HTTPS Added — Testing

I’ve added “SSL” or what most people call “HTTPS” to the site, at least temporarily.

It’s nice that it adds the little padlock icon to the address bar in web browsers, and it tends to make the Google search engine happier, which is good. But as a long-time computer administrator, setting it up and keeping it running can be a hassle, so we’ll see how this works out. An organization named “LetsEncrypt” has tried to make the process simpler and free, which is helpful. Most SSL certificate issuers charge for each certificate, which has to be renewed annually, and the validation process has gotten more complicated as time goes by — which really isn’t worth it for a small, read-only blog. But everybody is being taught to look for that little padlock icon.

The trouble is that the publisher of the WordPress plugin that makes this possible has decided to go from freeware to a pay model within days of my first installing it. I chose it because this particular one is free, which is appropriate for a small script that sets up a scheduled task to update the free SSL certificate periodically. WordPress has its peculiarities with SSL and LetsEncrypt, and a lot of plugin publishers have been cashing in on it, something I take a dim view of. So now, the plugin publisher has decided to head in that direction — although admits that the plugin will keep working as it is.

So we’ll see how this goes. I’ll keep HTTPS running for as long as it’s still workable and doesn’t cost anything. If the plugin goes away, I may see if I can write a script to replace it. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll take the site back to plain old HTTP. If that happens, I’ll pop an announcement banner up ahead of time, in case it makes anybody’s browser display any dire warnings.

We’re Back!

2020 was a banner year for troublesome times, to say the least. My hosting company added to it with hefty price increases, so I decided to back up the site and take it down. Probably for a month or two… Which stretched on and on into nearly the end of 2021.

Here we are then, back again. The site should be virtually unchanged outside of a few required updates to the underlying software. There are some other unseen changes; I now own the entire domain that this site has been a subdomain of for years. It’s long belonged to a close associate of mine who has run various IT security projects, but never made use of the domain except for internal things. So, now it’s mine to do with entirely as I want. With the move away from MSTS to Open Rails, primarily, I might work in some new naming/branding in the future. We’ll see.

I also have a partnership of sorts with a long-time friend who spends time in the new Microsoft Flight SImulator and other games. There could be some cross-over eventually.

For now though, look for an entry or two on the newest release of Open Rails, and whatever else comes this way.

Enjoy!

Installing MSTS on Windows 10 and the CD 2 Problem

Some time ago, Microsoft removed all support for the SecuROM copy-protection system from Windows 10 — And with good reason. There’s a serious security vulnerability in the driver software for it. But with that support gone, installing MSTS on Windows 10 has seemingly gotten more difficult.

It’s not as bad as it seems. The solution is fairly simple — copy the files from each MSTS CD into one single folder, then run the installer.

There’s one temp file that gets overwritten when you copy the files into a single location; it’s OK since that file does nothing for MSTS — it’s probably part of how the installer tracked CD-swapping, but it makes no difference now.

CD 1 will copy with no problems unless it’s dirty or scratched. CD 2 may take longer, and keeping it clean and un-scratched is important still. This is because SecuROM used fake errors and deliberately “damaged” track sections on CD 2, so it’s harder to copy. But, somewhat ironically, the built-in improvements to file copy integrity in Windows 10 will work as long as the disk and the CD drive is in good condition.

Once you’ve copied all the files into one single folder, run the installer. To be safe, it’s generally best to right-click and choose “Run as Administrator” just because modern Windows can be picky about things like that. Be sure to pick an install location that’s not in \Program Files\ or \Program Files (x86)\, of course.

The installer will run all the way through to the end, without stopping to ask for the second disk. After that, be sure to install all of the official Microsoft MSTS updates; that will bring your install up to standard and remove the dependency on having Disk 1 in the drive.

To keep your folder of copied files safe, it’s best to make a .ZIP file archive of them. Use your favorite file-compression utility or even the ZIP utility built into Windows with right-click > Send To > Compressed (zipped) folder. Make a backup copy or two of the .ZIP file and put your MSTS CDs away for safekeeping.

Revisiting the RailDriver in Open Rails With Experimental Monogame and RailDriver Support

Open Rails development has been coming along quite well, particularly in testing the adaptation of the Monogame framework. (Monogame is the open-source adaptation of Microsoft’s XNA4 platform.) The Monogame platform brings some significant performance improvements, with better handling of memory and DirectX that makes Open Rails perform better and run more smoothly with large, complex routes and scenery than ever before. (Note, however, that the monogame implementation requires Windows 7 to run. It can’t run on Windows XP.)

It’s already been decided that Monogame is the way ahead for Open Rails, since it’s an open, actively developed platform for modern computers. A large portion of the development work this year has been in preparing and testing the Open Rails code base to move onto the Monogame framework. It might not seem as ground-breaking as, say, the introduction of working turntables, but in reality it’s even more important, since it moves the core software off of the old closed XNA framework which will eventually go end-of-life and onto a modern, open-source platform which will continue to support modern computers and operating systems.

Along the way, the source code repository has moved to GitHub, which makes it easier for developers and experimenters to create alternative forks of the project, and for those changes to eventually be folded into the main branch of development, if desired. That’s how the Monogame project began, as an independent fork to test the possibilities. After much testing and hard work, the Monogame fork’s progress is steadily being integrated into a new “Unstable” branch alongside the ongoing “Experimental” branch of Open Rails. This is in preparation for the eventual migration to Monogame for the main and Experimental branches.

There’s also a fork of the project that overhauls RailDriver support in Open Rails. Github user and Open Rails experimenter “perpetualKid” has been working on improving how the RailDriver is handled. The sluggish response of the RailDriver controls has been addressed. Control response is now quick and accurate. The improved RailDriver code includes the ability to re-map the RailDriver’s buttons and controls, just like the existing ability to re-map the keyboard inputs. And there’s a built-in calibration system that works hand-in-hand with the improved control behavior.

Continue Reading…

Just for Fun (And Reference): MSTS on the Wayback Machine

Earlier, I’d mentioned the Wayback Machine, the Internet Archive’s ongoing virtual “time machine” archive of web pages. While poking around recently, I’ve discovered that the archive of the official Microsoft Train Simulator website is now fully functional. It had been there before, but like many archived sites, there were numerous broken image links and missing pages behind links. Thanks to some diligent work either at the Internet Archive, Microsoft, or both (Impossible to say, but the IA has been working to improve the linking of objects in their webcrawl database, both on their own and with the help of major sites that they archive) the site is working just as it did when it was “live” on Microsoft’s servers.

Rather importantly, the links in the Downloads section all work, and offer up the relevant files for download. This means that all of the official Microsoft patches and updates are safely archived and can be downloaded.

You can also explore the site, and read some of the ‘behind the scenes” and informational articles that were published.

Note: Just as it did originally, there’s a main navigation menu at the top of the Train Simulator page which is for the page itself. It works perfectly. There’s also a menu bar above that one which leads to various pages on the larger Microsoft site. Many of those links do work, but not all of them. They lead away from the Train Simulator page anyhow, so that’s not a problem.

The link I’ve provided will take you to what’s probably the last, most complete version of the MSTS website. It’s from December 5, 2006. Just for fun, if you click inside the Wayback Machine’s timeline display above the page, you can move to January of 2006, and see the page as it existed just after Microsoft officially announced MSTS 2, to be based on the same engine as Flight Simulator X. There are several links to blog posts by the ACES Studios developers which are working.

Open Rails Updated to Version 1.3

The “Stable” version of Open Rails is now at version 1.3. This will be the official release version until the next major one, which tends to occur at roughly yearly intervals. If you’ve been using the frequent “experimental” releases, you’re already running with all the features in 1.3, and the “experimental” branch will continue to add new features and bug-fixes as they’re developed instead of waiting for the major version roll-up.

Some highlights from Version 1.3:

  • Working transfer tables added to complement working turntables
  • 3D cabs can now support mouse control
  • Timetable operation can support splitting and joining trains
  • “Evaluation” of completed activities is working (Frequently requested feature to carry over from MSTS)
  • Activity operation now supports extensions with additional, external files and randomization of events in activities
  • Car spawner (road traffic generator) upgraded to support animated people in scenery
  • Environment sound improvements – curve and switch sounds in routes, cab radio chatter support
  • AI trains can open and close doors at station stops
  • Improvements to vacuum brake simulation
  • Improvements to steam locomotive exhaust and steam effects from rolling stock
  • Various improvements for creating upgraded content beyond MSTS standards
  • Improvements to timetable-based operation
  • Improvements to signal scripting
  • Wind resistance of trains can be simulated

For anyone new to Open Rails, the original Edinbugh-Glasgow demo route is available from the “Content” section of the Downloads pages on the Open Rails website. Additionally, the Australian (New South Wales) steam-era Great Zig Zag Railway freeware route is conveniently linked from the Open Rails site.

And finally, TrainSimulations (Formerly Streamlines) is also offering a starter route for free, which is based on their BNSF Scenic Subdivision. It contains the route and a smaller selection of locomotives and rolling stock, complete with activities ready to try.

These are complete routes including all necessary locomotives, rolling stock, and activities to operate — no additional downloads (or pre-existing MSTS files*) are needed.

Links for these are available on the Open Rails website, or try the links here; however they are subject to change over time.

* Remember that many freeware routes have dependencies which require equipment, scenery, and track assets from MSTS. Open Rails itself doesn’t require them to run, and the sample routes mentioned above are entirely self-contained and don’t have these requirements. It’s recommended to purchase and have an install of MSTS if you want to take advantage of the wide range of pre-existing MSTS content and MSTS-derived content in Open Rails.

Ultra-Wide Monitors and Open Rails in Full-Screen

Open Rails is a much more modern application than MSTS, and is quite capable of displaying at much higher resolutions, up to the capabilities of your computer’s graphics card. The most recent experimental versions since X3925 have included updates and bug fixes in the way that OR handles the view from 2D cabs and the way that it handles stretching and scrolling up and down in 2D cabs made for the original MSTS 4:3 aspect ratio. This has made a noticeable improvement in handling 4:3 cabs on today’s most common monitor aspect ratio of 16:9.

Monitor technology is moving on, however, and ultra-wide displays are becoming more common for desktop setups. Open Rails handles them quite well, and delivers impressive visuals on them. An ultra-wide monitor, such as the fairly popular 3440 x 1440 size will give cinematic views in the outside cameras and work quite well with 3D cabs in full-screen mode.

The trouble, however, is with 2D cabs, most of which have been designed for MSTS’ original aspect ratio of 4:3. When displayed full-screen in Open Rails in stretched mode, they’re too distorted to be usable on an ultra-wide monitor. In non-stretched mode, they’re too limited in the vertical dimension; you have to use the arrow keys constantly to move the view up and down to see the controls and then move back to look out the locomotive windshield to see the tracks and signals. It creates the effect of sitting with your nose either in the controls or pressed up against the windshield.

Fortunately, there is a workaround. Much like making MSTS cope with high resolution screens by changing the Windows desktop resolution, the same can be done for Open Rails, but without resorting to drastic downgrades to resolution which can cause blurry text and edges. First, make sure that your graphics card’s control options are set so that scaling is performed on the GPU, and the aspect ratio preference is set to maintain the original aspect ratio — not to stretch or fill the screen with the image. Then, use Windows’ Display Settings options to change to a resolution with a narrower (lower number) horizontal resolution — the first number in the combination — but that has the same vertical resolution — the second number in the combination.

For instance, if the monitor’s native resolution is 3440 x 1440, you can change to 2560 x 1440 for a 16:9 aspect ratio or 1920 x 1440 for a 4:3 aspect ratio, without changing the vertical resolution and therefore no loss of image quality. The image will simply be a narrower viewing area set in between vertical black bars, or “pillarbox” mode, as it’s called when displaying traditional 4:3 images on modern high-definition televisions. Similar resolution options are available on the smaller 2560 x1080 ultra-wide monitors; in such a case simply choose the narrower horizontal resolutions which still have 1080-pixel-high vertical resolutions.

The one drawback to all this is that Open Rails doesn’t support user-selectable resolutions for full-screen mode, unlike most modern games. OR’s full-screen mode only runs at whatever resolution is selected for the Windows desktop, so you have to change Windows to your preferred resolution and then launch Open Rails, and change it back when you’re done. It’s not known yet if this can or will be changed in future releases of Open Rails. I’ve at least offered the suggestion; only time will tell if it’s a feasible addition or not.

High Resolution Monitors and MSTS Crashes

It happened — you just upgraded your monitor, or perhaps you moved your MSTS installation to a new laptop or desktop computer, and… Nothing. MSTS crashes back to the desktop instantly when you try to launch it. But it was working perfectly before, so what happened?

Changes are, you encountered the most recent difficulty with MSTS versus modern computer hardware. The high-resolution monitors that are frequently built into laptops and included with desktop computers are capable of displaying resolutions that MSTS simply doesn’t know what to do with.

The type of monitor doesn’t matter. It could be an extremely high-DPI (Dots Per Inch) laptop display in an ordinary aspect ratio, a 4K desktop monitor, or a large ultra-wide monitor. Any of those types run at native resolutions far beyond what MSTS expects. With the BIN patch installed, the highest resolution MSTS can cope with is 1600 x 1200. Chances are, if you’re getting an instant crash-to-desktop with a high-resolution monitor, you’ll find that if you go to the display settings in Windows, the resolution is set higher than that. (The resolution that Windows labels “Recommended” is your screen’s native resolution, and it’s the default setting.)

Just choose a different, lower resolution of 1600 x 1200 or lower and then try launching MSTS again. If all goes well, it will launch. If it does, then you can go back and try different resolutions until you find what looks best. You may find some resolutions which are viewable but still too large. They’ll cause dialog boxes, like the exit confirmation box, to display incorrectly.♦

When you’re done running MSTS, you’ll have to go back to the display settings and change them back to the “Recommended” setting to get a clear-looking display of your desktop and regular applications. Windows 10 will usually be able to return all your desktop icons to their original locations. Older versions of Windows may leave them all grouped together from right-to-left.

♦ You’ll get the best results if you go into your graphics card’s own settings (Nvidia control panel, AMD Catalyst control center or Intel Graphics Adapter settings) and find the options for screen scaling. Set it so that scaling is performed on the GPU, and set it to maintain the aspect ratio. This will help keep the image from being distorted or stretched. Remember that not all resolutions will work well with MSTS, and not all will scale well. It takes some experimentation. Also, of course, many versions of Intel graphics won’t work at all with MSTS, and some implementations of AMD drivers and Catalyst Control Center need a patch to work with MSTS. Nvidia graphics chipsets are still the most reliable for MSTS as well as many other older DirectX games.

A Bit About the “Wayback Machine”

The Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” archive of the Web is what I consider to be a very valuable resource. Sites come and go, but if they’re successfully archived by the “Wayback Machine”, they’re still viewable and the information they contain isn’t lost.

I’ve been concerned about the effectiveness of the archive for several years, though, due to it making pages unavailable when a new version of the page either contains an explicit prohibition in the page’s “robots.txt” directive to search engine spiders, or if the file is missing or incorrectly configured. It caused a large number of previously-archived pages to be hidden from view for several years. Often, the simple presence of a “parking” page on an old site’s domain could cause the history of an old site’s domain to be effectively locked away.

Earlier this year, the Internet Archive has, thankfully, taken action to change the “Wayback Machine’s” behavior with respect to old sites versus the “robots.txt” file. Many sites which had been blocked from displaying their archived copies are now working again. Of course, it can only archive publicly-accessible content; content behind login prompts such as forums and members-only areas of websites can’t be archived, just as they generally can’t be indexed by search engines.

For MSTS users, that means that archived copies of long-gone MSTS-related pages are becoming available again. Some of the archives are complete, or nearly so, including freeware downloads on some pages. For instance, the freeware USRA Light Mountain by Train Artisan is a popular base component of various freeware steam locomotives found in TrainSim.com’s file library. It’s once again available here on the “Wayback Machine” after an absence of two years or more.

I’ve also added an automated snapshot feature to my own blog here so that it can be more reliably archived by the “Wayback Machine” — that way, information here is less likely to be lost, if the site were to ever shut down. (Not that some things, like the variable image at the top of each page, may or may not display correctly due to JavaScript and WordPress behavior. The information in posts and articles should be archived safely, however.)