• The Cambrian Route - A Seaside Journey

    The Cambrian Route - A Seaside Journey

    By Fafner (18 June 2003)

    "The Cambrian Route"

    Add-On for Microsoft Train Simulator
    Developer: 3D Train Stuff, Inc.
    Version Tested: 1.2 - .TRK May 15, 2003
    Price: $29.95 US


    Don't I Know You From Somewhere?

    No, you don't. We aren't awash with MSTS routes for Wales, let alone the Cardigan Bay region. There have been an attempt or two at creating the narrow gauge line Ffestiniog, which appears on the system map as a connection at Minffordd. (Spelling of some place names in Wales and Borders Railways timetables differs from that of the route map.)

    A freeware add-on route exists of a portion of the GWR system in South Wales, from Swansea to Carmarthen. Talyllyn Railway, a narrow gauge line close to the Wales and Borders Railways Tywyn stop is available. Nothing in the way of a connection at Shrewsbury for Machynlleth, which would be a valuable link for passenger operation devotees. Not much for the Welshman.

    Seems no one with the nerve to open Route Editor has been here before. Thus, 3DTS-UK breaks new ground with this add-on. The portion of Wales and Borders system modeled runs from Pwllheli to Machynlleth, with a connection at Dovey Junction for Aberystwyth. Roughly 73 miles of track, depending upon how the trackage east of Dovey Junction is counted. A single track line with numerous platforms, yards and service trackage.

    Do not for a minute think this is a neglected line, overgrown with weeds, running only an occasional short freight train. Not at all. Wales and Borders runs regular passenger service. A 2003 summer vacation timetable was recently published. Passenger service is frequent, the facilities and equipment are modern. If you miss a train during daylight service hours it is probably your fault.

    CD Package Cambrian Route CD package comes with the installation .exe, a BMP graphic of the route map, another BMP of gradients. No extras.

    Installation goes smoothly: If you have autostart enabled, installation should begin immediately. Otherwise do an exe hunt from the Run command line, or Explore the CD, double click on the exe. No problems encountered.

    There are 25 activities to use with Cambrian, more about these later. You will also have on the order of 30 new consists. Checking the route revealed no missing texture files, nothing called out in shape files which was not present and accounted for, similarly the consists are all solidly tied to appropriate activities, finally the consists themselves check 100% for accuracy.

    Equipment: Basically you get one 2-6-2T tank engine, the Churchward design as improved by Collett, in three flavors. You also get a DMU Class 101, in "Blue", "Bluegrey" and "Green". "Night" versions of the DMU's provide interior as well as exterior lighting, with the steam loco it amounts to lighting the cab. Paint schemes and weathering seem to be the major differences between the motive power models. The DMU's have interior views, the freight brakevan has a view from the rear of the car covering a 180 degree FOV.



    Also furnished are "30 pieces" of rolling stock - if empty and full versions of the same cars are counted separately. Otherwise eighteen or nineteen, all are freight of the typical British two axle type. No passenger cars. MSTS default GWR coaches might do (they are in the Pendennis folder), at sixty feet and under they compare favorably to the DMU length of 75 feet. Pulling the GWR coaches with the Class 4575 might or might not be "authentic". Plenty of rolling stock is available in the file library.

    Milepost data are not furnished; we decided to provide it for you. Most mileage data pertain to station platforms, resulting in fractional "mile posts", the figures are derived from platform stops and the Activity Editor:

    Pwllhelli 132.25
    Abererch 131.01
    Penychain (Butlins) 129.48
    Criccieth 125.09
    Porthmadog 120.12
    Minffordd 117.93
    Penrhyndeudrath 116.63
    Llandecwyn 115.78
    Talsarnau 114.74
    Tygwyn 113.95
    Harlech 111.13
    Llandanwg 109.13
    Dyffryn Ardudwy 105.60
    Talybont 103.99
    Llanbedr 108.01
    Barmouth 100.60
    Fairbourne 98.34
    Llwyngwril 95.40
    Llangelynin 93.30
    Tonfanau 91.07
    Tywyn 86.75
    Aberdovey 85.02
    Penhelig 84.03
    Abertafol 82.49
    *Dovey Junction 79.10
    Machynlleth 75.03

    *Dovey Junction 79.10
    Borth 87.50
    Aberystwyth 95.50

    The Crown Jewels?

    Cab view of the included DMU.
    Way back when, during our HO layout building days, most of us were pressed for space. The lucky ones had the use of an entire basement for their scale railroad empire. Most of us didn't, plus there was the matter of available funds. We taught ourselves a fondness for the "little gem" category of layout. Branch line, well used equipment, short consists, way freight for lack of a division yard the size of a small city, connection to a larger road.

    Cambrian fits pretty well into the little gem category. Electrified it never was, isn't now and likely never will be. No ICE express screaming along at 150 mph. Steam until the very end, it fits the tank engine methodology which dominated this kind of line. Before automobiles and trucks the line would have been critical to life in the towns it served. Not everything came in and went out via watercraft.

    Cardigan Bay, opening on St. George's Channel, separating Wales from a place called Ireland, is beautiful in a soft, comforting way. The Cambrian Mountains are not the Matterhorn, no towering snow covered peaks. They are more in the way of gentle rolling hills. Cambrian Route Guide, Wales and Borders Railway, claims "The Dyfi Estuary marks the gateway to some of the finest coastal scenery in Britain ..."

    Meet at Criccieth--freight whistles off as DMU tucks into platform siding.
    Over the years, mining in Wales began to shut down. Finally, no mines were in operation, changing the economic base drastically. Bathing beaches and narrow gauge railways replaced soot and tailings. Coastal Cambria became a prime vacation destination. Cook's European Timetable Advance Summer Planner assures us of a dozen or more trains a day Birmingham - Machynlleth; from there all stations on the Cambrian route map can be reached. Cambrian Route takes all this in stride. You will see row upon row of vacation cottages. Buses waiting at stations for disembarking vacationers. Barmouth Bridge will always be a tourist and rail fan attraction.

    The star here is clearly the route itself. Scenery is as good or better than we have seen to date. There is more to it, however, as there usually is when a real accomplishment comes along. Packing 3D objects with high poly counts into a scene can be visually impressive, at the same time it can be a frame killer. Frame rates are important, naturally, but they are not be-all and end-all when it comes to results. If a CPU - graphics card combination is set up properly, the frame rates can drop to rather low levels - 15 or 16 - if stuttering is absent the rendering will be smooth. Provided, that is, the designers did not overload the scene. A 3D application of any kind which runs well only on high end machines leaves most of us on the outside, looking in.

    The art of successful 3D animation is making the scene look good, at the same time keeping the load on the system within reasonable limits. The term "art" is not used casually. More than technology is involved. We are referring to a subject which is stock in trade for the theater designer: Utilizing aspects of stagecraft to create illusion. Your impression and response to a given scene in "real time" is not based on a count of every blade of grass or tree leaf. Your eyes see everything, but your brain can handle only a fraction: An automatic filtering process takes place, based upon elements which have become visually relevant. The experienced stage designer - theater or cinema - knows about these keys and uses them. Skillfully done, you do not notice what is missing - you aren't looking for what isn't there, rather you are concentrating on a fairly small collection of key items. Your response is based upon them. You expect to see certain things.

    Meet at Criccieth--Freight waits as DMU approaches.
    The clever 3D designer sets the scene in the same way. You don't need masses of high poly count objects; you need the important ones. Done properly the system load is reduced, smooth flow is maintained even when frames drop to low levels, the results are equal to a more "realistic" packing of the scene. In some ways the results are better, however this involves stylization, which is beyond the scope of this review.

    We need only to know the 3D work in Cambrian Route is exceptional. The setting works in nearly every case, in almost any direction you will be looking. There are a few places in rural areas where trees and shrubbery crowd in on the track. Full 3D objects would be piling on, we've seen this happen in forested areas. We know what it does to our frame rates. In these situations "flats" (a theatrical term) are used in Cambria; 2D objects representing trees and shrubs. They look best when seen from cabview angles or from the passenger view. But the impression you get, even outside the cab, is not confined to that of a "cutout": The designer "covers" a given area by backing up a flat of trees with a shorter one, placed at an extreme angle behind the main element. Viewing it as you roll past, you are not aware of two flat surfaces; you have to study the group before it becomes apparent.

    Pulling in to most any town on the route gives us a sense of "arriving" - there it is in the distance, then somewhat larger, then we see just enough to be convinced it is Barmouth, or Harlech, or any of the other towns. Larger communities are best presented from a distance; if we persist in popping up to see everything, perhaps we won't be impressed, but we will also understand there is a limit to how far building up an area can go in any 3D program, certainly MSTS is no exception.

    Here are examples, screen shots done as the train approaches Barmouth from the south. Note that in the third image, the one where the train is adjacent to Barmouth platform, just enough detail is present, no more than necessary. Yet nothing seems to be missing. Human figures are placed in such a way to create an illusion of depth. Another notable feature is the track itself: Look closely, you will see these are not the shiny, impossibly new textures which are present in the default routes, themselves slavishly copied into add-ons. This track looks more "real" than the default, one reason being the reflective quality has been flattened. The effect is similar to the replacement track textures many of us are using.


    Not surprisingly, frame rates maintain a workable level throughout the approach, slowing for the platform and stop. Not high. Workable. Look again at the third image; there are a fair number of objects present. The frame rate here was no different than the first approach screen shot. Stuttering should not occur.

    The reader may have noticed something different about the human figures. They are 3D. Who said it couldn't be done? The people who can't do it. There are double-decker buses with lighted interiors. Road vehicles have headlights, some also have tail lights. The headlights do not project light, apparently they cannot in MSTS, instead they are done with "glow material", which works well enough. Using road vehicles a certain way will make the viewer think the headlights are on: During Cambrian night sequences, as you run through a road crossing the street lights will be on. As you are passing, a car will pull up at just the right time, into the circle of light under the street lamp. The illusion is clever and convincing; unless you are paying very close attention you will believe the car has functioning headlights. This is the creation of effective theater.

    Not only would any route set in the Cambrian which lacks castles be incomplete, it would be inconceivable. Harlech is the famous one, here it is in the rain, then again at night. Does it rain a lot in Wales? Yes, it does. The good news is Harlech Castle is not melting in the rain.


    Neither has the imposing structure at Criccieth been neglected. We see it in the distance, from Criccieth station as the driver waits for signal clearance:

    We were sailing along, on Moonlight (Cambrian) Bay:

    Up till now, snow and snow storms have not always been convincing in MSTS. Snow in WALES? Dylan Thomas in his "Child's Christmas in Wales" had something to say about snow. Here, the 1982 blizzard is suggested as the setting for a group of passenger activities. No one wants to say how much snow. To the Welsh, the snowstorm of 1982 was blizzard category, closing schools to the delight of the students, shutting down much of the Cambrian coast, making the trains run late. If you live with snow, if you have experienced heavy snow storms, you will recognize what has been accomplished in Cambria Route. Here is the Phwllheli DMU run against a gray sky - followed by the same train entering snowy Barmouth. Rendering was solid for all snow scenes. Still pictures do not do justice.


    Night scenes have not been neglected. Buildings and platforms are lighted in a convincing manner. Two examples; the first shows night action at Dovey Junction, the second lays out Aberystwyth in the distance as our train approaches the platform. Keeping an eye out as you pilot your locomotive through the night, you will see churches, light coming from behind stained glass windows. These touches individually are minor, most of them. Taken together, the illusion is compelling.


    There's no business like show business ...

    Where's the Action?

    The little mill grinds upgrade with a consist. Tough going, requires muscular fireman.
    Nothing special in the way of knowledge of British railroads or railroading is required to play and enjoy Cambrian. A few words might puzzle an American: "Fitted" refers to a car having vacuum or air brakes, "unfitted" means only hand brakes. Enforcement of safety appliances throughout the U.K. apparently came slowly. Some "unfitted" freight cars would have been found in the freight activities set in the 1960's. We are warned not to exceed certain speed limitations when this is the case, since there appears to be no specific penalty for overspeed, the warning is rhetorical. "Shunting" is generally understood to be the equivalent of "switching". You will be able to figure out the rest on your own. No need to spoil the fun. Railroading is the same everywhere; locomotives are coupled to cars, flanged wheel meets rolled steel rail. Cargo and passengers are transported from one place to another.

    Cambrian comes with 25 activities. Nine are passenger, the remaining freight. Mainline is single track, thus meets ("passes") are staged on station or yard trackage. Follow directions exactly: If you leave a yard earlier than scheduled or without dispatcher clearance, you may have an ugly surprise in the form of a cornfield meet. Each of the 25 activities was tested. If variation seemed possible, the activity was played as many times as necessary.

    Cab view of the included steam locomotive.
    Passenger activities fall into two groups of four, connected by tasks assigned and time by way of the "shift" principle. The easiest group is a daytime set - 3DTS Mach DMU shift 1-1 thru -4 - a good introduction to railroading on the Cambrian. 1-3 begins action at Dovey Junction with stops at nearly every platform on the line.

    Driving the DMU Class 101 may be a new and different experience. The gear shift (E and Shift - E) makes for interesting motoring. If you have driven the default Flying Scotsman, you will know the braking system: 100% Released down to 0%, then Running takes over from 0% to 100%, which then flips into Application. After a time, it will be like marriage. You get used to it. You may not like it at first, on the other hand you will come to know what to expect. The DMU will resist braking when running at any appreciable speed unless you disengage the gear box. Banging the A key to cut off power, changing the transmission to neutral and applying brakes all at the same time will improve your eye to hand coordination. Reversing the Shift - E and E via Keyboard Options may help; it is easier to press E to disengage than the default setup. Once DMU application braking cuts in, stopping will occur rather quickly. If the platform is long enough such as in the towns, you can coast until reaching the start of it, then brake to a full stop. The shorter rural platform stops are trickier. Per the old story, with violin case under our arm, we are told the way to Carnegie Hall is " Practice, practice, practice."

    The second group of four passenger activities - 3DTS Pwllheli DMU Shift-1 thru -4 - is set during the Great Welsh Blizzard of 1982. Figure on running seriously behind schedule, also figure on seeing excellent environmental effects. Visibility varies, getting down to a few yards. Finally we get some use out of checking Fog Table in our graphics settings. Passenger activities are rounded out with a short night run from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth.

    Passenger operations fans looking for a break from high speed rail in congested urban areas will like the Cambrian activities. Confining meets to the stations and yards, which must be done, ought to simplify writing activities. Extra rolling stock is available in the file library, such as the Class 153 DMU "Heart of Wales".


    Freight activities are made up in groups of four to represent working shifts, same as passenger. There are more of them, some are difficult to complete because of switching. Most of the problems center on MSTS coding: For reasons known only to Kuju, using a locomotive front coupler is an adventure far beyond what it ought to be; in real life the train does not crash because the crew used the front coupler. 3DTS cautionary note "Train Simulator sometimes crashes when coupling with the front coupler. You are advised to save the game before coupling, just in case this happens. " may be overly optimistic. Inevitable is the way some of us view it, furthermore saving doesn't always work. Some players claim they use the front coupler frequently and without problems, though they don't say if they use if more than once in the same session. The topic has been covered in depth on the Train-Sim forum, such a thread is current as of mid-June.

    Many switching activities in Cambrian are wisely written to use only the rear loco coupler, with these we encountered zero operational problems. When it came to using the front coupler, considerable testing revealed something we might have guessed: We got one chance and one chance only to use the front coupler, if for some reason we were kicked out of the session - running a signal will do it - it made no difference if we had saved. The session was irretrievably corrupted. Made no difference if we didn't save. Theoretically, if we save before the first use of the front coupler, leave the session after first use without saving, when we come back it should be as if we never used the front coupler, correct? Not so. Save or no save, once the front coupler was used from that point on the activity had to be completed without leaving. The other option is to delete all save files for the session and start over from the beginning. These tests were run, each and every occurrence, with a full system reboot, not just restarting the sim.

    This is certainly not the fault of 3DTS-UK or anyone other than Kuju. If there are players who use the front coupler regularly and get away with it, more power to them. Neither is 3DTS to be faulted for including the disclaimer: Our test system is plain vanilla WinXP Home, we had problems with the front coupler. Others with the same system might get different results. The point is, we simply do not know what is going to happen.

    MSTS seems to become confused during an extended period of switching. The fixed paths are there all right, as are the reverse points (you must be sure to move the loco over the reverse point - each time this is done it must disappear from the Track Monitor). A few turnouts do not align properly after the loco has moved back and forth several times, when they don't you throw the points manually.

    Instructions in a couple of the freight activities - the "Briefing" section - are not as clear as they might be, here too some players won't mind.

    Watering the little loco can prove to be tricky. Requires lining up with the water spout at a precise point on the boiler, as the image indicates. We have highlighted the area where the spout has to be for the water to turn on. Plan on five or six minutes to water up. Coaling is similar, you will have to learn the precise place to stop the loco. Coaling from a manual facility takes a very long time.

    There are no lack of choices: Don't run the activities with switching in them, run only those which involve rear loco couplers, run only passenger. The line is admirably suited for passenger operations. Realistic timetable operation is possible, following the Wales and Borders Railway system. This URL: http://www.walesandborderstrains.co.uk/eng/travelling/documents.php - will take you to the Wales and Borders website. There you can get a dandy system map, lots of timetables and promotional literature, including a travel folder in PDF format.

    You can Google Churchward and Collett or - http://www.steamindex.com/people/churchwd.htm - is a starting place to learn about these extraordinary men. Histories of GWR - Great Western Railway - abound, those on websites tend to be skimpy. Naturally, almost all the sites will sell you books on the subject they are promoting, most are hardbacks in a price range out of the question for people with limited income. Locomotive rosters, picture galleries of stations, that sort of data are common. The stories behind the great railroads are not easy to find anywhere, when located they tend to be limited publication, high priced items. Libraries in larger communities might be a good place to look. Locomotive rosters, picture galleries of stations, similar material is easy to find.

    Conclusion And Summary

    Test System

    Processor: AMD Athlon XP2000+ (no overclocking, Cambrian does not like it)
    Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-7DX+
    RAM: 512 Meg DDR266
    Graphics Adapter: Visiontek Ti-4400
    Hard Drive: Seagate Barracuda 40GB ST340016A 7200rpm
    Soundcard: Turtle Beach Santa Cruz
    Speakers: Monsoon M-1000
    OS: WinXP Home (all unnecessary Service turned off)
    Direct X: Version 9
    Graphics Drivers: nVidia Official 44.03
    Graphics Control: RivaTuner 12.4
    System Parameter Monitoring: Sandra 2003

    Early response to Cambrian Route has been favorable for the scenery and setting, prompting commentary along the lines of "Sets new standards ... first time I have recognized a region when done in MSTS ...". Cambrian isn't just a girl in a pretty dress. As much as good looks means, which is a lot in graphics, same as that knockout girl you want personality if you are going to date her more than once. We see it here, enough to keep us coming back. Operationally Cambrian could be quite interesting. One of the included (short) freight activities uses a World War 2 setting; this could be the motivation for mixed freight and passenger in heavier than normal traffic. Modern timetable passenger operation is something to look into.

    Is Cambrian worth the price, $29.95 US? Scenery and setting alone make it worthwhile; the quality is quite evident in this department. Rolling stock is limited in variety, however it is excellent; better to do a few items and do them well than turn out cookie cutter cars and locos. No short cuts such as frosted windows - you get the full Monty. Good detail, poly count within reason.

    The only quibble might come in freight operations, and that depends upon how you feel about switching. Some of us are not big fans of banging about freight cars, chugging down the line and banging them around some more. Others love it.

    We can have it either way with Cambrian. Can't ask for much more.

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