by Jim Vaughan (7 January 2003)
In the latter part of the evening and occasionally into the wee hours of the morning, a group of individuals – most of them seemingly rational, grown men – sit perched in front of computer monitors with sweaty palms tightly clenching keyboards or other input devices. The familiar cry of “Honey, come to bed” is no longer recognizable as it is drowned out by the click-clack of a virtual train traveling across a digitized route. These virtual engineers anxiously work the controls of their favorite locomotive as they diligently attempt to complete their assigned work order. The late-night silence is finally shattered by the application of the train’s brakes as it is brought to a halt as its load of passengers, freight or both, are safely delivered to their scheduled destination. Just another routine day in the life of a locomotive engineer working for a virtual railroad.
Are you one of those people who just can’t seem to take your eyes off a freight train as it travels past? Do you find yourself fascinated, camera ready, to grab a few shots as it passes by at a local railroad crossing? Have you ever dreamed of sitting in the cab of one of those huge locomotives as they roar past pulling 100 or so freight cars? Do you want to get a real feel for what is involved in the day-to-day operations of a real-world rail operation? Or maybe you are just looking for some structure to your current trainsimming than starting up your favorite Dash 9 and exploring your favorite route.
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you need to give some consideration to participating in a virtual railroad (VR). Derived from the ‘virtual airline (VA)’ concept, they’ve only been around for about a year. While I can’t speak for the origins of the very first VR, I can say they have had a somewhat less than a lustrious beginning.
I feel confident, that just like VA’s, VR’s were started by a small group of individuals with a passion for train simulation. Virtual railroads create a structure where train-sim enthusiasts can drive specific routes using various locomotives in an attempt to complete assigned work orders typical of the kind of rail traffic you would see on that particular route.
Just like the case with VA’s, virtual railroads derive their success from the Internet. As a result, they are not an inexpensive endeavor for the group of enthusiasts that ‘manage’ them. These expenses are not just monetary in nature, they include hundreds of hours per week of behind the scenes work. That work includes the creation of equipment, activities, management of trip reports, and moderation of the forums that support the VR’s virtual engineers. It could very well be said that with the current inexpensive rates for web server access that it is not the size of a VR’s bank account but the depth of its staff that determines its success.
Just as a competent management staff is essential to a successful real-world rail operation, likewise the individuals that make up the staff of a virtual railroad must be competent as well. That competence is not limited to the operation of the train-sim software that is utilized. The staff must be competent in real-world rail operations and equipment design and operation. To provide the members adequate support the staff must also be competent in computer hardware, software, and the various utilities that are utilized to produce the virtual railroad experience. Just as the growth and continued success of VA’s was impacted by Microsoft’s continued support and development of Flight Simulator, so it seems VR’s will be influenced as well. While Train Simulator is just about to reach the 2nd anniversary of its release, it is hoped that Microsoft will follow a similar development schedule and release the next version within the next year. The current release still has several limitations and the built-in utilities are awkward and unstable. One must admit though that unlike VA’s which number over 100, virtual railroads haven’t broken the double-digit number yet. At this time there are less than 10 active virtual railroads in the train-sim community.
Let’s regress for a bit and give you a sense of how a virtual railroad operates. Most aspiring engineers that join virtual railroads already own Train Simulator and are looking to enhance their existing virtual experience. In many cases, they have surfed the Internet and landed at several of the long-standing download libraries or forums that support train simulators. They have downloaded megabytes of add-on equipment, activities, routes, etc. and still are not receiving the satisfaction or sense of real-life rail operations. In their search to meet that desire, they come upon a virtual railroad. First on the agenda is filling out an application. This normally requires that you read through the Operations Manual and then provide some basic information about yourself. Nothing personal, just the info necessary to be able to communicate effectively with the virtual railroad. Some may require a short test about the Operations Manual to make sure you are interested enough to take the time to read it but shortly thereafter you receive your Engineer ID and a nice friendly welcome to the operation.
From there, some effort is put back on the shoulders of the new engineer trainee. Not without support or assistance, but just to verify you have the basic train-sim skills to be able to participate. You’ll download some company-specific equipment, a route or two that they utilize (unless of course you already have installed the route from your many trips to one of the local train-sim libraries), and then you pick a couple of activities that you would like to complete.
After installing the necessary routes, equipment, and activities, you head off on your first work order for the company. This could be a short switching work order or an hour-long point to point freight delivery. All will challenge your abilities as a virtual engineer. Upon completion, you’ll head back to the company headquarters (webpage) and submit your trip report. Once submitted your human resources director will update the crew call board and note the completed work order and time to complete. These numbers are cumulative and govern your advancement within the company as well as the virtual salary that you receive.
Just like in a real rail operation, all engineers must receive formal training. This is an integral part of an effective virtual railroad. It helps to add to the realism of being a member and participating in the virtual experience.
Normally training is conducted similarly to that which you receive in real rail operations. You are required to read through the Operating Rules and take a test at certain points in the training. In addition to the ‘classroom’ training, you are also required to complete practical exercises using train simulator that reinforces what you are learning in the classroom as well as making sure you get the opportunity to face many of the real world situations a real-world engineer would experience. What is important here is that you pick a virtual railroad that has the most realistic training program possible. It should be crafted after the same training programs that are completed by the real world engineers. Much of what you learn in a virtual training program will mirror what you would actually learn in a non-virtual program. The more realistic the program, the better. If you survive the training exercises and deliver the equipment in the same condition you received it, you will be issued a Certification Certificate and Number and your career as a Full Engineer begins. Congratulations and welcome aboard! An important caveat for those who may be wondering… there is no charge to participate in any of the VR’s I’m familiar with.
Okay back to the real world for a moment… when you drive for a railroad, you drive equipment painted in that railroad’s colors. In the virtual world, VR’s offer a livery of equipment, locomotives, rolling stock, even custom buildings on the routes they use. The key here is not how fancy the livery is but just how realistic the physics are of the equipment you are driving. Anyone familiar with Train Simulator knows that the physics which the default equipment has is far from the real world physics of that equipment. A good VR will have an individual or group of individuals that are responsible for testing equipment and making sure it is operating as close to real-world specifications as possible. Remember what was said above, the strength of the staff of a VR is more important than the depth of its pocketbook. As you enjoy the virtual rail experience you will grow to appreciate the effort of the VR staff and the work they put into making the experience ‘as real as it gets’.
In the real world, commercial railroads complete various types of work orders, consisting of local switching, short-haul freight, long-haul freight, passenger, and rail maintenance activities. The larger the railroad the greater the cross-section of rail operations that are conducted. The same is true with VR’s, the larger the VR, the greater the cross-section of activities you will be able to choose from. Likewise, the number of routes that are utilized by a VR will influence this selection as well.
Again, the key in activity selection is the staff and membership. Normally the members will create activities based on their favorite types of activity for the routes that prefer to operate on. The success of these activities though is based around the amount of beta-testing that is conducted prior to the activity being made available to the members. Nothing can be more frustrating than to download an activity, get half or three-quarters of the way through it, only to find out it was not done properly and you are unable to complete it successfully. When picking a VR select one that utilizes a beta-test team to ensure route, activities, and equipment are up to standard and will not fail you in the midst of your virtual experience.
Now a word about career advancement. In the real world, most entry-level engineers work off an extra board until their seniority brings them to a point where they can select and hold certain jobs. On a virtual railroad, entry-level engineers are normally able to run the same activities as experienced engineers. The difference is that VR’s use a ranking system to show your advancement which is based on the number of operating hours you have reported through your trip reports. The more hours the higher your rank and likewise seniority. In addition, this impacts the virtual salary that you receive for your participation.
A few other things to consider as you search for a virtual railroad… first off, please take time to look at many VRs before signing on with one. Look critically at the management structure/team of a VR – is it well-organized? Do the managers seem knowledgeable? Consider the longevity of the railroad. Many VRs disappear as fast as they appear, which is a real frustration for engineers who then have to sign on with another VR and, in many cases, begin their career at the bottom again. Take a good look at the training program, the route structure, the minimum requirements to maintain active engineer status. Are they to your liking? You might also look critically at the website of any VR you are considering. Look for depth and organization of content. Does the site offer interesting and informative information? Does it offer an “engineer help” section? Has it been updated recently or is the content dated? Does the site contain an engineer and/or visitor comments page? If it does, what are people saying there? While you might not want to choose one VR over another for any single thing listed above, you should consider the bigger picture – a combination of the above – as an indicator of how well-run and stable a VR is, and how seriously the management team takes their operation. Just because it is a virtual operation doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a professional one.
Another thought regarding career advancement in the virtual world… if you would like to do more than just operate a locomotive for a virtual railroad, after accumulating some hours and experience with your VR, inquire about a management position within the organization. The single most important ingredient of any successful virtual railroad – large or small – is its management team, it takes more than a few talented people to run a successful virtual railroad – it takes many, all working in sync towards a common goal. A virtual railroad is only as good as the sum of its leaders. VRs are always in need of creative and talented individuals to fill positions. Though the pay isn’t great – “virtually nothing,” in fact – a management career in a virtual railroad can be highly gratifying.
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing I have found about participating in a virtual railroad is the creativity and camaraderie that exists between our members – and the train-sim community as a whole. While our engineers come from literally all over the world, are of different ages, cultural backgrounds, etc., we all have one thing very much in common – a passion for trains, be it simulated, real-world or both. The sense of “community” that exists within the structure of a successful virtual railroad, coupled with the common interest we share, is second-to-none.