In the past year, there have been several interesting developments in the train sim hobby. The team from 3DTrainStuff brought out Run 8 Train Simulator, which focuses on realistic operation and a multiplayer environment. Open Rails rolled out a new version also including multiplayer capability, and an ongoing series of “experimental” releases which make the current builds of the ongoing beta publically available. RailWorks also revamped their simulator as Train Simulator 2013. But to me, the most intriguing entry has to be a newly created simulator designed for professional use that is being ported into a standalone hobbyist simulator – ZDSimulator.
Under development since 2011, ZDSimulator (“ZD” comes from Russian for “railway,” железная дорога, transliterated zheleznaya doroga) began as a technical training simulator to be used by the Ukrainian state railway system as well as by railways and their training agencies throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, the international community of former Soviet nations. It was originally the computer software that forms the centerpiece of a combination cab and mechanical/electrical systems simulator used for real-world training. Full-scale locomotive controls interface with the software, as well as full-scale replicas of electrical panels, pneumatic controls and braking systems, plus interactive schematic displays for teaching electrical systems.
It should be noted that this is not just a cab simulator as used by American and Western European railroads, which use computer screens and a few analog sticks and buttons in a control replica like their highly computerized counterparts. Rather, the professional ZDSimulator hardware replicates the electromechanical systems still common in the former Soviet railway systems. The whole arrangement can be set up in a classroom or anywhere there is sufficient space to set up the modules, rather than relying on a dedicated space. That’s quite an achievement, but it then goes on to connect and interact with replicas of complete control and high-voltage systems in locomotives, and their braking systems, to provide a computer-integrated training system in the locomotive’s systems beyond just driving activities.
Obviously, time in such a sophisticated training setup is limited and costly, so the developers released a version of the software that runs strictly on a PC, with no need for any special hardware interface. The locomotive cab and all interactive systems are represented totally in digital form on the screen, with only a keyboard and mouse needed to interact with them. This version was made available to trainees for practice at home and off-hours during training, and of course, it resembles a hobbyist train simulator though with a level of technical and operational complexity second to none.
Train simulators are popular around the world; MSTS has a large and growing following in Eastern Europe. (For an idea of what’s available in MSTS in localized Russian and surrounding regions, visit trainsim.ru or zdsim.com …note that zdsim.com is not affiliated with ZDSimulator in any way. “ZD” is a contraction like we use “RR” for “railroad” in English.) Not surprisingly, ZDSimulator got noticed by hobbyists – enough that a branch of the software development project is now focused on refining the computer-only simulation software into a commercial product for trainsim hobbyists.
An early Russian language-only version was first brought to the attention of the TrainSim.com forums in 2012. Now in 2013, the beginnings of an updated version with English translations is now available. Best of all, there is demo version so you can get acquainted with ZDSimulator’s capabilities for free. This is just the tip of the iceberg – right now, only the basic interface has English translation available. This will be expanding, as interest in this simulator both for hobby and professional use is growing. English, for better or for worse, is widely used around the world, so an international English translation appears to be a goal for meeting wider interest in this simulator.
What is ZDSimulator like? Well, first off I’m still getting acquainted with it, and a deeper review is in the works. For now, some basics:
First, ZDSimulator is a true simulator, not a “jump in the cab and drive” game. Even in its “Beginner” mode, you must start up the locomotive’s individual systems in the correct sequence before you can even think of moving off. (Fortunately, there are prompts to help you along in Beginner mode!) Operate controls incorrectly or out-of-sequence, and you’ll trip breakers and have to reset them. Overload the traction motors and protection will activate; then you’ll have to clear the fault to restore operation. Electrical loading, braking physics, the inertia of the train – all are replicated carefully. It’s quite challenging, enough to reveal how MSTS scratches the surface but isn’t the ultimate in realism. Running in “Professional” mode introduces random faults to repair, even fires, disabled equipment and malfunctioning signals to deal with. (For now, the developer recommends “Beginner” mode for non-Russian speakers just because the full English translation isn’t done yet; system message displays and onscreen indicators are all in Cyrillic alphabet.)
Second, ZDSimulator isn’t an “eye candy” game. It does make use of OpenGL and your computer’s GPU far better than MSTS can, but it’s not pushing them to their limits. The graphics are on par with modern MSTS content and OpenRails – attractive, detailed, but there’s no attempt at the hyper-real look of RailWorks. That’s a good thing, too, since the emphasis here is on accurate physics and train handling. That’s where all the hard work behind this simulator really shines through. It’s easy to overlook any graphics issues when you’ve got to concentrate on your job – which is operating the train correctly and safely – and that’s the way I like it.
Third, and connected to the prior comment on graphics, ZDSimulator isn’t a resource hog. You don’t need a high-end gaming PC to enjoy it. A 2GHz processor, 512MB of system RAM, and 3D video card with 256MB of memory is all it takes to run. It is supposed to run on Windows ME(!!) up through XP, Vista and Windows 7.
Currently, the only routes and trains available in the sim are Ukrainian and Russian, but route and scenario editors exist (separate, free downloads from the developer’s site) and are going to be fully translated into English as work continues. That should make it possible to incorporate other nationalities’ rail lines and trains into ZDSimulator’s architecture.
So, try out ZDSimulator today!
A link to ZDSimulator is now in the “Links” column on this site.