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Common Mistakes With Trains in Games

Every game that has trains has them in a different way. Games show different trains, use them for different uses and get them wrong in different ways. Still, some mistakes are repeated by just about every game that has any train in there. Other issues, like the infamous crates, are related to freight movement in general, so I think it’s fair to include them here, too.

Bumpers

A bumper or buffer stop is a device at the end of a railroad line. It’s meant to prevent a train from going over the end, and does this by holding it’s couplings. Consequently, it should lie on the same level as the coupling, and be implemented in a way that is compatible with the coupling system used. This means that if a country uses a chain-and-buffer arrangement, as do most countries in Europe, it should be so wide that it can hold both buffers, and if a country uses a central buffer arrangement, the bumper can be very narrow.

Crates

What would a stereotypical post-apocalyptical industrial wasteland be without crates?

Much has been already said about wooden crates in video games, so much, in fact, that it stopped being funny talking about them. But still, they are too many and too wrong to ignore. You might wonder what crates have to do with trains. Well, the crates have to get somewhere to where you find and ignore them, and trains are a perfect method for this.

In the real world, hardly anybody uses crates. Actual abandoned industry buildings don’t have them. This is because a crate is, compared to the alternatives, a really bad idea most of the time. It’s heavier and more expensive than any paper alternative, and less stable than something out of metal. Also, it cannot be easily moved by forklift trucks.

Instead of crates, a combination of pallets and cardboard boxes are used, usually wrapped with some plastic. You take a wooden pallet, neatly pile boxes on top, and finally wrap the whole construct in some kind of plastic. This combination will safely hold the most expensive electronic equipment, or store a ton of raw polypropylene if you just ask it nicely. For much heavier or dangerous things, a metal cage will do wonders. In the Rammelsberg Museum in Goslar, you can find some of these with a plastic tank inside for holding acid.

They haven't been used since 1988 at the latest, when the mine was shut down, but you can still find them. No crates, however.

One final note: In games where you can destroy crates, they come in two varieties: Containing supplies for you (ammunition or health), or empty. Nobody ever thinks about actually storing useful stuff in there.

Couplings not Touching

In a magic land, far from ours, engines can pull wagons they aren't coupled to in any way

Sometimes, it’s really difficult to retain a positive attitude towards a game. There are mistakes that are so basic and so useless that they really cannot be explained. One of them is when couplings are arranged in a way that just won’t work. So let me phrase it very clearly here: Couplings are supposed to intersect in a way that they can actually pull each other. If there are buffers, they should normally touch. Is that really so hard?

And don’t get me started on cars without any couplings at all. In layman’s terms, they cannot be pulled along the railroad, nor can any other cars be attached to them. Obvious? I thought so.

Wrong Gauge

One of the key attributes of any railroad is the gauge it’s using, i.e. the distance between the rails. It sets the basics for any drive dynamics and for interoperation. Wrong or incompatible gauges are among the worst problems in modern railroads. All in all, you might think it pays to pay attention to them. Well, guess again.

Nine out of ten games show completely incorrect gauges. Most of the times, that means it’s too wide. As a general hint: Most railroads have a gauge of 1.5 meters, give or take 10 cm. These 10 cm make a lot of difference in real life, but for games, one can safely ignore them. You won’t find anything significantly wider than 1.6 meters most of the time. That means by extension: No matter who your hero is, the distance between the rails should be at most equal to the avatar’s height, normally less. Let’s look at Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness as an example:

In this picture, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness is standing between two rails. A red line connects the lines, a green line indicates Lara's height.

If you look at that picture, you’ll see that the green line (showing the height of the protagonist) is shorter than the red line (showing the distance between the rails). If you don’t see it, take my word for it. The green line is a rotated copy of the red line, and I had to shorten it to make it fit Lara.

I won’t try to figure out actual numbers, but that means Lara Croft, super heroine, is at most 1.4 or 1.5 meters high. Nothing wrong with that, except that every other character in the game is about the same height…

Short Platforms and Sidings

Some people think a station that will hold only one or two cars is a good idea.

A platform is a place where a train stops so that people can get on or off. A siding is similar, except that a train stops there to be loaded, unloaded or just get out of the way. You’d expect that either should be long enough to hold an average train, or at least most of an average train. Video game designers disagree.

To a certain degree, this can be explained. A train is a long thing, so a platform or siding is a long thing, too. Many engines out there could probably not display a full length platform without a nice “Loading…” screen twice while walking from one end to the other. This problem is not unique to video games: Most model railroaders simply do not have the space for a full length platform.

Even in real life, there are more than enough examples for platforms that are too short and cannot be made longer. Look at the station of Pitlochry, Scotland, for example.

One of the platforms is much shorter than the other one, because a siding starts right after the platform ends.

The shorter platform is actually too short for some of the trains stopping there, so there are signs at the side reading “Do not alight here”. It cannot be extended, as the other side of the station has been (not shown here) since the diverging track is kind of in the way.

Still, what most games do is just crap. Couldn’t they make the platform long enough to hold, say, ten wagons? That would look long but not take up as much space. One car, or two, is just too short.