I played with a train simulator and here’s what I learned

Oooooh. Image: Dovetail Games.

When I was a child train sets seemed like the best toys. You built the track, you built a little town all around it, then you sent trains whizzing round as fast as you could until such time as you were ready to crash them into something. That was the theory, at least; in practice, I never got my hands on one. (Probably for the best.)

Those train sets feel like an anachronism today, probably still out there but seldom seen, like episodes of The Simpsons good enough to reference for comic effect. But their digital progeny live on in the form of train simulators.

The business model for those producing train simulators is not dissimilar from that of a company making those classic train sets. The basic game is limited; but over time, the owner expands it with new track, new stations and new trains.

From the outside, even as a gamer who has wasted shameful amounts of time in shamefully banal games, this still seems kind of odd. The desire to play a simulation rather than something structured more as a game is understandable enough; but given all the options out there what would lure somebody to a train? In search of answers I dug into the new train simulator from Dovetail Games, Train Sim World: CSX Heavy Haul.

No idea. Image: Dovetail Games.

My initial impression of the game was an awkward sense that something significant was flying over my head. TSW: CSX Heavy Haul is set on a stretch of track in the USA called the Sand Patch Grade, which runs through the Allegheny Mountains. Perhaps to people that know things about trains this has some importance; for myself, however, unless there’s a murder mystery on a particular route, the chances are I won’t have heard of it.

The Sand Patch Grade itself has curves and steep gradients and the capacity for some very unpleasant weather. Given that I am used to soft southern commuter trains that are defeated by a light dusting of snow or a particularly determined fallen leaf, this to mw seems like an entirely different world.

The locomotives in the game are also unfamiliar, insomuch as my knowledge of specific locomotives only extends to the early Thomas the Tank Engine canon. The simulated trains would all have been viewed as the baddies on the island of Sodor: great hulking machines capable of hauling immense amounts of cargo over terrain thatn in a less determined country, might have been written off as impassable. The game simulates weather; but it equally simulates how little these machines are bothered by it.

The game at its root plays more like a first person adventure game than a simulator, i  that you control a train driver, not a train. You can disembark, wander about and handle other parts of the job like refuelling, operating turntables and attaching the freight cars. Control of the actual train itself can be done directly via controls, or you can use the mouse to pull the levers and hit buttons.

Darkness falls. Image: Dovetail Games.

There’s a sense of solidity to everything, even down to the fuse boxes that can be opened up and messed about with: not for any specific purpose I could see, but just being able to wander around on a locomotive seeing what different things do is fun for a while. (At time of writing I have broken five locomotives in TSW by seeing what different things do.)

Trains suit this kind of control method more than other vehicles thanks to their comparative simplicity. This is not to say the trains are actually simple, but in simulator terms, things don’t get much easier. It’s pretty common in modern flight simulators to spend several minutes starting the engines; getting off the ground and back down again without exploding can be a real challenge. A train is more sedate, more contemplative and more comfortable.


Snowy out. Image: Dovetail Games.

It is this sedate quality that feels vital to the appeal of the train simulator. You have the sense of control over a lumbering, powerful machine, but this control comes from planning, understanding and anticipation rather than reactions. The end result feels like a game of chess played not against an opposing phalanx of pieces but against physics, track conditions and a timetable

And in its own, uniquely nerdy way, this is actually fun.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.