Cab simulators are programs that put you in the position of the train driver. You have to drive your train along a certain route, complying with the signals and speed restrictions along the way, and try to get to your destination on time.
Although primarily a cab simulator, Zusi does have some characteristics of a network simulator. You can drive any of the trains on the route, change cabs when you reverse, etc. Its main strength is a very detailed representation of German signals and safety systems. The untextured graphics look a bit primitive at first sight but by keeping things simple graphically, the program is able to run fast enough to be useful on quite modest hardware. The demo only allows you to drive on one route, but if you order the full version you get a cd with dozens of other routes (mainly German) and all the documentation and tools you need to build your own routes and stock. Like Rail3D and bve, it’s essentially a one-person project supported by an active user community.
Update 2015: Zusi 2 is still supported, and still distributed by CD, which now costs about €20 (depending on where you are and how you pay). There is an advanced version called Zusi 3, but at present that is only available as a professional training tool. A hobby-version is promised.
This Japanese freeware program is a simple, fixed-viewpoint cab simulator. The graphics are quite impressive - people writing routes can optimise the scenery to take advantage of the fact that the viewpoint moves along a fixed line, and keep objects very simple. The problem is that it has rather short-term ‘play value’ - there are only very limited possibilities for variation within a route, so once you’ve driven a given route two or three times, you will be starting to get bored with it.
It’s a bit of a palaver installing it, as the program’s author, ‘Mackoy’, only supplies the bare minimum of English translations, but probably worth at least a look. A quick search on the web for “bve” will throw up a few sites with more detailed English instructions, information on building routes, etc.
BVE home site (bilingual gb/jp)
3 Real Railway
Similar to bve in look and feel, but uses video clips of real Japanese railway journeys. You can download it, or play it online using Flash if you have a broadband connection.
4 Mechanik en 57
This Polish dos freeware program is similar in approach to bve, although the graphics are very low-resolution. The train dynamics feel much more realistic, though.
English-language download site
October 2005: It looks as though this project has been abandoned. A pity!
Just for a change, this program is South African in its focus, although the author, Charl Vockerodt, seems to live in the uk. It seems to be an attempt to build an msts clone with more realistic steam loco dynamics. At the moment (early 2005) it’s still in a very early stage, with two locos driving round an endless test track in generic veldt scenery, but the graphics look very good.
6 Microsoft Train Simulator
msts was for a long time the heavyweight in the world of rail simulation, and it still has its enthusiasts, long after disappearing from the market.
Unlike most earlier cab simulators, an msts route is a complete 3D environment. You can move out of the cab to watch the train pass from the trackside, or follow it from a ‘helicopter’ view. You can also take different routes at junctions, shunt wagons into sidings, and so on, all of which makes train driving that much more interesting. There is a very detailed simulation of train dynamics, and quite a convincing representation of steam loco controls. Just a pity that you have to do it all with the keyboard…
As well as the six routes supplied on the msts cd, there were dozens of commercial and freeware routes on offer from third parties, at least some of which were much better than the msts originals. There is also plenty of third-party rolling stock available.
7 Open Rails
Free software MSTS clone, which takes advantage of the huge base of MSTS content available and seems to have added all sorts of new features. Still Windows-only, unfortunately.
8 Railworks Rail Simulator (or "Train simulator" - they don't seem to know which)
The commercial successor to MSTS, marketed under various confusingly similar names, and running under Steam (appropriately enough). Still basically the same idea as MSTS, but of course the graphics are much more sophisticated. The latest version is TS2015.