Laying Virtual Tracks to the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

Every day hundreds of people descend on the Flathead Valley to take in the sights and sounds of a passing freight train. But you would never know it if you walked down to the tracks. That’s because these people aren’t standing around Whitefish, Columbia Falls or Essex; rather they’re at home on their computer.

During the past decade, flight and train simulators that put consumers behind the controls of a jet or locomotive have grown in popularity. Now, an English company has completed a new simulator game focusing on BNSF Railway’s route from Whitefish to Shelby, up and over Marias Pass. Although computer simulators have been made of the route before, RailSimulator.com brand manager Simon Sauntson says the new version includes the highest level of details yet, the result of six months worth of work with a team poring over thousands of photos and satellite images.

“We can not get enough research material for a route like this,” Sauntson said. “(This game) gives people a window into the locomotive engineer’s world, but it’s also entertaining.”

Sauntson says hundreds of thousands of people have purchased and downloaded the company’s game, TrainSimulator 2013, which includes a handful of rail lines around the world. The Marias Pass route, set in Northwest Montana, is an add-on program.

In the game, players, or drivers as Sauntson calls them, take the controls of a locomotive and move freight and passengers through river valleys and over mountains. To create a realistic experience, Sauntson says the team of computer programmers and designers focus on local details, going as far as including the world’s largest penguin in Cut Bank and the aluminum factory in Columbia Falls. Designers also put cars driving by on nearby roads and working traffic lights.

“(That detail) might only be a few seconds of the driving experience, but it really adds to the overall game experience,” he said.

The simulator route took more than six months to develop and Sauntson said researchers used material from various trips to the United States to help design it. Sauntson likened the process to building a massive puzzle. To complete the game, designers must build digital copies of tracks, buildings, trees, mountains and locomotive from the real world.

“Realism is key,” he said. “It’s an art, it’s an artistic process.”

Sauntson said making a game based on Montana’s Marias Pass was an obvious choice because of the challenging mountain grade and the stunning scenery along Glacier National Park.

A BNSF train is seen near Essex Montana in Aug., 2012. – Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

“It’s a very popular route because it’s just a wonderful part of the United States countryside,” he said. “We wanted to make sure our American customers had something they could enjoy, but it really has people interested from all over the world.”

For more information about the game, visit RailSimulator.com.