Some ambitious individuals have developed HID macros that map controller axis inputs to repeated key-presses, but this kludgey workaround is hard to take seriously. This is 2015, Dovetail! Let’s see some axes!
I don’t get too far from Cologne before the speed limit is raised to 130km/hr and then 160km/hr. Unlike automobiles, trains have to wait until the entire train of cars – called a consist – is in the new speed zone before they can accelerate. Luckily, acceleration is something the ICE 3 does well. I set the AFB to 160km/hr and the train rockets up to speed quite quickly. The screenshots I have here fail to capture the real sense of speed you get in the game, rattling along at 160km/hr.
The scenery in the Cologne-Dusseldorf route is pretty well done around Cologne and Dusseldorf stations and the dense object placement gives a real sense of passing distance. The blurring rain, bumping camera, rush of air around the windscreen, and bumps and squeaks of the jostling cockpit all greatly add to the immersion of being a high-speed train driver.
The real stress comes as I approach signals at blindingly fast speeds. Although I mostly cheat and look at the convenient in-game HUD, I do like to toggle it off (F3 and F4 keys) for periods of time and try to make out signals and speed changes before I get there. At high-speeds there are just a few seconds between resolving the signal and flying past it. In practice, probably the worst that could happen is that I’d fly into a yellow signal, but the PZB will lock my brakes if I’m not holding down the PZB acknowledge button as we cross it – failure to do so locks up those brakes and will spill my now lukewarm tea. Unfortunately, the speed limits that the game scores you against and the speed limits posted on the tracks are not always one and the same – another all-too-common flaw with TS2015 mission design that really grinds my gears.
Suddenly, there’s a problem. Well, there’s two problems. First, a pop-up text box appears, telling me that a fire alarm has been alerted, resulting in an automatic application of the emergency brakes (there goes my tea) and the pantograph – the fork-thingy on the top of the train that brings electrical power in from the overhead lines – retracts, cutting power to the engines. Unfortunately, the pop-up appeared just as the Sifa audible alarm sounded and the game didn’t detect my pressing of the acknowledge button while the display box was open. Before I could close the box and hit the acknowledge button, Sifa starts admonishing me with her “Sifa Zwangsbremsung!” and negative points begin ticking away on the HUD, even though the emergency brakes were automatically applied by the mission script. Stupid box.
The fire alarm was found to be caused by a passenger smoking in the bathroom. Nothing terribly serious, but I am out a cup of tea now. And with a planned cruising speed of 160km/hr, I’m going to be hard pressed to stay on schedule.
In no time at all, I’m back up to speed, racing down the track towards our intermediate stop at Leverkusen-Mitte, to pick up more wild and crazy football hooligans.
I make my approach to the station like I do all my approaches – too slow, too early and I almost come to a complete stop embarrassingly short of the platform. Luckily, the AFB enables me to quickly correct without much fear of overshooting the station and I creep up at 40 km/hr, gently stopping at an appropriate place along the side of the platform.
After a brief delay to take on new passengers (and kick out the bum that set off the fire alarm), the ICE 3 is back on its way!
As with all good things, the trip is destined to end, and, after a satisfying time at high-speeds, the appearance of reduced speed limits indicate we’re fast approaching our destination.
Another over-cautious approach to the Cologne station puts me even further behind my scheduled arrival at 17:56, but the passengers don’t seem to mind and happily disembark to go enjoy their
Despite its few but frustrating foibles here and there, I really enjoy the time I spend in Train Simulator 2015 and the series of campaign missions that come with the ICE are entertaining, challenging (more so with Sifa and PZB) and have some decent replay value as you try to get that perfect timetable execution. With hundreds of DLC options to choose from and routes and engines from all over the world, TS2015 should appeal to any railfan – or even create more of them. Although I always had a respect for trains, I never really appreciated them until I got bitten by the Train Simulator bug and am now fully hooked, even arranging railfan trips with my family to see these iron horses gallop.
Now if only I can get a decent cup holder up front here…