Category Archives: Review

Best Train Simulator 2019

I have some personal enthusiasm for trains, and last years part of that has been playing Train Simulator on PC. That is the game that used to be called Railworks and that currently is named Train Simulator 2019. While I have spent much time with it I also have mixed feelings.

In 2019 there are two alternatives to TS2019 that I have tested and that I will write about: Train Sim World and Trainz Railroad Simulator 2019.

My experience with Dovetail Train Simulator (2019)

I got Train Simulator because I wanted to try to drive trains. The game has developed over the years but there are some annoyances.

The game has some quirks and bugs. The physics, engines, wagons, signals, AI and scenario conditions sometimes don’t work in a way you would expect.

The game is also rather unforgiving. One little mistake can ruin a scenario so you can’t even continue. If that was passing a red light, ok. But sometimes I am just a little late, a little early, I connected or disconnected the wrong wagon, I went into the wrong siding or something like that.

The combination of bugs and being unforgiving is rather frustrating. When there is a little inperfection in the game I can perhaps accept the lack of good simulation experience, but if it ruins the scenario completely, it is worse.

The game has a competitive aspect (it is a game) where you drive scenarios and get scores. This is particularly unforgiving. Decouple a wagon and for some reason (bug?) I get “operational error”, being penalised with -750 points (1000 is max), and I have no choice but aborting the scenario. Also, speeding is penalised heavily. This is annoying for two reasons: first the time table is often ridiculously tight, second it is not uncommon that maximum allowed speed changes unexpectedly.

You can read about the outdated graphics of TS2019 and that is true, but it does not ruin my experience. You can read about all the expensive DLC, but that is your choice (I bought some, but most everything on sales). What I find more annoying is that I buy a nice piece of DLC and it comes with very few scenarios. That is where the (Steam) workshop comes in and there are quite many scenarios (of varying quality) do download.

I found that creating scenarios was often more fun than driving myself and I have contributed some 44 scenarios on Steam Workshop. If driving is quirky, creating scenarios is kind of black magic (the problem is I need to test it, and when it fails after 40 minutes, I need to guess whats wrong and drive again for 40 minutes until I know if it works – a horrible development and debugging experience).

It seems to me it would be very possible to deliver a better Train Simulator game!

On Realism

It is easy to talk about realism. But is it really what we want. My experience…

  • Some routes allow for long eventless sessions. That is the realistic truth about driving a train, but how entertaining is it?
  • A real challenge when driving a train is breaking and planning your breaking. The weight and length of the train matters, as long as other factors. In the real world a train engineer makes calculations about breaking distances. They are not going to be driving a new train, with unknown weight, on a new track on a tight time schedule. Yet in a train simulator this is what we do, because we want (much) variation (it is a somewhat boring game anyways).
  • A real engineer knows the line well, and has special physical documentation about the line available. And he has studied this before. You don’t do that in a train simulator.
  • A real engineer spends much time checking things like breaks and wheels. And there is much waiting.
  • You can have a realistic “regulator”, that you can operate in the locomotive cab. That will look realistic in one way. But a real engineer would not point and look at it with a mouse, he just happens to have his hand there in the first place. User-friendly, where man-machine becomes one, is good simulation to me.
  • Real(istic) timetables are good, but not when it is almost impossible to arrive on time in the simulator.

My point is that I don’t want a realistic simulator. I want a simulator that gives me the feeling I am driving a train. And I want the time I spend with my computer to be more eventful, entertaining and challenging that the average work hour of a train engineer. And also somewhat more forgiving and I want support with things that are easier in the real world.

Train Sim World

Train Sim World is produced by the same company (Dovetail) as Train Simulator 2019. It appears they thought of it as a replacement for Train Simulator 2019, but it also appears that for now the games exist side by side. It is not clear that Train Sim World will ever replace, or even survive, Train Simulator 2019.

The good:

  • It looks (the graphics) better than the alternatives.
  • It may be the most “polished” option (also available for Playstation and Xbox, which gives you a hint).
  • If you get a “package” at discounted price on Steam (EUR25 for 4 routes) it is quite good value.

The bad:

  • It does not look that good; it is still computer graphics with obvious artifacts and problems. Also, the sound is not too convincing and the surroundings are pretty dead.
  • Walking around (in the scenarios) does not appeal to me, and it is not well made enough to add to the realism of the game.
  • Menus are a bit messy.
  • Quite limited number of scenarios, but plenty of “services”, but I think that contributes to (even) less events, action and storytelling.
  • The routes seem small, and very little action or room outside the mainline (like very linear).
  • Occational glitches like “what do I do now”, “what happens next” or “how do I do that”? (driving a service, I was done, told to get off, the train drove away by itself with no visible driver or no comments, and then nothing… had to just quit).
  • It lacks something. Like its not a bit dirty, noisy and rough… but just too smooth and clean.
  • So far, no possibility for user generated content. It is promised, and it will be based on Unreal, so it seems to be very technically demanding. I myself would prefer to be able to make scenarios with a story easily, without changing anything about the route or the other assets at all.
  • Unreal (which is to thank for the better graphics) seems to be a more complex (expensive) development environment, and perhaps this will limit in the future the availability or routes and assets, and make the price high (pure speculation).

I did give Train Sim World a first try, wrote a very negative review, refunded it, but after a few weeks I gave it a new try, and now I have a more balanced opinion about it.

Trainz Railroad Simulator 2019

Years ago I obviously did research and opted for Train Simulator rather than Trainz. Now that I was a bit disappointed with Train Simulator and rather disappointed with Train Sim World I felt I had to give Trainz 2019 a try.

My expectations based on marketing and what I read was:

  • Better graphics than Train Simulator, but perhaps not as good as Train Sim World.
  • More creator-, community- and sharing oriented (which appealed to my preference to making scenarios).
  • It’s a railroad simulator, rather than a train driver simulator.

I must say right away that I am quite disappointed. I ended up paying EUR 70 for Trainz, and EUR 25 for Train Sim World, and that does not reflect the value of what I got.

Download Station

Trainz comes with “its own Steam Workshop, Download Station”. This is the worst part of it. Hundreds of assests, organised alphabetically, with virtually no filtering and no community/feedback/rating function. Unless I completely missed something, this is shit. My use case is that I want to see if someone created a nice 30 min session for one of the premium routes that came with my purchase (and that has no extra dependencies). Trainz seems to live in the world where people download zip-files from ftp-servers and spend the effort of maintaining their virtual asset library like the stock portfolio. I am tempted to make a few sessions myself, and sharing them here, on my blog, but why?

Graphics

There is something idyllic, picturesque, beautiful and friendly about Trainz that is missing in Train Simulator and Train Sim World. There are gorgeous screenshots from Trainz out there. But when it comes to actual game performance on my actual computer (a NUC Hades Canyon) Trainz is the worst. I have been spending not so little time optimizing my graphics settings (and there are many settings to play with).

Quality

To my disappointment the routes come with quite few sessions. The beatiful route from Edinburg to Aberdeen (perhaps just to Dundee) has two sessions: a passenger service with the same Deltic locomotive going both ways. These two scenarios both take 1h30min each to drive. And the one I did try did not work in CAB (realistic) drive mode, because for some reason the Deltic can not pull those wagons with any speed whatsoever. Isn’t it reasonable to expect when a new EUR 70 release is made after 7 years, that the sessions are tested at least once, and working?

Then there was another beautiful session on the Cornish mainline where a 2MT steam locomotive pulls ~25 freight wagons and it just can’t make it up the grades. I asked in the forum and I had managed to get further than most people, but the suggestion was to just try another locomotive (edit the session). Why release a session with the wrong locomotive in the first place?

If driving steam locomotives in realistic mode can be a challenge in Train Simulator (often a frustrating one), in Trainz it feels… not realistic. Perhaps I need more practice, but it is very… unsmooth.

Other things

There is no support for a Gamepad (although I found a little software called AntiMicro) which works decently well for my purposes.

I really miss the look-out-throw-the-side-window camera view.

I appreciate that I can see the status of the next signal in the HUD.

When I have completed a session it does not remember (marked as completed) so I made my own list

A good thing about Trainz is that it is more forgiving than Train Simulator. I ran out of boiler pressure, but then I could switch to simple driving mode and at least complete the session.

I get the feeling that for people who already own and love the old Trainz this is an upgrade. But for a new player it is a rough experience.

Conclusion and recommendation

Unfortunately I think none of the games I have written about live up to the expections you should allow yourself to have in 2019. And I am not aware of a better game in the genre.

Clearly this genre appeals to enthusiasts who want to make their own assets and modify the game, and clearly Train Simulator and Trainz are based on old technology that have not aged too well (and people are reluctant to abandon their assets). Train Sim World, being based on Unreal, has not been able to deliver a workshop- or sharing-experience at all, yet.

If you are curious about how it is to drive a train, get Train Sim World (and an Xbox controller if you get it on PC, I know nothing about the Playstation/Xbox experience). Sit comfortably, turn up the volume, have some coffee (or whatever you drink) and do your best to enjoy the experience. Spend time with the tutorials and dont get too frustrated if you get stuck.

If you want to have your own digital train layout, and play with it (dispatch and control multiple trains), get Trainz, and make sure to have a powerful enough computer.

If you think that Steam workshop is a nice idea where you can share scenarios (and other assets) and communicate with other people about them get Train Simulator 2019. Cost/price aside, there are very many routes (and extra locomotives) available for Train Simulator 2019.

Train Simulator 2019 now supports 64-bit mode. Technically its not… hot… but it is being improved. Train Sim World looks better, but it is not that much better. Honestly, folks who make a living reviewing computer games say: “TS2019 looks so old, but TSW is built on Unreal like all the other cool games, much better.” But for your total train simulation experience, the difference is… marginal.

I would not be too surprised if the Train Sim World Editor never happens. If it is released I would not be surprised if it is too complex and a critical portion of contributors and enthusiasts never switch. The advice to enthusiasts to “Download the UE4 Editor from Epic and start learning”, I am sceptical about it. I doubt I will contribute scenarios if I have to get into a real 3D studio to place some trains and make some timetables/rules.

I would hope that Trainz gets a real workshop experience where you can easily share assets in a social way and where you don’t need to worry too much about dependencies. And I would hope that Trainz manages to polish their game, test it properly, and provide a solid graphics experience.


Train Sim World Review

I have been playing Train Simulator (up to 2019 just recently) for some years and I have mixed feelings for it. So I decided to try the “successor” Train Sim World. I will get straight to the point and say that I requested a refund from Steam after 104 minutes (despite getting the Digital Deluxe edition at 55% discount). Perhaps you may think I can not properly judge a game after just 104 minutes? Perhaps 104 minutes was more time than I should have spent.

The Graphics
The big thing about Train Sim World is supposed to be its state-of-the-art Unreal 4 graphics engine, compared to the “outdated” engine of Train Simulator. I think… it looks better, but not that much better. I think TS2019 with a decent GPU and 64-bit-edition looks pretty decent. And TSW did not look that amazing. But that was not the problem…

1st person perspective
In TSW you can walk around. You can enter and exit your locomotive. Thats ok, but I don’t really care. However in the first Scenario (Great Western Express) I had to take a local service to Paddington. So I had to, in game, spend 10 min on a commuter train. I could not figure out how to sit down, so I could not really look out through the windows and enjoy the view. And the interior of that commuter train was not amazing and there were some reflexes (I guess) that gave pretty ugly artifacts. It took me 20 minutes in a mostly empty commuter train and walking around in a mostly empty Paddington station until I was actually in my drivers seat. Not fun.

The Driving UI
The view from the drivers seat looks good. Both in TS and TSW there are basically four ways to do (the most common) things:

  1. Using the mouse to click/drag in the HUD
  2. Using the keyboard
  3. Using an Xbox gamepad
  4. Using the mouse/pointer to manipulate the actual instruments, buttons and levers in the cabin.

This is listed in the order I learnt it in Train Simulator. The HUD was easy to start with but not too comfortable. The keyboard was more comfortable and the gamepad even more so. For long relaxed drives I sit back using the gamepad. But for intense and precise shunting operations I bring out the mouse. I never really bothered with #4.

But #1 does not work in TSW. The HUD is view-only. So there is no button on the screen that clearly loads/unloads passengers. You have to click TAB to get a menu in the middle of the screen. I think it was great in TS that there was a simple control-with-mouse interface at the bottom of the screen that had everything I needed! Then I could use keyboard, gamepad or the cabin buttons as I preferred.

TS had an interactive and useful HUD at the bottom of the screen. And a task menu to the left that could be opened when needed. But TWS clutters the forward, outward, view with information. It is not pretty. The markers (for speed and signal color) completely destroy the beautiful view. You can turn it off but you need that information somewhere. You can get it in the HUD, but it shows up covering the landscape outside.

Its possibly I spent too little time with the new UI. But I really didn’t like it. And it was hard to use and learn.

Scenario Tasks
For some reason you can not see all your tasks from the beginning. What is that!? Isn’t the train driver supposed to know the timetable in advance to be able to plan ahead? And I did have problems completing tasks. In the EM2000 freight scenario “Aggregate Industries” I was supposed to activate Slow Speed Control. Not only was it unheard of, and I needed to find a little button with the right tooltip (not knowing if I am in a hurry or not), but clicking the button never completed the task and I could not complete (or even begin, actually) the scenario.

Scenarios and Services
The Great Western Express DLC comes with 3 locomotives and 5 scenarios! Perhaps more can be unlocked, but what is that? On the other hand there are very many “services”, being able to run any train on the time schedule. Thats ok, but then no information about duration or difficulty.

Conclusion
Well, this was just some of my impressions. But I was disappointed and frustrated after almost two hours with TSW and I feel relieved that my refund was accepted.

Since TSW is also for consoles (Xbox, PS) I would have expected a nice, smooth, beautiful, polished driving experience where I could relax with my gamepad and see, hear almost feel the power of the engine and the landscape flying by. Instead I got a slow boring confused first-person-shooter-experience where I felt lost in a runaway train.

NUC Hades Canyon Review

Computers don’t have to be large anymore. Apple has the MacMini and the MacPro is also very compact. You can get a long way with a Raspberry Pi nowadays. And I particularly like Intel NUCs.

How about gaming? Occationally I play Windows games (using Steam) that require a gaming computer. I needed to replace my old gaming computer (an Intel i5 2450 @ 3.1GHz I think, with a Radeon 9000 graphics card) and decided to give the gaming NUC a try, the Hades Canyon, or NUC8i7HVK.

Its a barebone machine the size of a broadband router so I needed to get an M.2 SSD (500GB) and RAM (2x8GB) and I installed Windows 10 on it (the natural choice for gaming, and I have heard this NUC is not working well with Linux).

Well, after a week with this machine I like it. Installation was smooth. It looks quite good and it is very small. Most of the time it is completely silent. Sometimes during gaming the fans spin up, but it does not sound worse than my old desktop (quite the opposite, I would say). It is obviously not the most powerful gaming machine but it replaced my old machine with no trouble.

Well, for benchmarks and details, read a “real” review.

I am satisfied with the Hades Canyon as a gaming computer. It will be interesting to see if I am happy with it in a few years, or if it turns out to have a short service life.

Review and Strategy: Railway Empire

I have much enjoyed playing Railroad Tycoon II and Railroad Tycoon 3. In a way I prefer the quite refined 2D graphics of RTII to the quite crude 3D-graphics of RT3 but RT3 has an economic model that is more interesting (although far from perfect). Over the years I have waited for Railroad Tycoon 4 and instead I have found games like:

  • Cities in motion
  • Transport Fever
  • Sid Meiers Railroads

They all have their charm and qualities but none of them aspire to be the successor of Railroad Tycoon.

Railway Empire
Then came Railway Empire. I have played it during closed beta and as I write it is still in beta. Railway Empire is a candidate to be the defacto successor of Railroad Tycoon so I will write about different aspects of it.

Graphics
The graphics is nice. It is cartoonish rather than realistic – Railroad Tycoon (esp II) had a more serious look – but its ok with me. The ride-along-mode is quite nice.

Controls
I understand Railway Empire is designed not only for computers but also for gaming consoles. For this reason things are large and quite simplified. You don’t get large tables of facts and statistics and it is more about clicking, sometimes a click or two more than what you want. I think it works well.

Time and speed
This kind of game needs to deal with time. On one hand a train on a line could do several roundtrips on a single day, based on a realistic time table. On the other hand the game should progress day by day or month by month while the trains beautifully cross the landscape. I think Railway Empire gets this quite right. The trains accelerate quite fast and it does not take too many days for them to reach their destination. If I remember correctly, in Transport Fever it takes annoyingly long time to arrive. I have not started up RTII/RT3 to compare, but I think in Railway Empire trains typically return in weeks rather than months (as in RTII/RT3).

A much debated thing is the tactical pause. As it is now the game has three modes:

  • Trainiac: no pause (with a few exceptions): +20% score
  • Normal: game paused when building
  • Manual: can pause whenever you want: -20% score

I personally prefer the Manual mode. I start up a new scenario, listen to the introduction, read the tasks and investigate the map before I start building anything. I don’t want this to take 6 months when the first tasks are to be accomplished in 2 years. Of course I can study the map, take notes, make a game plan and then restart the game but to me that just adds the feeling of cheating. I play Railway empire to relax, not to be stressed.

Nevertheless I can see that the absense of pause makes the game more challenging. Perhaps when I replay the same scenario in the future I can try one of the faster modes.

So I think the three modes are fine.

Rail network mode
There is a simplified mode where several trains can run on a single track. I am not interested in that and I have used the realistic mode that requires signals, where you can get deadlocks and trains can block each other.

Building
Laying tracks is enormously improved since RT3. Without going into detail you can place several segments and see the cost and the inclines. Then you can adjust the curves and height, creating new cuttings, viaducts and tunnels and get a new price in real time. If you are happy you can click $ and you are done. No need to build, delete and start over (or even make tactical saves as in RT3).

Each station can have up to 4 through tracks and each town can have 2 stations. Then there can be (any number of) warehouses also with 4 tracks. So a large city with one warehouse may have 24 outgoing tracks. This works quite well. You can build viaducts and tunnels and the game is quite forgiving. The station itself is just the platforms and you need to extend it far out in the surrounding landscape with parallell tracks for incoming and outgoing trains to avoid queues and deadlocks.

When you have many parallell tracks the switches and curves take more space than would be optimal. There are no crossings. It wouldn’t surprise me if these things get improved before the final version.

In conclusion you can do things you only dreamt of in RT3.

Routing and signalling
One of the most significant changes from RTII/RT3 is the signalling system (not very different from Transport Fever). The important thing to understand is that every train has one exact route that it will not divert from ever (unless you change it), meaning:

  • There is no such thing as available platform (train will wait for its assigned platform to be free)
  • There are no train priorities (in most cases it would have no relevance)
  • The train will take the shortest route (which may not be what you want)

The signalling system is not trivial. I would not be able to explain how it would work in every situation but I  have come up with ways to use it that works for me. The trains pass a signal if the section (until next signal) is free unless it is entering a single track that already have another train coming in the opposite direction. But it is possible to produce deadlocks.

Generally more trains mean more waiting. If you get to the point where you have deadlocks you probably have far too many trains. A lot of the time you increase capacity by making sure the trains you have already deployed easily can get to their destinations rather than deploying more trains on already busy tracks.

In conclusion the signalling system works beatifully but you need to practice a bit before you master it. When I have read other guides it seems other players use the signalling systems in ways I dont.

Town Growth
Each town has demands. Small towns demand small quantities of basic goods (such as wheat). Larger towns also demand more delicate goods (such as vegetables) or manufactured goods (such as furniture).

This means that when you supply a small town with everything it needs it will quickly grow. But then it will start demanding things you are not transporting there and it will stop growing.

Industries transform goods (like wheat) into other goods (like beer). Industries are located in towns and adds to the towns demand. What they produce will be consumed locally (if demanded) and you can also transport the surplus to other towns (where demanded).

Express Goods
Passengers and Mail (express goods) are very easy to deal with. They have a final destination and they will find their way through your network changing trains in intermediate stations. What I lack from RT3 is the map that shows where most passengers are waiting and where they are going (to identify and mitigate bottlenecks).

Freight Goods
Freight is the key to growth and growth is a more important part of Railway Empire than it was to RTII/RT3. I found the freight mechanism confusing at first and it resembles both RTII and RT3 but it is also different.

Local resources (like a wheat farm) can ship limited amount of goods (like wheat) by road to closely located towns. Apart from that there is no goods moving without trains and no and market prices as in RT3.

  • Goods (like beer) produced in one town will be stored/consumed where produced but never transported elsewhere (except by train).
  • Towns that don’t manufacture a type of goods will store it for local consumption only. You can only unload what is demanded. And you cannot load what is unloaded.

Imagine a line with three stations:

  1. A wheat farm
  2. A town with a brewery (demanding wheat)
  3. A town (with demand of wheat)

If you make a simple train go 1-2-3-2(-1) most likely no wheat will ever make it to town 3. Not until you have completely filled up the storage capacity of wheat in town 2 any wheat will make it to town 3.

There are several ways to deal with this like warehouses and manual freight mode (where you configure a train to load/unload exactly what you want). However the best solution is often to simply run a dedicated train directly from 1 to 3 (and combine with other duties if possible/needed).

Congestion
Eventually you will end up with congestion: several trains waiting in line to access the same platform. At this point, adding more trains will do more harm than good.

The obvious solution is to add more platforms and send the trains to different platforms (largers stations also serve trains faster).

But you also need to consider how efficiently you use your platforms. In a busy station the following scenarios are listed from worst to best:

  1. A train arriving, delivering nothing, getting serviced, loading nothing
  2. A train delivering and loading a few wagons
  3. A train passing through
  4. A train unloading all wagons, leaving empty
  5. A train unloading all wagons and loading a full train

This is why manual freight mode is subotimal: arriving with 8 wagons, delivering two loads, loading two wagons and leaving is wasteful utilization of platform capacity. For the same reason, long express (or mixed) goods lines calling at every station is not very optimal if most passangers or goods just go through.

Mostly the cause of congestion and your bottlenecks are your stations not your lines.

Warehousees
A warehouse has 4 tracks and can store goods but it does not belong to a town. In theory if you set things up in a good way you can have full freight trains going from a warehouse into a town with what the town demands and then return fully loaded with manufactured goods to the warehouse where the train gets serviced (maximizing platform utilization in the town itself). You can think of the warehouse as 4 extra tracks that occupy just on track in the town-station itself. In practice this is not very easy.

I have tried to set up warehouses that I fill with basic goods (wheat, corn, lumber, vegetables, fruits, milk). The problem is that wheat is demanded first. So trains will leave the warehouse for large cities that demand all the goods stored fully loaded with wheat only (until the town has reached maximum wheat stocks). This will leave the large city somewhat unsatisfied. Worse, your warehouse will perhaps run out of wheat and your smaller towns will get nothing (because they dont even demand vegetables, fruits and milk which the warehouse is full of).

My conclusion is that as long as you can supply a town with full train loads of anything it is better to go directly from the source(s) to the town. Often you can make a line like:

  1. A-town
  2. Corn farm
  3. Wheat farm
  4. B-town

If you run a train 1-2-3-4-3-2(-1) you get decent utilization. However, you may want to leave A-town and B-town empty, and perhaps you want to load only 4 wagons in the first farms both ways (otherwise B-town will get mostly corn). Even though the above route is nice it could make more sense to do 2-1-2-4-3-1-3-4.

Buying the competition
In RT you were a major investor in your own company. You could pay out dividend and you also received a salary. This money you could invest in your own company or in the competition. Eventually you (as investor) could buy out the competition. However your company could not buy stocks.

This is different in Railway Empire. You – your character – control your company but you can not buy stocks (or receive dividends). Your company can buy stocks in the competition (and they in yours). You can not buy stocks in your own company (it simply would not make any sense to do so).

You may take over (merge with) your competitors by buying 100% of their stocks. And they can take over your company the same way.

I would have wanted to be able to take over a company and let it operate as before, just not expanding. And perhaps being able to transfer industries to my own company. However, what happens when you take over a competitor is that all their trains are sold, tracks and stations are left empty. The good thing is that it makes it reasonable straight forward to set up your own lines and name them the way you want. The bad thing is that it is a lot of work. You have the option of simply liquidating everything receiving cash instead.

Locomotives
Railway Empire has quite many diffent locomotives to choose from and they become available as you research them.

Growing Stations
Stations usually start out small and grow with more lines and trains. This is what I typically do.

1. A single track allowing for a single train to one other station in the east.

2. Double track to the east connected to a single platform. Notice how I already prepared the double track on the south side to continue into the station should it grow. This will allow for future through traffic. If on the other hand I know there will be no through traffic I would place the double track north instead, allowing for more room for eastbound tracks connected to new south platforms.

3. Now I have double track also to the west. No through traffic possible.

4. Now through traffic is possible, as well as trains terminating in Salina from both east and west.

5. Finally, if there is much through traffic and also traffic from the east terminating in Salina I use track #1 (westbound) and #2 (eastbound) for through traffic, and #4 for terminating traffic. Notice that the longer the yard is the less risk for congestion. If you in my example have 3 trains queueing to get to #3 there is a risk that they will block a through train, even though #1 is free.

Intersections
Often two lines need to merge into one line and you can do this in different ways depending on ambition and expected traffic.

1. If you have a double track with a single track going to a station (typically a farm/resource) this works fine. However if multiple trains go to the farm one will wait in the mainline (blocking it) if the farm is busy.

2. The standard way to deal with two double tracks merging is seen below. Note that if the track to the north is the busiest this will cause waitings.

3. For practical this is often good enough (and very simple).

4. The below is an alternative when it comes to splitting the line from the east into two lines with equal priority. The extra complexity offers no advantage to #2 above.

5. This way two trains can meet either E/W or E/N with no train stopping.

6. If you are really serious about avoiding blocking/waiting you can invest in a viaduct. However it costs more and you may lose time because the track is longer and with a significant incline.

In all the above pictures only one-way signals are displayed. You need more signals to allow trains to run closely after each other. As you notice as soon as I have double track I use right hand one-way traffic.

Single Track
Although the price of double track is less than twice a single track often it makes sense to start with a single track. You then need sections were trains can pass (unless you have a single train). This is how I do it, to very easily be able to upgrade to double track later. Notice that those are the only two signals I have. I have seen other screenshots with more signals but I have experienced deadlocks.

If your single track line joins a double track main line, the passing section should be as close as possible to the main line to minimize waiting. The single track is to the north in the picture below.

Single Tracks and Stations
If you have two stations with a line between them the passing section needs to be between them. It makes no sense to have double platform stations.

If you have three stations with a line the middle station can serve as passing section as well.

However, in practice you would probably make the track longer on one side to place a supply tower.

It is generally a bad idea to have through traffic (both ways) on a single platform, especially if some trains also terminate. If you have limited traffic you can have terminating traffic from both ends. And for a rural station with limited traffic you can save money by having passing sections on both sides of a single platform. You can always start cheap and expand later:

Summary
There is so much more to discover and talk about when it comes to Railway Empire! It may not be perfect, but it is certainly much better than RTII and RT3. I think this game will give me many hours of entertainment for the coming years.

Acer Chromebook R13: 3. As a Linux development workstation

Update 20190730: Crostini seems to work now, this post is mostly about using Acer R13 with Crouton (which you probably dont want if you can use Crostini instead).
Update 20190409: My experiments with Crostini are not giving good results, and I am back with Crouton. So This post is still the most relevant I have written if you want to do development on your Acer R13.
Update 20190216: This post describes how to run Linux on a Chromebook the old way: Crouton. There is a new more supported way: Crostini, which officially is now in the stable channel for the Acer R13. However my experience so far is very bad.

I have got an Acer Chromebook R13 and I will write about it from my perspective.

1. Background
2. As a casual computer
3. As a Linux development workstation (this post)

As a Linux development workstation
I switched my Chromebook to Development mode and everything that follows depends on that.

In ChromeOS you can hit CTRL-ALT-T to get a crosh shell. If in Development mode you can run shell to get a regular “unix” shell. You now have access to all of ChromeOS. It looks like this:

crosh> shell
chronos@localhost / $ ls /
bin     dev  home  lost+found  mnt  postinst  root  sbin  tmp  var
debugd  etc  lib   media       opt  proc      run   sys   usr
chronos@localhost / $ ls ~
'Affiliation Database'          login-times
'Affiliation Database-journal'  logout-times
Bookmarks                       'Media Cache'
Cache                           'Network Action Predictor'
Cookies                         'Network Action Predictor-journal'
Cookies-journal                 'Network Persistent State'
'Current Session'               'Origin Bound Certs'
'Current Tabs'                  'Origin Bound Certs-journal'
databases                       'Platform Notifications'
data_reduction_proxy_leveldb    Preferences
DownloadMetadata                previews_opt_out.db
Downloads                       previews_opt_out.db-journal
'Download Service'              QuotaManager
'Extension Rules'               QuotaManager-journal
Extensions                      README
'Extension State'               'RLZ Data'
Favicons                        'RLZ Data.lock'
Favicons-journal                'Service Worker'
'File System'                   'Session Storage'
GCache                          Shortcuts
'GCM Store'                     Shortcuts-journal
GPUCache                        Storage
History                         'Sync App Settings'
History-journal                 'Sync Data'
'History Provider Cache'        'Sync Extension Settings'
IndexedDB                       'Sync FileSystem'
'Last Session'                  Thumbnails
'Last Tabs'                     'Top Sites'
local                           'Top Sites-journal'
'Local App Settings'            'Translate Ranker Model'
'Local Extension Settings'      TransportSecurity
'Local Storage'                 'Visited Links'
log                             'Web Data'
'Login Data'                    'Web Data-journal'
'Login Data-journal'
chronos@localhost / $ uname -a
Linux localhost 3.18.0-16387-g09d1f8eebf5f-dirty #1 SMP PREEMPT Sat Feb 24 13:27:17 PST 2018 aarch64 ARMv8 Processor rev 2 (v8l) GNU/Linux
chronos@localhost / $ df -h
Filesystem               Size  Used Avail Use% Mounted on
/dev/root                1.6G  1.4G  248M  85% /
devtmpfs                 2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /dev
tmp                      2.0G  248K  2.0G   1% /tmp
run                      2.0G  456K  2.0G   1% /run
shmfs                    2.0G   24M  1.9G   2% /dev/shm
/dev/mmcblk0p1            53G  1.3G   49G   3% /mnt/stateful_partition
/dev/mmcblk0p8            12M   28K   12M   1% /usr/share/oem
/dev/mapper/encstateful   16G   48M   16G   1% /mnt/stateful_partition/encrypted
media                    2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /media
none                     2.0G     0  2.0G   0% /sys/fs/cgroup
tmpfs                    128K   12K  116K  10% /run/crw

This is quite good! But we all know that starting to install things and modifying such a system can cause trouble.

Now, there is a tool called Crouton that allows us to install a Linux system (Debian or Ubuntu) into a chroot. We can even run X if we want. So, I would say that for doing development work on your Chromebook you have (at least) 5 options:

  1. Install things directly in ChromeOS
  2. Crouton: command line tools only
  3. Crouton: xiwi – run X and (for example) XFCE inside a ChromeOS window
  4. Crouton: X – run X side by side with ChromeOS
  5. Get rid of ChromeOS and install (for example) Arch instead

I will explore some of the options.

#2. Crouton command line tools only
For the time being, I don’t really need X and a Window Manager. I am fine (I think) with the ChromeOS UI and UX. After downloading crouton I ran:

sudo sh ./crouton -n deb-cli -r stretch -t cli-extra

This gave me a Debian Stretch system without X, named deb-cli (in case I want to have other chroots in the future). Installation took a few minutes.

To access Debian I now need to

  1. CTRL-ALT-T : to get a crosh shell
  2. crosh> shell : to get a ChromeOS unix shell
  3. $ sudo startcli : to get a shell in my Debian strech system

This is clearly a sub-optimal solution to get a shell tab (and closing the shell takes 3x exit). However, it works very well. I installed Node.js (for ARMv8) and in a few minutes I had cloned my git nodejs-project, installed npm packages, run everything and even pushed some code. I ran a web server on 127.0.0.1 and I could access it from the browser just as expected (so this is much more smooth than a virtual machine).

For my purposes I think this is good enough. I am not very tempted to get X up an running side-by-side with ChromeOS. However I obviously would like things like shortcuts and virtual desktops.

Actually, I think a chroot is quite good. It does not modify the base system the way package managers for OS X tend to do. I don’t need to mess with PATH and other variables. And I get a more complete Debian system compared to just the package manager. And it is actually the real Debian packages I install.

I installed Secure Shell and Crosh Window allowing me to change some defaults parameters of the terminal (by hitting CTRL-SHIFT-P), so at least I dont need to adjust the font size for every terminal.

#4. Crouton with XFCE
Well, this is going so good that I decided to try XFCE as well.

sudo sh ./crouton -n deb-xfce -r stretch -t xfce,extensions

It takes a while to install, but when done just run:

sudo startxfce4

The result is actually pretty nice. You switch between ChromeOS and XFCE with CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-BACK/FORWARD (the buttons next to ESC). The switching is a little slow, but it gives you a (quite needed) virtual desktop. Install crouton extensions in ChromeOS to allow copy-paste. A good thing is that I can run:

sudo enter-chroot -n deb-xfce

to enter my xfce-chroot without starting X and XFCE. So, for practical purposes I can have an X-chroot but I dont need to start X if I dont want to.

screen
After a while I have uninstalled XFCE and I only use crouton with cli. The terminal (part of the Chrome browser) is a bit sub-optimal. My idea is to learn to master screen, however:

$ screen
Cannot make directory '/run/screen': Permission denied

This is easily fixed though (link):

mkdir ~/.screen
chmod 700 ~/.screen

# add to .bashrc
export SCREENDIR=$HOME/.screen

# and a vim "alias" I found handy
svim () { screen -t $1 vim $1; }

I found that I get problems when I edit UTF-8 files in VIM in screen in crouton in a crosh shell. Without screen there are also issues, but slightly less so. It seems to be a good idea to add the following line to .vimrc:

set encoding=utf8

It improves the situation, but still a few glitches.

Now at least screen works. It remains to be seen if I can master it.

lighttpd
I installed lighttpd just the normal Debian way. It does not start automatically, but the normal way works:

$ $ sudo service lighttpd start

If you close your last crouton-session without stopping lighttpd you get:

$ exit
logout
Unmounting /mnt/stateful_partition/crouton/chroots/deb-cli...
Sending SIGTERM to processes under /mnt/stateful_partition/crouton/chroots/deb-cli...

That stopped lighttpd after a few seconds, but I guess a manual stop is preferred.

Performance
I have written about NUC vs RPi before and to be honest I was worried that my ARM Chromebook would more have the poor performance of the RPi than the decent performance of the NUC. I would say this is not a problem, the Acer R13 is generally fast enough.

After a few Nodejs tests, it seems the Acer Chromebook R13 is about 5-6 times faster than an RPi V2.

A C-program (some use of 64-bit double floats, little memory footprint) puts it side-by-side with my Celeron/NUC:

                s
RPi V1        142
RPi V2         74
Acer R13       12.5
Celeron J3455  13.0
i5-4250U        7.5

Benchmarks are always tricky, but I think this gives an indication.

Acer Chromebook R13: 2. As a casual computer

I have got an Acer Chromebook R13 and I will write about it from my perspective.

1. Background
2. As a casual computer (this post)
3. As a Linux development workstation

As a casual computer

My general impressions of the Acer Chromebook R13 are positive. The display is good (I am not used to Full HD on a laptop) and the build quality in general is more than acceptable.

What works well, quite literally out of the box:

  1. English language with non-English keyboard
  2. Connect to 5GHz WiFi
  3. Editing Google Docs, Facebook, Youtube
  4. Google Play Store for Android Apps (required a restart for a system upgrade)
  5. Spotify App (in Mobile App format), streaming audio via Bluetooth to external speaker
  6. Netflix App (failed to mirror/play to external display)
  7. Netflix Web Page (could display video on TV over HDMI)
  8. Writing this blog post…
  9. Switch to tablet mode, use touch and type on virtual keyboard on display (well, it sucks compared to a real keyboard, but it works as could be expected)
  10. Printing to a local network printer: CUPS comes preinstalled (there are other options as well, but for me CUPS is perfect)
  11. Importing photos from a micro-sd-card taken with a camera. VERY rudimentary (crop/rotate/brightness) editing available.

The good
So far my impression is that the performance is very acceptable. I used some JavaScript-heavy web pages and it was surprisingly good.

The not so good
Compared to my MacBook Air the touchpad is not as nice. Scrolling web pages is more… jerky? I would have preferred if the keyboard was closer to the display and the touchpad more far away from me. At least the touchpad is nicely centered in the middle. To be fair, the touchpad is at least as good as on more expensive PC laptops.

Performance and Benchmarks
My own Web Worker Test indicates my MacBook Air (1.4GHz Intel i5) is about 2-3 times faster (both computers using Chrome browser). However, on OS X, Safari seems to be much faster than Chrome browser on some tests and outperforms the Chromebook up to 10x on some tests. This is quite pure JavaScript number crunching.

My own String Compare Test indicates the MacBook Air is about 50% faster (Chrome browser in both cases).

Things not quite there
I have been using my Chromebook more or less daily and there isn’t much I actually miss. But here is a short list (that may grow or shrink over time).

  • A graph plotter/calculator: Grapher in OS X is not amazing but better than what I found for Chrome OS. So far I have tried Plot and Graph Functions and Desmos Graphing Calculator

Developer mode
So far I have not touched the Developer mode. Everything is completely standard and I will leave it like that for a while.

Acer Chromebook R13: 1. Background

I have got an Acer Chromebook R13 and I will write about it from my perspective.

1. Background (this post)
2. As a casual computer
3. As a Linux development workstation

Background
The last 20 years I have used OS X since 10.0, Windows since NT4, and many Linux distributions. These systems all have their pros and cons. Last years Chromebooks running Chrome OS (which is Linux) have appeared. They are typically cheap and built for the cloud. However there are two things that make them particularly interesting:

  1. Chromebooks (modern ones) can run Android Apps
  2. Chromebooks are much used in schools, so children of today will start looking for jobs in a few years, knowing perhaps only Chromebooks

I am too curious not to want one (perhaps mostly to be disappointed).

A few years ago I thought about getting a Chromebook, but at the time I felt it was not going to satisfy me. I bought a MacBook Air 11 instead, which is a great laptop for my purposes. However I less and less agree with what Apple does and I would rather have a native Linux laptop, than a Mac.

There are several reasons why I bought an Acer Chromebook R13 as my first Chromebook

It has got good reviews (although it is not the latest Chromebook in the market).

I like the quality aluminium build (it almost reminds me of my Titanium PowerBook G4).

It has a touchscreen and can be used as a tablet or in tent mode.

It should run Android Apps very will with its ARM CPU.

I am enthusiastic and curious about the ARM CPU for several reasons. I like an underdog and after Spectre/Meltdown I think that we need all possible alternatives to Intel. I am also curious to see if the ARM performs decently enough for my needs (and I might get disappointed).

I hope to get decent quality and some new opportunities compared to MacBook Air.

As a standard user
Most of the time I am a very ordinary computer user. I browse the internet, pay my bills, send and receive emails, watch Youtube, write something using Google Docs and I do some basic photo editing. I kind of expect the Chromebook to do this just as well as my MacBook Air.

As a programmer
I am a programmer. I mostly code JavaScript for Node.js and the web, but I also code C, C++, Lisp, Python, Bash, or whatever I feel like (mostly for fun, sometimes for work). I don’t use very advanced tools (mostly Vim, actually) and I really feel comfortable with a Linux shell. Even Mac OS X with its many package managers feels foreign. Not to talk about how I am lost in Windows.

I understand Chrome OS is Linux. It comes with a terminal. It has a Developer mode. And I can install almost anything I want using crouton (or so I have read).

My hope is that my Chromebook, for most practical purposes, will work like Linux the way I expect (more so than OS X). My hope is also that the ARM CPU will have reasonaable JavaScript performance. I may end up disappointed.

Comfast CF-2410P Review

I needed decent directed antennas for my TP Link WDR3600. I decided to try the Comfast CF-2410P, despite its cheap price.

I can not find that it has any advantages to the standard antennas that came with the router. I would rather say it is crap.

Buying cheap Arduino clones

I got curious about Arduino a little while ago and bought the official Arduino Starter Kit. I can really recommend it! It is very nicely put together and the project book really helps to get you started in no time. Even if you dont care about the projects themselves, they are a great way to learn how to use the Arduino.

After a few projects from the Starter Kit I started building my own project, which took me to a point where I felt I wanted at least one more Arduino.

I also felt that perhaps the UNO is not the right model for a more permanent build. After not so little research I decided the Arduino Nano is quite perfect.

Well, buying an Arduino (UNO, Nano, whatever) is not the easiest thing:

  • The arduino.cc vs arduino.org conflict causes some confusion, and has caused some limited availability of original (Italian) boards, it seems.
  • Some models are depricated
  • There are kind of official boards with funny names (Adafruit, RedBoard)
  • There are even more inofficial boards
  • The ATMega328 is not a very powerful chip, and original UNO and Nano are quite pricey

This made me consider a cheap Chinese copy. Those are not illegal in any way, they just come with the usual issues:

  • Delivery time
  • Build quality
  • No (or questionable) contribution back to community
  • Compability
  • Control, ethical, environmental and other aspects

I decided to give it a try and ordered:

I belive those mini-breadboards together with the Nano make a perfect Arduino. The clones I received were just fine. When you look at them and touch them, of course they don’t have the same quality as the original beautiful Italian-made Arduino I got with the Starter Kit. Especially the headers seem to be of lower quality than the orginal (not to talk about the print). Most of the clones use a cheaper and less capable USB-controller (CH340G instead of ATMEGA16U2). For Linux this makes no difference whatsoever, but for Windows you probably need to install drivers.

I think it can be good to have a few cheap clones to build into stuff or play with. At the same time, the official Starter Kit is great and the official board is good as reference so you know the clones do what they should. I would not start with only a cheap clone and no start kit.

Charging Sony Xperia Z1 Compact

The Sony Xperia Z1 Compact can be charged two ways: via Micro USB or via the special magnetic charging connector.

The phone comes with the normal USB cable, that can also be used for synchronization, file transfers and such. But since the phone is water proof the Micro USB connector is hidden behind a little door, and opening and closing this every time charging the phone does not really feel optimal.

The official way to charge via the magnetic connector is to buy the DK32 docking station. It is quite pricey, and quite “light” (the magnet is much stronger than the weight of the thing). Docking/undocking does not really feel like opening/closing a german car door, but otherwise it is nice to have the phone docked and charging. It is quite unclear if this DK32 is compatible with any other very similar Sony Xperia docking stations.

Other options?

I ordered a USB-cable with magnetic connector (but no docking station) from Deal Extreme. Again, quite unclear what models the cable really works with (there are many similar cables, with different phones listed as compatible).

Well, the cable “works”. When attached, it charges the phone just perfectly. Attaching it requires a little bit of a precision move, and when attached it is not very stable against rolling off to the front or the back of the phone. But now that I have learnt how to do it, I prefer it to the old USB cable. I am thinking about building/gluing some type of docking station for it. Note: the +/- connectors are not interchangeable. If I connect it upside-down (the cable from up) the phone restarts, and it is perhaps not entirely healthy for it.

I have the original DK32 at work, so the phone is almost always fully charged when I leave work in the afternoon, and I don’t need to charge it until back at work next day.