• Michigan Iron Ore: The Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad

    Michigan Iron Ore

    By Nels Anderson (14 February 2003)

    One drawback to most train-sim routes is the lack of completeness...there's always an artificial end of track even though you know in the real world the track continues on. There's not much that can be done about this while modeling typical Class 1 railroads...they are just too big for current sim technology.

    However, there are industrial railroads that can be recreated in their entirety. Maple Leaf Tracks' Michigan Iron Ore: The Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad is almost the complete Ore Subdivision of the LS&I. I'm informed by railfans from the area that a joint line with CN is missing, but for the purposes of moving coal this subdivision feels complete. The subdivision also does have a dead ended connection to the outside world, but that does not affect the ability to completely run Ore Subdivision activities.

    The subdivision is actually pretty small, with only about 18 miles of track from end to end (MP 55.20 at Marquette to MP 73.00 at the Tilden Mine). This sure doesn't sound like it would allow for much activity, but if you think that you'd be wrong. Within that short stretch are the Tilden Mine, Empire Mine and the Palmer Mine plus major yards at Eagle Mills and at the Lake Superior Docks. Each of these locations includes lots of yard track, so much so that it's rather intimidating at first.

    So what we learn before even running the add-on is what it's all about: lots of yard activity with short main line runs to move cars around. If this is your cup of tea, the LS&I has a lot to offer.


    Installation And Documentation

    Installation is typical for any Windows software. Download the software, run the install program and let it do its thing. In addition, though, you will want to install the latest update from Maple Leaf Tracks web site. At the time of this review I'm running v1.3. Installing the update is as easy as the original install; just download it and run it and let it do its thing and your software is all in place.

    One of the main weaknesses of many add-ons is the supplied documentation. To be able to realistically run trains you need information. You need to know the terrain, mileposts and where things are. This means maps and charts and enough text to explain what they all mean.


    Maple Leaf Tracks supplies the documention as a Windows help file, and it's fairly complete. Included are descriptions of route signs, information on the controls in the two types of locomotive cabs supplied (GE and ALCO), signal meanings, plus a grade profile, maps and milepost location list for the route itself. Most of this is quite well done. The maps are even supplied by the actual railroad. But here's the problem...the maps, while originally quite good, are reproduced in a size where you can't quite read many of the labels. Consequently, the maps don't give you all the information you need to find your way around the many complex yards. The maps also don't exactly match the train-sim version of the tracks, though this is only a minor inconvenience. I eventually loaded up the activity editor and panned around the route and used the information I found to label my set of maps. Kind of a nuisance, but you do need to be able to find your way around somehow!


    Rolling Stock

    A variety of equipment is supplied. Locomotives come from both ALCO and from GE. There are six locomotives included in consists, plus at least one more (ALCO high nose RSD12 #1852) that you will see used as trailing units. The images below show the types: GE C30-7, U23C, U30C; ALCO RSD12, RSD15:

    ALCO RSD12 #1801

    ALCO RSD12 #1852

    ALCO RSD15 #2402

    GE C30-7 #3071

    GE U23C #2301

    GE U30C #3003

    As for the freight being pulled, mostly you will see (surprise!) lots of ore cars. This is a mining railroad after all! Just for some variety there are more than one type of ore car. There are also some additional car types that show up on occasion.

    All the rolling stock is nicely created. No major flaws were observed and the locomotives offer quite a variety of attractive paint schemes.

    Two cabviews are used for all the locomotives, one GE type cab and one ALCO. Like the exteriors, the cab interiors are nicely detailed. Everything is sharp and readable and the animations are clear and smooth. In my experience, though, you won't spend much time in this view as much of the route activity involves switching and you really need an outside view to do that. The view from these cabs are also rather limited even for mainline running, especially so on the ALCO cab, as the views below demonstrate:

    GE Cabview

    ALCO Cabview


    I spent most of my running time trying the various activities. This is one route where just exploring the route is not really your best option. Being relatively short it's not going to take long to get from end to end (even though the speed limit for much of the route is only 20 mph!). Just driving back and forth is not really what this add-on is about anyway.

    If you like running freight you've got to like switching, otherwise you might as well stick to running passenger trains from station to station. With miles and miles of yard track in the LS&I you couldn't find a better place do to switching. There are some problems though.


    As I mentioned earlier, the low resolution of the provided maps makes it hard to get to know the yards. You will learn them eventually if you are persistant and observant though. Experience counts in this kind of operation! Still, it would have been nice to start out with nice clear yard maps with each track labelled...

    The design of some of the activities is problematic too. The description of what you are supposed to do is often sketchy, leaving you to figure out how to go about things. Here is where a limitation of Train Simulator itself rears its ugly head: you have to do an activity just as designed for it to run correctly. That means you have to follow the path that the activity designer used even when there are a variety of different moves through the yard that would accomplish the same thing. OK, fair enough, we are used to living within the limitations that sims offer. But it would have been nice if the activity descriptions included the necessary level of detail to accomplish this.


    I eventually turned to Maple Leaf Tracks support forums for help. These are quite nice and are active, and questions really do get answered. Kudos to them for customer support. The answer I got on my problem completing activities was right, but hardly ideal. The solution is to load up the activity editor and learn the necessary route before running the activity. Sure enough, this worked but it's not what I was hoping for. For realism I'd much rather be given a job assignment as text and a switch list and do it that way.

    I'm not sure how many activities this applies to, but the one I was stuck on, "Empire Mine Job 1" showed something rather odd when I viewed the route in the activity editor. To complete the activity it was necessary to back in and out of a dead end track (the pellet plant lead) that was away from the rest of the activity, a move that was completely left out of the activity description. Seemingly, the move made no sense but unless it's done you're left with a red signal that cannot be passed. I've been informed by a person familiar with the area's operations that this move is realistic; crews head down this track to clear the signal before moving into the yard. This makes for some interesting local flavor, but still it needs to be thoroughly described in the activity instructions. Hopefully Maple Leaf Tracks will re-examine the activities and clean up things like this.

    I did notice a couple of odd things about the supplied equipment. The independent brake (the one that controls just the locomotive) seems rather weak. I would expect to be able to fully stop one or more light engines with it but sometimes this was not the case. I can't say for sure that this is modeled wrong, having never had the chance to run the real locomotives, but it does not seem right. I also found the rolling stock to be rather fragile in some instances...having a coupler break when you couple up at a speed of 1 mph is rather frustrating. It's pretty hard to couple while going any slower. I did not seem to have this problem after I started using the activity editor to map out the proper route though, so it may have happened because I was doing the activity wrong. I didn't have the chance to investigate this thoroughly. Best bet: do lots of saves so you can reload if something goes wrong.


    It sounds also be noted that you can expect frame rates to be lower here than on default routes. There are several reasons. One is the length of the trains. In many activities you pull very long strings of ore cars and long trains mean lower frame rates. I suspect that the scenery plays a part too; in the heavily wooded areas there are many individual trees that have to be displayed. This should not be a problem for most people, but if your system is marginal on the default routes be aware that LS&I may run too slow for you.


    I spent quite a few pleasant hours running around the LS&I, using all the various locomotives and running in various seasons and weather. Once I understood the "trick" to getting activities to work right things went pretty smoothly.


    The route is short and this may disappoint some people. But there are a lot of activities included and if you do them all you will get many hours of operating activity on the LS&I. Anyone who enjoys this kind of freight operations will enjoy this route.

    Nels Anderson
    [email protected]

    Maple Leaf Tracks

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