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Driving your train

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Driving Your Train by Jim Moeller

     There have been a lot of articles in the past about getting out on the rails and going from point A to point B, and making cuts, picking up freight, and shuffling cars.  These just simply cover the basics of it though.  It's as though everyone has the knowledge and skills required to just jump into an engine and start moving cars around in any area.  This just isn't true, and we know it on some level, but rarely think about it in any detail. 

     But what are we actually doing when we run a scenario?  We are, in fact, simulating moving several thousand tons of material and cars over two small ribbons of steel, trying to keep (somewhat) to the schedule, fighting with visibility problems programmed into the scenario to keep things interesting, steep grades, darkness, and the realization that “These things don't behave like we expect them to some of the time”

When we're driving a train in Rail Works, we still, at times, think of it with the GAMING portion of our brains, and that's fine, until we get to the point where we go to make a pickup and we're watching the tail of a cut of 50-75 cars, and we start backing into a siding, and after 10 or 15 seconds of notching up the throttle, we discover that the end of our train isn't moving....initially, our instinct is to give it some more gas and get things moving.  When we do this though, bad things can happen and it can get ugly very quickly.  The rear of our train suddenly lurches toward the cut of cars to be picked up and smashes into them at a speed that, in the real world, would cause thousands of dollars in damage, injuries to the switching crew, and derailments.

     Why is this?  We're used to thinking of our train as a single unit, moving along the tracks, and for the most part, that's fine, but when we have to do something delicate, then things can go bad for us.  Partly, I believe, is that what we don't realize is that what we're actually dealing with is more like a chain, in links, rather than a rod.  Think about it, if you move a rod, then when the front moves, the rear moves, and everything is very predictable, but when we move a chain, things aren't quite so clear cut...especially if there's any slack in the chain.  The front moves, but the rear does nothing until that slack has been taken up.  Then if you're on any kind of an incline, as soon as you allow the front to move, the end of the chain is already in motion, and you have to slow down moving the head end, otherwise the tail end will become wildly unpredictable..

     With a freight train of any length, the similarities become obvious in this analogy.  How many times have we been stopped to make a pickup from a siding, and we go to the back of the train to keep an eye on our distances, give the engine a notch of throttle, and the rear just sits there?  Then after, what seems like, an eternity, the rear end starts moving.  Maybe slowly if we've been careful, or taking off like they've got a green board and miles of track?  It can make you a bit crazy.  If you're lucky, then you can jam on the brakes (not good in the real world), and slow things down and try again, but sometimes, all you can do is watch helplessly while the end of your train smashes into the cut of cars and sometimes cause a derailment and we get the dreaded view from the “Orbiting Helicopter”, and a note that says “You've screwed up”.

If we keep thinking of our trains as chains and not rods, then we can forestall a lot of problems, and the train will behave more like what we need it to.  Slow applications of power...then wait to see.  Switch between the head end view and the rear view to be sure of your progress.  Rarely do you need much more than Notch 2 to get the train moving in either direction, and be sure to leave yourself enough room between where the train stops, and where you need to make the pickup, that way should you start off a little enthusiastically (planned or not), then you'll have time for corrections, and make your hook smoothly.

     The thought that you not only have slack in your train when you start out applies equally to when you have to stop and possibly reverse.  This is somewhat alien to us.  In our everyday lives, unless we actually do work for a railroad, when we stop and start to backup, everything is moving in concert, but it's not so with 75+ cars behind us, each with their own inertia, and mass and friction...then we have to start thinking ahead of where we are (or well behind), and give the slack a chance to work itself out or we'll wind up with mashed knuckles again.  The scenarios are written to have a good time, there isn't a time schedule (other than on the occasional PAX run) to make it from one point to another.  Sometimes we need to clear a specific section of track by a certain time, but most writers of scenarios give us plenty of time to do this, so it's more of a steady movement from point A to point B, rather than an Indy car race or a drag strip.  Like in the real world, our scenarios are written (whether consciously or not) with the thought of SAFETY FIRST.  So go easy on the throttle and brakes.  When you see or know that a stop or a slow order is coming up, start backing off and braking well in advance...I use a rule of 2 miles from standard track speed (50 or so) to start slowing down for a siding, farther for a stop, and sometimes even that's not enough I've found.  I'm seriously considering making that 2.5 or 3 miles depending on the length of my train and what's required.

     Which brings me to the scenario writers.  If there's something coming up (which most of you writers are very good at), give us a heads up a mile or two ahead.  It's kind of distressing when you come around a corner, or across a bridge and find that there's a flashing red indicating that you're going into a siding and you're still at 40 MPH.  YIKES!!

     So, there's my rant, and take it for what it's worth.  This procedure helps me keep things under control and allows me to actually enjoy testing scenarios on a consistent basis.  Let's get underway!

Last modified on June 6, 2012, 5:32 pm

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