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Review: Swanage Railway
Developer: 3DTrainStuff UK UK Publisher: Aerosoft
Reviewed By Mike Wilson
Date: 30 April 2005


Introduction

Swanage Express is the second route release from 3DTrainStuff (3DTS) Uk Branch, and is published by Contact Sales.

The Swanage branch line is probably the poster child for railway preservation in the UK. BR closed the line in 1972 and within three months had removed the entire track, from Swanage as far as Furzebrook (which was kept open to service the clay and gas industries.) After a fierce struggle with the local authorities, the Swanage Railway Preservation Society leased the route and station buildings, and began a heroic effort to recreate the line, as it was in the 1950’s.

After a shaky start, and the obligatory financial crisis in the 1980’s, they have succeeded very well, forging relationships with many local groups, (including the Army) in the process. Reconnection to Furzebrook is completed and a Virgin Voyager traversed the whole route in September 2002. I understand that the railway is negotiating with Railtrack for running rights through to Wareham once more (for specials and whatnot.) The Swanage Railway is a testament to the will and power that a group of committed individuals can bring to bear.

I visited the line in 1999 (with my Mum!)

What you get

The add-on comes in a standard DVD-size case, containing a CD, glossy manual and the usual advertising from Contact Sales. The manual is nicely laid out, and contains some very useful sections on how to drive a steam loco, the route (including a handy gradient profile) and a section devoted to the activities. I did note that German software was used in preparing the manual, because some of the quotation marks are inverted... you’ll know what I mean when you see it... but that didn’t detract from the experience.

First Impressions

Installation was easy, straight out of the box. I read the manual beforehand, of course :) Although the instructions clearly stated that the serial number was printed on the CD case, I couldn’t find it. A few moments of panic then ensued, before realising the installer didn’t ask me for one... I selected the ‘drive an express to Waterloo’ activity.

The first thing I saw was the "West Country" cab. Wow. This is extremely good and probably well worth the cost of the package all by itself. But then, as you’ll discover, I really like Bulleid locomotives.

Outside the cab, my first impressions were... mixed. It will take me the rest of this article to explain why.

Route and Scenery

First up, I’d like to point out that the scenery on this route is brilliantly executed. I got out my photo album from 1999, and it’s very close. I’m particularly impressed by the village of Corfe, and Swanage station and MPD which is just ‘bang on.’ The only thing missing from Swanage station was S15 No. E828 - This seems to have been removed from the end of the runaround loop.

This is a short route - the preserved section of the line is about seven miles long. With the BR track included, the total route length of the add-on is about 12 miles. When I visited, Mum and I travelled up and down a few times, walking and on the train.

The MSTS route looks good. I can identify the gates we walked through, and where we waited for each train. This accuracy extends to Wareham and Furzebrook, as near as I can tell from my reference books (I have several covering the line).

The attention to detail in some places is amazing. I especially like the wires on the telegraph poles - which just serve to complete the picture for me... as well as reminding me that the pole route was erected by the Royal Engineers in 1978 as part of Exercise TOPHAM HATT II. (I think...) Why do I always forget my wedding anniversary?

Importantly, the gradient profile is accurate and challenging, especially given the tightness of some of the curves. You really do need to pay attention to the boiler and fire to get from Swanage to Wareham without stopping for a ‘blow-up’ (even with the West Country’s legendary boiler.) This adds interest to what otherwise could be a fairly dull exercise.

An important feature of the route is the well executed sound scape, with roosters, tractors, birdsong and bells... in fact the bellringers at Corfe must get plenty of exercise. I was two minutes early with a passenger train, and waiting for the road, the constant bellringing nearly me batty. It happens all day, and all night too, as far as I can tell! Still, I imagine this is why we have a volume knob on the speakers...

Now, as well know, the role of the reviewer is to pick at, and impugn the work of others, especially if they can’t do it themselves. With that in mind, I need to point out that although the route as a whole is excellent, I really don’t like the look of the track texturing. This is a very personal thing, but to my eye it looks a bit ‘cartoon-ish’ compared to UK Fine Scale - although it is a vast improvement on the default Kuju effort.

While on the track front, I should point out that the layout is as now, rather than as in 1956.

Stock

Like any good train set, the route is supplied with slightly too much rolling stock to let you play with it all at once :) It includes:

Driveable Locomotives

  • Rebuilt Bulleid "West Country" Pacific "Eddystone"
  • Rebuilt Bulleid "Merchant Navy" Pacific "Port Line"
  • Drummond "M7" Tank Engine

DMU

  • Class 108 Two car set

AI Locomotives

  • Rebuilt Bulleid "Merchant Navy" Pacific "257 Squadron"
  • Standard Class 4MT Tank loco

Loco hauled stock

Apart from the ubiquitous Mk1 coaches, the add-on comes with a goodly variety of freight stock, most of which is very nicely modelled. I’ve taken a screenshot of each one, so you won’t have to take my word for it - but I’m not going to list them all.

My favourites would have to be the "Walrus" ballast hopper, which has some lovely photorealistic texturing and the SR Scenery Van, which fills a much needed hole in the SR stock fleet. Also worthy of special mention are some delightfully well modelled ‘derelict’ vans, which I plan to include in late BR service trains...

Now, I know there is a pile of Mk1 stock available, free and ‘pay-ware’. Nevertheless, these really stand out for me because they are very nicely modelled, and have a nice passenger view - which is clearly modelled on a coach from the railway. It conveys a nice sense of completeness to the passenger train activities - and looks like the coach I rode in when I visited the line in 1999.

The class 108 also has a nicely rendered passenger view - I do like these ‘heritage’ DMU - if only because you can see where you are going. It reminds me of a trip to North Wales when I were a lad... but that’s another story.

On the downside, I don’t think the GWR "Toad" brake van stacks up as well as some of the other stock. The sides, while ‘photorealistic’, are blurry and don’t look quite right. It’s by no means as good as some of the freeware stuff available.

My only other real criticisms of the stock package are perhaps slightly pedantic. Firstly, I don’t think "Eddystone" looks quite right. It’s a nice enough model, but doesn’t quite capture the essence of Bulleid in the same way that "Port Line" does. There’s something indefinably wrong with it - possibly in the texturing. Now it could just be that I’ve stared at one rebuilt spam too many - check out the pictures and judge for yourself.

Secondly, why not provide a cab for the Standard class 4 tank? I was really looking forward to driving this loco because it was in steam the day I visited. The model is very well executed. It is easily, (for my money) the best in the set. The texture is photorealistic and captured well - so it’s a shame that 3DTS couldn’t go the extra yards. I understand that a cab for this loco (and for 257 Squadron) is to be included in a forthcoming add-on, but that doesn’t stop me from being a little disappointed.

This sort of thing reflects the situation in which a lot of small developers fond themselves, there’s only so many people to do the work and no redundancy. So if the cab view guy is too busy, the whole release gets delayed. Now, I have it on good authority that a cab takes nearly as much time as a loco to do properly. So I suppose that I’d rather wait for a good cab if the alternative is not getting the route, and the company going bust due to loss of cash flow... Instant gratification just doesn’t come quickly enough these days.

Thirdly, the M7 tank 30053. This, again, is a very nice model and the M7 is iconic for the Swanage line. So why not get access to the loco and get some photographic textures? The team has obviously managed this for the cab, which is brilliant - again a little extra effort would have resulted in an outstanding, rather than nice loco.

Fourthly, a feature of all preserved lines these days is the ubiquitous "Class 08" shunter. Swanage had a nice one in 1999; it was BR black with big red coupling rods, lovely... maybe in the update release.

Finally, consider the coaching stock. Now, I know that this route is the ‘preserved’ line, and I know that preservation relies largely on the Mk1 coach. But if you are going to provide ‘1963’ activities, why not provide 1963 rolling stock to go with them. In 1963, M7 tanks worked with LSWR "Ironclad" or Maunsell Push-Pull sets, and Standard tanks (2 and 4MT) pulled two or three sets of Bulleid coaches cascaded from the main line.

(I should point out that in some of the screenshots of the 4MT tank, I have modified the loco to be driveable, in order to facilitate photography and used Richard Osborne’s Bulleid coaches to prove a point.)

Let’s be clear here. I don’t want to disrespect Richard Scott, who I understand was responsible for the majority of the stock, and who I respect as a minor deity in the train-sim world. However, I know that with software development, time is tight and effort limited - a little more focus would have been a good investment, in my opinion.

Cab Views and loco sounds

The cab views are very well done, as I mentioned earlier. The M7 is to the same high standard as the WC and the Class 108 cab is also excellent. I can’t fault any of them.

Similarly, the sound package is very nice indeed. The Bulleid chime whistle sounds like the records I have. (Yes, I’m that geeky :) ) I also particularly like the motion sounds of the M7 at speed.

Activities

There are a lot of activities - 23 according to the manual. I was quite impressed when I read this and more so when I realised that a lot of the activities have duplicated ‘lite’ activities to allow those of us with lower order machines to enjoy the route.

Some of the activities are very creative, too. I especially liked the "Inspect the line" activity - which was innovative in many respects.

The activities contain a good mix of passenger and shunting work, with two distinct feels - preservation era and ‘1963’. My only issue with this is, that in 1963 stuff was different. Important, highly noticeable stuff like ‘Day-Glo’ overalls, annoying level crossing squawkers and modern Lorries.

This isn’t much of a problem, I suppose. I’m guilty of perpetuating the same problems in activities I’ve released. I wonder if it would be worth pursuing a batch file that changes car spawners, selected texture files and sound effects. Maybe this is something to consider for the next update.

However, fundamentally, this is a single line route with seven stations on it, and a rationalised track layout. The result is that some of the activities are a bit ‘same-y’, particularly the ones involving the DMU. The only real challenge involved in driving the route with the DMU is keeping to the preserved line speed limits - which are very low indeed. For most of the time, you can keep the beast in neutral, occasionally engaging first gear to keep at the 10mph mark. That’s hardly a challenge, but at least you get time to enjoy the scenery (and the bells!)

I’m going to have a little rant now about the speed limits. I really like the idea of the 1963 activities - they are 50% more engrossing than the preserved line stuff - simply because you get to drive further. However, to play them, you have to ignore the speed limits. Instead of building the line to preserved speed limit restrictions, wouldn’t have been easier to set a higher max speed - say 60mph, then to apply temporary restrictions for the ‘preservation era’ activities? Maybe this can be fixed in the add-on pack.

I suspect that most of the scope for the activity writer will be in providing variety of rolling stock. For example, you could accurately use Class 33 ‘Cromptons’, ‘Hampshire’ DEMU, Ivatt 2MT Tank engines, as well as preservation era stock such as the Johnson/Deeley 1F Tank and various industrial locos.

The dedicated enthusiast might also find it fun to reinstate some of the narrow gauge clay tramways that fed the main line. One of these is where the WHR "Russell" worked before preservation. Hmm - I bet that wouldn’t be supported by 3DTS!

Conclusion

After my initial mixed feelings, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do like the route, although there are some details that continue to nag at me, like the track, "Eddystone" and those bloody bells. However, I have my doubts as to whether it will keep me entertained for very long, even though the next add-on promises to contain about forty new activities. Maybe I’m missing something.

There is a clear and stark contrast between this type of small, highly detailed route, in which every corner contains a new thing to see; and the larger scale express train routes like London & South East, for example. On these routes the interest lies in the activity and observing the broad brush effect - so it’s really a matter of choosing what you prefer.

The outstanding features of this package are the accuracy, attention to the fine detail of the route and the rolling stock package (notwithstanding my earlier niggles.) The activities are also moderately challenging, especially those involving the M7 tank engine and gradients. At the end of the day, though, how many times can you drive up the same hill?

If you like the Swanage railway, buy this route. If you have never been to Swanage, buy the route, and it will save you a trip. If you like driving heavy trains long distances, keeping to timetables and seeing lots of different scenery - you won’t like this route.



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