Microsoft's Train Simulator has become a favorite with railfans everywhere, wanting to run trains on their favorite stretches of railroad. For fans of heavy eastern mountain railroading, Maple Leaf Tracks has now come forward with one of the most famous and scenic routes, B&O's line over Sand Patch.
In a mtnsub.org exclusive feature, we have received and reviewed one of the first copies available. In a nutshell: this is a winner, and not only can't fans of Sand Patch do without, it would in fact be reason enough to purchase a copy of Train Simulator and a good graphics card for this add-on package alone.
The product is available for download from MLT's web site or on a single CD Rom by mail. It requires MS Train Simulator preinstalled. Inserting the CD Rom will present a startup menu allowing you to install the software, browse through the documentation, or check out the support forum on the website. Installation requires only a couple of minutes and 180MB of free disk space. The CD is not required anymore after installation. Installation went smoothly and without a hitch, the install program correctly located MSTS on disk.
The included documentation contains a short overview of the territory, a timetable, and a short history. We would have liked a little more material included, especially a rundown of the activities including an overview of the required switching moves and operating procedures to help people who might not be too familiar with the territory. Some of the activities are fairly involved, and we feel a little more background information would help.
Maple Leaf's add-on pack covers the Keystone Sub from around Virginia Lane (on the Cumberland Terminal SD proper) to just west of Rockwood, about 50 miles. The Casselman River Gorge and Connellsville are specifically excluded. The simulation is set in 1985, meaning there is a plethora of paint schemes, all trains have cabooses, and the SD50 is the hottest thing on the rails.
Also included are the Salisbury Industrial Track, a small part of the Somerset & Cambria Sub, and the Blue Lick I.T. at Meyersdale. The Western Maryland is also visible in quite a few places, including Keystone, the Narrows, and Meyersdale. All physical features of the line have been reproduced in excruitiating detail, including individual buildings, bridges, signals, tunnels, and sidings. A lot of the scenes are instantly recognizable and railfans have a field day taking a train past their favorite trackside spots. See the screenshots on this page, all of which where taken from the real program.
Not quite up to par with the beautiful structures are Maple Leaf's forest efforts. The trees feature nice summer, fall, and winter textures, but it is apparent that they really only have four sides to them. Also, the trees tend to be planted in rows on the hillsides, and altogether there are not enough of them. Especially the area west and south of Hyndman appears very logged out.
The product comes with 12 activities loaded with operating fun to make good use of the line. These include: Connellsville Helper, Eastbound autorack Q216, Salisbury Local Parts 1, 2, and 3, Blue Lick Turn Part 1 and 2, Eastbound Q386 Heavy Freight, Hyndman Helper, westbound X411 ore train, Westbound Trailer Jet Q137, Rockwood Switcher. All activites come with a predefined engine consist and train and replicate prototypical operations. The Connellsville Helper comes on at Rockwood, but that is only a minor issue.
All activities are great fun to perform. Some, like running Q216, are relaxing and let you enjoy the scenery and look at your train from all angles using the different viewer positions 1 through 5. Other are downright action-packed and sometimes difficult, such as the Salisbury Local run at night. Switching in the pitch black darkness is a 100%-job. You should make use of the different viewer locations, and the help windows F4, F8, F9, and F10 to help you perform your duties.
One habit you will learn very quickly is to save often (F2)! Not because the add-on were unstable - it isn't, we haven't had a single crash in any activity anywhere on the line - but because of the realism. You will be fired immediately if you do not whistle for a grade crossing or tunnel as indicated by the lineside posts. Running into cars too heavy-handedly will also cost you your job.
The good points are simply too many to list. Maple Leaf Tracks has again, after their release of Kicking Horse Pass, pushed the limit of realism that can be achieved using Train Simulator.
For the first time can you enjoy helper operations with manned helpers instead of DPU. A defect detector is included which, while it doesn't radio in, will present an information box identifying hot boxes. All engines perform beautifully with correct tractive effort, braking, engine and horn noises, and realistic cab interiors. A treasure box of different engines and cars in a variety of paint schemes is supplied, including SD50s, GP38-2s, GP40-2s, SD40s and SD40-2s, GP7s, and GEs. The list goes on and on...
There are a few minor issues - the most obvious of which, the trees - has been mentioned above. In some areas, notably around Keystone and Fairhope, the vertical elevations of roads and scenery are not quite correct. This is only apparent to railfans familiar with the area. Cumberland is missing a lot of buildings - we are sure this decision has been made deliberately to keep the game playable also on less than state-of-the-art hardware. The more elements there are to render, the more horsepower CPU and graphics hardware need to have. Lastly, Cumberland just about ends east of the Amtrak station, and the shops area or hump yards have been excluded. (Being set in 1985, the Queen City station and the old rolling mill also aren't there any more.)
In performing the included activities, a few oddities also present themselves. On the helper assignments, the head-end power will obey to your throttle settings. Meaning the train will start to roll backwards once you have coupled up and keep your throttle in idle. Ideally, you as the helper engineer should receive commands from the head-end. When running the Rockwood switcher, plan ahead what cars you should set out and pick up where - you may want to write it down on a piece of paper, and also familiarize yourself with the track layout before starting the activity.
To sum things up: this is a superb addition to MSTS and a big Thank You! is in order to Maple Leaf Tracks for making this product available! Given their history of excellent support of their earlier product, Kicking Horse Pass, we hope to soon see additional activities and maybe equipment put up for download.
We look forward to future releases and heartily recommend both their products for purchase.
"Q216, east on 2 - clear signal Sand Patch!