AVSIM Commercial Rail Sim/Utility Review

Raildriver

Product Information

Publisher: P.I. Engineering

Description: Rail Sim Controller.

Download Size:
N/A

Format:
Hardware
Simulation Type:
MSTS
Reviewed by: Gene Davis AVSIM Senior Staff Reviewer - May 8, 2008

Introduction

Late one night in January, I was perusing Amazon.com looking for something new and different and it was only after a few minutes into my search that I had found Rail Simulator from Kujo Entertainment. Almost immediately I did a search on several other web sites to find out more about this product. I found that it had been released just a couple days earlier in the United States and that it had been available in Europe for a few months, needless to say I was really curious.

After going to the Rail Simulator website and looking at some of the screen shots, I was ready to delve back into the world of railroad simulation and quickly ordered it from Amazon. Within a few days I had my copy of Rail Simulator and I was up and running and found that this program alone could replace all of my other train titles; so I thought!

Up until this time I had only been messing around with Trainz and my copy of Microsoft’s Train Simulator had found its permanent home in a box in my closet. But this all changed on another night when I was poking around on the Rail Simulator site and found, totally by accident, the Raildriver site.

A controller designed specifically for the use with train simulation. "How cool could this be?" I thought. The very next day I opted to go ahead and purchase the Raildriver unit with hopes that the drivers set for Rail Simulator would be released shortly after my purchase. After about a week of having my Raildriver unit and only using it on Trainz Classics I needed more, so it was off to my closet to find that long lost copy of Microsoft Train Simulator. After what seemed like an hour of going through box after box, I finally found it and I was in business.

After poking around on more sites and downloading the utilities I would need to properly update Train Simulator so that it would properly run some of the freeware routes that were available for download, I quickly found myself surfing some of the payware sites. At first I was amazed at how much was actually available for MSTS, but when it came down to the price I had to ask myself if I really wanted to invest in a program that was almost 8 years old.

The Raildriver Unit

The Raildriver unit looks a lot bigger in its pictures than it actually is, as it is only a little over half the length of a keyboard. That is probably a good thing though because it doesn’t end up taking a lot of desk space and can be tucked away neatly when not used.

The unit is shipped with instructions and a drivers disc that includes drivers for Microsoft Train Simulator and the Trainz series along with a couple other train sims that are quite a few years old.

Once out of the box the first thing you will need to do is apply the stickers to your unit, just follow the pictures on the box the unit came in or the diagrams in the instruction manual and you should be okay. I found that the stickers for the lights and wipers switches require that you have to pull the switch off to lay them down; I refrained from doing this because the switches are plastic and I didn’t want to break them, so I just cut them in half and laid them around the switch instead.

Setting up the unit is easy. Simply plug in the USB cable into a USB port and install the necessary drivers. There is also a DC plug that drives the sound amplifier built into the unit and if you want to use it you must divert your main sound line into the unit and then run a second line to your sound system. Initially I emailed PI Engineering about the sound system and what, if anything, would I be missing if I didn’t use it? I never received a reply! So, I opted to unplug the unit’s sound system and leave my system set up the way it was. This actually worked best for me because I wear headphones a lot and the Rail Driver unit still made noise externally with my headset plugged in and this way it didn’t.

The other problem I had was with the power plug itself. It is big and cumbersome and manages to cover two other needed slots on my surge protector powerbar. The USB power will power the unit’s display and software and there is no real need for the sound aspect of the product. Especially if you have an expensive sound system to begin with, as the sound that comes out of the unit sounds rather tinny.

Installation of the software was a little a confusing as the installation for Microsoft Train Simulator adds a manager that is required as a separate execute file if the unit is going to work correctly and drive the sim. If you are going to use it with Trainz though, it doesn’t require a manager. It just works with the existing software rather than requiring a 3rd party product to control the sim. Once the product drivers are installed, you will need to configure the unit for whatever sim you are going to use it with. This is just like setting up a joystick and takes about 10-15 minutes. The good news is once it is done, it is done, unless you change something within the main installation of either program or unplug the unit from its USB port.

The unit itself is just over half the size of a keyboard and is laid out left to right. On the left hand side you have a digital readout that gives you the speed of your train as well as a series of switches and buttons that control the range, E-Stop, Alert, sand, pantograph, and the on and off button for the bell.

To the right of that control panel is the horn and then the gear lever that allows you to put the train in neutral, forward and reverse and it actually locks into place as you move it. The next lever is that of the throttle and dynamic brake, this is the lever that you will use the most as it controls not only your forward motion but it also plays a big part in speed control with the dynamic brake. The dynamic brake allows the engineer to slow the train down without using his or her hydraulic brakes, thus causing un-needed wear and tear on them. I have found that the dynamic brake function works well in Trainz, but has some issues with Microsoft Train Simulator and I think that is due to the dated software of MSTS.

The next sets of levers are that of the auto brake and the main engine brake, or independent brake if you will. The auto brake actually covers the length of your train and controls the brakes on each individual car as to where the independent brake only works on the engine itself. Next to the brake levers are the lights and wiper switches.

On the front bottom part of the unit you will see a series of blue buttons. These are hot keys set up through the drivers so you don’t have to use a keyboard. A set of labels comes with the unit for MS Train Simulator and there are printable ones available for sims like Trainz. Next to the buttons is a round button that allows for view panning and the other is for both zoom and looking backwards out of the engine compartment.

The unit is laid out well and works great, as it literally transforms the train simulating experience in whatever sim you use it in. What I like best about it is that I am not searching for keys anymore and I can run whatever train simulation I use in expert mode rather than that of the easy or casual modes that are available.

Bernina Express from Train-World

After searching many sites for that perfect MSTS route I found myself at Train-World, that is part of Aerosoft, and I managed to find two routes that really peaked my interest and the first one was that of Bernina Express.

Bernina Express takes the latest scenery design and enhancements and implements them into a beautiful designed route for MSTS that starts in Italy right on the border and ends in Switzerland.

The route can start from either end in Tirano Italy or St. Moritz Switzerland and covers an extensive amount of detail in between. The one thing I liked most about this route are the inclines, as it really tests ones engineering skills both going up and going down in different types of terrain.

In total there are 17 different stops that cover the entire route along with a good array of adventures that should keep you train simming for some time. It is also important to point out that this route was designed to work with the Heidi Express and Glacier Express routes developed by the same company. So, if you are looking to add this entire region to your MSTS it would be a good idea to get the others when you can.

On one of my journeys through Cavaglia I passed a small town and decided to stop my train as it was climbing and put it in reverse to go back to this little town and do a little sightseeing. What ended up happening though was a complete derailment because I wasn’t controlling my speed enough in reverse. Needless to say, by the time I was done, I don’t think the train station would have been standing anymore!

There are lots of custom designed buildings and scenery objects on this route. Businesses look as they would in the real world and much of the signage is 100% accurate. What is most impressive about this scenery and route is that it is not only accurate, but it also incorporates scenery that looks and feels like photo-real scenery. The mountains are just beautiful! As you climb the route to a height of 2253 meters it will definitely challenge the train driver in all of us as you are operating most of the trains without a gear drive. This will require you to learn how to use that dynamic brake properly without losing too much forward momentum.

The signals throughout the route are also important. If you are using an adventure you will soon realize that you are not alone and if you don’t follow the signals properly you may find yourself head on with other passenger trains! My biggest problem with train simulation is that I lack the patience of waiting and I have the tendency to just skip over the signals, but I tend to learn my lessons the hard way!

For each adventure, as well as free roam, you will have access to over 10 different engines to drive the route with. Each engine comes with its own content as well as an accurately modeled cab.

You will also notice that there is ambient sound throughout the entire route. So whether you are at a station or way up in the mountains, you will hear your surroundings. I especially liked this at the different train stops as it added a great deal to the overall experience of what one might hear as they are sitting in the cab of their train engine.

Using Bernina with Rail Driver

Bernina installs directly into your MSTS directory and doesn’t require anything extra from outside the program to make it run, except the Rail Driver manager if you are going to use it with Rail Driver. There is an option to add the BEX Bernina Scheenschleuder engine to the Rail Driver manager upon startup to MSTS, but I found that I couldn’t get most of the functions to work with the Rail Driver unit when selecting it and was left with an almost unusable RD unit in the simulation. So, I just opted to select the Dash 9 in the Rail Driver Manager software instead and everything seemed to work and all of the different trains worked well with it too.

Overall

I like the Bernina Express route, it definitely makes for a great sightseeing experience as well as offering both passenger and cargo activities that will keep you interested in MSTS for some time to come or at least until Microsoft releases their next train simulation.

Tramway Berlin

As I got back into train simulating, I wanted something that would get me into the inner city type of passenger activities that Tramway Berlin offers. Tramway Berlin puts you in the engineer's seat of the popular tram trains of Berlin in the 1970’s, as well as the L22 “Bull” locomotive. The scenery literally does transport you back to Berlin of the 70’s with its custom buildings, objects and scenery all modeled for that time and offers an accurate track layout.

The route itself covers the areas of Mahlsforf Sued Hubertus and proceeds to Koepenick and then onto Obserschoeneweide and then to Karlhorst and Ostkreuz. This package recreates 10 different routes in those regions as well as recreates the Linie 82 Route. Touring the 70’s Berlin is a visual treat. Watch as cars of that time drive by and make sure to pay close attention to the different businesses as you will see accurate signage and placement.

Included in this package are 26 different scenarios that will take you past 56 different stops both during the day and night and in inclement weather conditions. The route itself is huge and takes some time to explore, but what I found confusing were the tracks that angle off into nowhere. These tracks are a full line but don’t allow the user to switch to them and are there mostly for esthetic value.

The route is definitely a cramped route as you share the roads with all of the cars. Although a car striking the Tram will result in nothing, it just shows how crowded those streets actually were. I really didn’t care for the way the vehicles turned into the train as it made the overall experience a little less realistic.

I especially liked the Bull routes and its activities; this gave a different element to the Tram experience by hauling product or cargo through the busy streets rather than people. Keeping time and making sure you don’t interfere with other traffic is crucial, the bull locomotive was just too much fun!

Using the Tramway Berlin with Rail Driver

Installation of Tramway Berlin creates a new installation of MSTS on your hard drive and copies all of the necessary files from your default installation to that of the Berlin Tramway installation. I didn’t care for this aspect of the Berlin add-on simply because there are a lot of us that can’t afford the extra hard drive space.

The directions for the Berlin add-on were vague as I couldn’t find a way to make my Rail Driver unit work with it and I initially assumed that I would just have to go back to the keyboard to do anything with this route. Then, one day as I was poking around my different hard drives and folders, I found the Berlin Tramway icon.

Prior to this I just launched it using the regular MSTS located in the Berlin folder created during the installation. Upon launching it with this newly found icon, it immediately asked if I wanted to use my Rail Driver unit. I was in business! After selecting the correct config file my Rail Driver unit worked flawlessly with this route and I was soon off picking up my passengers and taking them across the 1970’s version of Berlin.

Overall

Tramway Berlin is impressive as it offers all the elements of a big city rail transport all in one package. Passengers wait for you at each stop and you quickly find out that inner city transport isn’t about speed but being able to maintain a schedule.

In The End

As I spend more and more time with MSTS, I am reminded of its age and anxiously await the next release. But in a world where the new Kujo Rail Simulator and Trainz simulations exist, you are left wondering about the overall playability of such an old sim as MSTS.

The realization is this, MSTS is old but it is good and offers a lot of replay ability with each new route that is released for it, especially with the Rail Driver unit. Had it not been for the Rail Driver unit I probably would not have gone back to MSTS, but it did make me realize how good it actually was.

 

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The review above is a subjective assessment of the product by the author. There is no connection between the producer and the reviewer, and we feel this review is unbiased and truly reflects the performance of the product in the simming environment. This disclaimer is posted here in order to provide you with background information on the reviewer and any connections that may exist between him/her and the contributing party.

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