Start up a computer program, jump in a locomotive cab and travel any where in the world, on any kind of train. Sounds like fun! But… Microsoft Train Simulator isn’t exactly a plug-and-play affair. And neither is operating a virtual locomotive and train.
There are forums dedicated to ongoing improvement of MSTS, and new users are still showing up years after Microsoft introduced the simulator. MSTS is largely treated as a hobby — “V-scale” (“V” for “virtual”) model railroading — and the community takes it seriously. Newcomers are welcome, but don’t get caught out in the cold with “Newbie” mistakes.
First off, understand a bit about MSTS. As of this writing, it’s a ten-year-old program. It was released around the same time as Windows XP; it was developed under Windows 98. The system requirements on the box are a trip back in time:
- Windows 95/98/Millenium Edition(!)/2000
- Pentium II 350MHz recommended
- 32MB RAM / 64MB RAM for Windows 2000
- 500MB free hard disk space
- 8MB video card
- DirectX 8.0a
That’s all it takes to make MSTS install and run. Of course, the default routes and first-generation rolling stock look like they were made for systems with those specs. You’ll find that there is much more sophisticated content out there, with proportionately greater system requirements, too.
The other problem with MSTS is that it was somewhat rushed to market, and shortly after, development was frozen in favor of an MSTS version 2 that never materialized — twice. The original release got some new content and and basic bugfixes, but that’s all. The simulator was still rough around the edges. The route and activity building tools work, but can be temperamental and have an unfinished feel. The complexities of the files which make up locomotives, rolling stock, scenery, activities and routes can be baffling to the uninitiated. There are community-built patches, updates and tools that fix many problems, enhance the simulator, and extend it in amazing ways, but the learning curve can be steep.
So, what’s a newcomer to do? First off, have patience. Get very familiar with your computer and how Windows works. I can’t emphasize that enough. Despite its age, MSTS is amazingly flexible and extensible software. But its computer logic is unforgiving. One mistake, and it will cough up seemingly convoluted and incomprehensible errors. Because of its age, MSTS doesn’t always behave as expected, at least not by the rules of modern software and games. You’ll need to get very familiar with how Windows works (Whether it’s XP, Vista, Windows 7 or soon Windows 8 ) and you’ll need to learn the ins-and-outs of MSTS as well. There’s just no way around it if you want to do more than run the default, bare-bones installation of MSTS from 2001.
When you install MSTS, do it right. There’s a tutorial at http://msts.steam4me.net/tutorials/installing_msts.html that will guide you through getting MSTS up and running reliably on a modern computer and operating system. There are other ways, but this method is well known, documented, and virtually “bulletproof.” If you need help on the forums, it’s best to have a commonly-understood starting point, and this will help get you there.
Before you jump in on the forums, read. Read more. Read the FAQ’s. Read the forum rules. Use the search options to look for, and read about the information you’re looking for. The answer might be there already. (It probably is, in fact.) Learn the jargon of MSTS enthusiasts. Just like computer terminology, it’s full of abbreviations and verbal shorthand that seems like gibberish at first, but turns out to be useful and descriptive once you get the hang of it.
When you post, use good grammar. And spell-check. For the love of all that’s good in the world, spell-check! Nothing gets dismissed quicker than a poorly-written, poorly-spelled post. Worse, it’s likely to get ridiculed rather than answered, which won’t get anything useful accomplished.
Try not to ask questions that are obviously answered in FAQ’s tutorials, and recent posts. It will look as if you didn’t bother to read or learn anything first, and nothing good will come of that. The biggest problem with many forums is that the “Sticky” posts which often contain the tutorials and FAQ’s are sprinkled throughout the various forum sub-headings. There’s just no substitute for scanning them all before you (accidentally) ask an obvious question that’s been answered thousands of times by pointing to a “Sticky” post.
Read the “Read Me” document and/or manual for software and add-ons before asking questions. Even free tools and add-ons usually come with documentation. Read it first, then ask questions about what isn’t covered or that you don’t understand. Failing to read the directions can mess up your MSTS installation, and it won’t earn you any favor in the forums.
Be courteous, no matter what. Some forum members have been active since 2001 when MSTS came out. They’ve probably seen every question a hundred times over, and it shows. Don’t be discouraged, just be polite. There are many folks who are happy to lend a newcomer a hand. Give details about your problem when you ask a question. Those seemingly nonsensical MSTS error messages are often surprisingly useful — write down the error you’re asking about and type it exactly in your message. It often helps pinpoint the problem. If someone asks you more questions in response, it’s important to give as accurate answers as possible, because it’s all part of the troubleshooting process. Many MSTS enthusiasts are also either advanced computer hobbyists, or computer professionals. There’s a methodical approach to computer problem-solving; it takes time and requires analyzing a lot of details, but it will get results if you work with it.
Opinions are everywhere on the forums. Don’t be offended or turned away if your question sparks a challenge between other members instead of finding a solution. It happens. Be patient, be polite, and cooler heads will usually step in to help. Keep your personal issues out of the forums, if possible, to avoid fanning the flames.
Get familiar with some basic tools:
- MSTS-Bin — This “unofficial” patch to the MSTS executable fixes bugs and enables features needed for modern MSTS routes and stock. If you followed the tutorial at Steam4me site, you’ve already installed it. If not, go back and re-do your installation. It’s that important.
- Route Riter — Often called the “Swiss Army Knife” of MSTS. It’s free. Information and links are on the Steam4Me site. Route Riter’s installer will also include several other essential tools for working with MSTS files; you must follow the instructions carefully, and read and follow the directions in the installer wizards. This includes pointing the installers to the correct paths specified in the instructions, not just accepting the defaults and clicking “Next!” (See — understanding your computer really is necessary!) Once it’s installed, read Route Riter’s help file and documentation PDF files cover-to-cover. Once you understand how to use it, Route Riter can fix a myriad of MSTS problems if properly used. It can edit consists (make or change trains). It can correct some file errors, and at least pinpoint the nature of others that can be manually fixed. It can greatly enhance how you use MSTS.
- Shape Viewer — A custom version of this free program is installed with Route Riter, but you should have the standalone version as well. It lets you examine locomotive and rolling stock objects in 3-D view, and has the ability to display attributes of them needed for troubleshooting. Shape Viewer can be downloaded from the Steam4me “Utilities” area.
- A text editor — “Notepad” in Windows XP and later is suitable, because it can handle the Unicode text format of most MSTS text-based files. There are other free text editors out there with far better capabilites; ConText is popular in the MSTS community and there are syntax highlighter modules for it which make editing and checking MSTS files much easier. There are details on it at Steam4me.
- EngMod — Allows individual and batch editing of individual parameters of MSTS engine (.eng) and wagon (.wag) files, without having to edit the text-based files directly. Route Riter offers similar capabilites, but many like the focused simplicity of EngMod for its purpose. You should have both Route Riter and EngMod, because both utilities are often called for in various tutorials and help provided by forum members. EngMod is free and can be downloaded from the file libraries at TrainSim.com, UKTrainSim, and the utilities section of Steam4me.
- Train Store — If your MSTS installation is going to grow larger over time (and I doubt there’s an installation that doesn’t…) you will want to look into this free utility which can manage your MSTS routes and stock far better than MSTS can on its own. Train Store “stores away” files that MSTS reads, keeps track of, but doesn’t use while you run a route. Namely, it hides other routes, stock and activities other than the one you’re using at the time. This dramatically reduces the time it takes MSTS to load, and prevents it from bogging down processing data that has no bearing on the route and activity you’re running. Train Store’s manual is long and in-depth. It’s best to start reading it and learning it long before you begin using this complex utility. Train Store can be downloaded from the file libraries at TrainSim.com and UKTrainSim. Note that as of this writing, you need Train Store 3.2, and then the 3.2.2 update to install afterward.
- XTracks, NewRoads, UK Finescale, ScaleRail and ScaleRoads — These are all freeware libraries for the track and roads needed in MSTS routes. You don’t need any of them unless a route requires them, and the “Read Me” file will tell you so. XTracks and NewRoads are used on many, many freeware routes. UK Finescale is a track library especially for UK-style routes. You can download them from the file libraries at TrainSim.com, UKTrainSim, and the utilities section of Steam4me. ScaleRail and ScaleRoads are freeware, but made by the payware vendor 3DTrains.com and are available for download from that site. A new track system called “DB Tracks”, based on modern German rails but being adapted for international route applications, is being discussed at TrainSim.com currently. It is not a simple installation yet, so it is best left alone until you get comfortable making major overhauls to MSTS.
- TSECTION.DAT — This is a descriptor file which defines the characteristics of track in MSTS. It has been updated progressively by the MSTS community over time. XTracks will install version 38. The current version is 44, and should be compatible with nearly every route. It is placed in your “..Train SimulatorGLOBAL” folder.
A word about consist editors — Modifying consists (trains) or creating new ones, whether by need or want is one of the most common newcomers’ questions about MSTS. There is no means of doing it in the simulation. MSTS has a consist editor function included in its (less than user-friendly) tool set, and there are tutorials for it. Most folks want something a bit less clunky, though. There are several choices, starting with free options:
- Route Riter — Route Riter has a built-in consist editor. It used to be limited in functionality, but unlockable by donation. The current version of Route Riter is fully unlocked now, and all consist editing functions are available and work very well. Highly recommended!
- Convoi — A freeware, standalone consist editor. The language in the interface is French by default, but it’s easy to switch it to English. Definitely worth a try if you want a single, focused tool just for working with consists.
- ConBuilder — ConBuilder is probably the most often-mentioned consist editor in the MSTS community, simply because its the oldest, second only to the built-in one in the MSTS tools. It used to be freeware, but converted to payware several years ago, at which time the two free consist editors mentioned above came into being to fill the gap. Payware ConBuilder is a well-sorted-out and respected tool for consist editing. It also has the distinction, for better or for worse, of using the most restrictive activation system of any MSTS payware currently published, which locks the installation to your current computer system and a keycode. It does however, have its very own support forum, which is quite nice and should be able to offer registered users assistance with installations and recovery in the event of a system crash. Older freeware versions of ConBuilder have been struck from the ‘net, no longer distributed, and are rather vehemently not supported. Although the old versions through 2.4.5 are free, do not ask anyone how to get a copy; you are not likely to get favorable responses. The new payware version has improved file checking and error fixing similar to Route Riter. In fact, Route Riter can do virtually anything ConBuilder does, and more, although Route Riter is a bit more technical in nature and in its interface. ConBuilder specializes in ease of use for consist-related tasks.
There is much to enjoy in MSTS. You’ll find many folks who are passionate about creating excellent content, both payware and freeware. Respect them and their contributions, and learn from the huge amount of information that’s out there. Eventually, you’ll find you’ll be able to lend a hand yourself!