visiting a real engine

Where do you go when you need the best information on Disneyland Railroad and steam engine operations? North Carolina, of course!

This month, I visited an accomplished author and good friend, Steve DeGaetano. Steve has four published books on the history of the Disneyland Railroad. Most of you have probably talked to him on the Burnsland forums, so his authority on the subject is quite established. He is now currently a fireman and engineer at the New Hope Valley Railroad, a volunteer-run organization, in North Carolina. I had an opportunity to spend a day with his unique little 0-4-0 engine, and try my hands at pulling the levers and turning the valves to see how these controls really feel. And they really feel different than what I had imagined! So you can bet that I’ll be finding a way to mimic these feelings in the simulator.

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We also dove under and climbed over the engine to get a good look at rarely seen mechanisms, like the burner, the blowdown pipe, and even the link block and eccentric rods in motion when the Johnson bar is shifted! Steve also explained how many of the components on the engine work, and how the engine operates, all of which are very similar to the Disney engines.

Here’s a quick tour of the little engine, and a taste of what will be integrated into the sim:

Thanks again to Steve for the opportunity. I left with a lot of great ideas for the sim, and you’ll surely see another update coming. Soon, you’ll also get to feel what it’s like to be at the controls of one of these. (Hint: in a word, it’s exhausting!)

steam it up!

Happy New Year!

It’s 2016, and the Disneyland Railroad Steam Locomotive Simulator now enters its 3rd year of development! 😀

Let’s kick off the new year with a new preview video… and let’s make it over an hour long so we can really get into the meat of the sim. In this video, we’ll look at the fine 3D model from the exterior of the train and the cab. Then, we’ll fire up the Holliday, and take her out for a quick trip around the test track ranch.

I’ll also try to point out some of the interesting sights and sounds on the engine and in the sim, as well as explaining the procedure and process of operating the engine. So, let’s get right into the video, and I’ll let the footage speak for itself.

I didn’t get a chance to really explain the function of each appliance and each option in the menu this time. I’ll make another video for those, and I also to point out some of the finer details. (Did you notice that when the engine is moving, there was a short, audible `beep’ from the water alarm, due to the sloshing water in the boiler? It’s at 43:48).

Meanwhile, enjoy the first, in-depth look at the sim, coming to your desktop in the near future!

pulling out of a station

I intended to release a long, narrated video preview of the sim for the Thanksgiving weekend. I recorded it, but in the replay I found out that my mic died! So that video is getting delayed.

Meanwhile, I made a smaller preview video showing the CK Holliday pulling out of a station. For the first time, you can finally see and hear the engine in motion!

I have to write this disclaimer again that the sim is still in alpha. Which means that the features to see in the video are subject to change, and the quality of the game is not final. Anyway, a few things to point out:

  • The two bell at the beginning of the video is the cab bell. You can simulate whether to have a conductor or not. If so, the conductor will ring two bells after a certain amount of time, signaling the train to proceed forward. Occasionally (rarely), the conductor will ring the bell one time when the train is in motion to signal an emergency stop.
  • I opened the throttle very slowly, so it took a while for the engine to pick up speed. A generally safe way to open the throttle is to open it just a little bit at a time. When the throttle is pulled, the D valve opens a little bit, then steam somewhat slowly enters the dry pipe and the cylinders. The steam will eventually build up and equalizes in the cylinders. It’s not instantaneous! It’s a bit like “do this, then wait and see, and react, then repeat.” This nature of the steam engine is simulated.
  • How easily or difficult it is to start moving depends on how long the train’s been running… why?
  • Once the train is moving at a reasonable speed, I opened the throttle up a bit more, because it was unlikely that the engine will slip now.
  • Half way in the video you can hear a loud hiss. That’s the injectors kicking in, operated by the automatic/AI fireman. He’s not much of an “intelligent” fireman though. You’ll still have to adjust the firing valves and keep the pressure. He’ll only add water, and only when there’s sufficient pressures to do so.

I’ll expand on these features at a later preview. For now, enjoy the (short) sights and sounds of the Disneyland Railroad Simulator!

assorted testing pictures

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It’s been about a year, maybe over, since I first announced the CK Holliday simulator, which now has become the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad simulator! I’d like to thank you guys for sticking around, especially if you came from my CK Holliday computer build blog over five years ago! 😀

Building something of this scale and detail takes a long time. And it’s taking a little bit longer now that I’m finding myself playing with the simulator more than working on it! Sorry! 😛 But that means the sim is definitely running well!

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(I love testing when the sun is setting. It’s great when I find the sweet spot on the throttle and the reverser hooked up just right: she coasts herself down the tracks, holding steady pace; the fire is holding well and the pressure is rock solid–just gotta remember to add water once in a while! The engine vibrates a little from the road, her brass glows in the low sun. Watch the sky turn deep purple, and listen to the soundtrack of the clickety clack, her soft huffing from the stack, the wind whooshing by the window, and the soft roar of the fire!)

They say that the hardest part of releasing a game is that you have to stop playing with it and actually release it…

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I’m working on polishing up some aspects, and then I’ll release a LONG, narrated video preview. This time, I promise I’ll actually run the engine!

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Meanwhile, enjoy these images right from the sim. They’re not in any particular order, and I don’t have much comments on these this time. As always, these are development images and features are incomplete.

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fire away!

Most people that know steam engines tend to describe them as a “living thing”. That’s because a steam engine is a very dynamic machine, and its crew has to know the engine intimately to keep her firing and running just right!

I recorded one of my “firing” tests, and thought it was a good opportunity to point out how the engine can “talk” to you… but only if you listen carefully! For instant, how can you tell if the atomizer pressure is just slightly too much? Or if the fuel in the firebox isn’t burning completely? Or if there’s too much draft?

You might miss all the signs if you don’t know what to look for. But once you know the engine, she’ll speak to you as clear as a bell!

There are many more signs, but I’ll save those to show later. For now, you can watch the short preview/demo of tending the fire below. I annotated the video to point out the engine’s signs. Here was a simple test of building a small fire (just enough to hold the pressure steady) to a larger fire to raise the boiler pressure.

the first two engines

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About one year ago I introduced the “CK Holliday Simulator”. I wanted to make a sim that will show the public how a steam engine really lives and breathes. I picked my favorite steam engine as the platform.

Well, if you’ve been following the progress on the blog you probably notice that the scope of the sim has grown quite a bit! And lately, I just felt that the sim would be incomplete if the CK Holliday didn’t come along with her sister, the EP Ripley. So, indeed, I’m happy to announce that the sim will feature the first two engines of the Disneyland Railroad.

It won’t be just a “skin” make over. Though they were built from the same plan, the engines do have their own personalities and that too will be featured in the sim.

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You can see that although the cab layout is the same, the subtle difference in the boiler jacket color, the window sizes, the side panel planking, and the cab’s shape does give it a different atmosphere.

A sizable group of DRR fans do say that the number 2 is their favorite engine. Perhaps because it was Walt’s favorite? When he was at the throttle, it was always on the Ripley. So, which engine will be your workhorse in the sim?

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another test day

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It’s another test day at the ranch! This is a fictional “railroad ranch” that I created for the purpose of building and testing the engine. It has over two miles of winding tracks that cut through the greens and the hills, some sidings, and few structures. Most importantly, it has left turns!

The ranch is coming along nicely as well, and it makes the countless amount of testings much more pleasant than pulling the engine around on an empty terrain.

Yes, countless amount of testing! Everything has to be tested, so that’s firing up the engine, pull it around for a while, take notes, fix the problems, and start over.

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Here are some pictures from a recent test on a day that we were testing the air brakes. We wanted to know if the engine was stopping at a proper distance for a given brake pressure and train mass. In the picture, we’ve come to a stop to check the temperature on the brake shoes. If those shoes get too hot the brakes become ineffective. And while we’re checking the numbers, the engine gets a chance to rest while basking in the warm afternoon light, and her front is slightly masked by the escaping steam from cylinders. Her polished brass is surely bright!

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Let’s take a look at the classic paint job! Her new paint is bright but there are signs that she’s a hard worker. There are subtle worn marks to the anti-slip coating on the top of the tender, diesel stains near the fuel hatch, and small pools of water near the water hatch.

On that day we were running with water a bit high in the boiler, so she was drawing the water into the cylinders quite a bit more than usual. Normally, when the engine is at speed the small bits of water should be expelled out through the smokestack along with the exhaust, so water collection is not a problem. But in this case we left the cylinder drains open to make sure that all the water gets out. There’s a small penalty to us as more steam is loss through the drains; but, water collection in the cylinders can be a real problem, and can make the engine come to a stop, cause catastrophic damages, or even injuries…

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…however, on that day all was well and, after a few hours of adjustments, she passed her tests. So, at least the steam out of her cylinders make for a cool picture! 🙂

your new office… the engine cab!

It’s been a while since I posted a proper, really meaty update, but now I finally have something to show and there’s going to be a lot of it! I spent the last few months purely on the graphical aspect of the sim. It’s fun to see the physics work, but putting these graphics in is really making the sim (slowly) come to life! Let’s see if you’ll agree!

These pictures are directly from the sim. They are not renderings! This includes the outside scenery, which isn’t completely ready yet so it’ll be featured in a different update. But keep in mind that many of the features I want to show may be very subtle, so you’ll definitely have to click on the pictures to see the enlarged version. Also, when a picture gets resized smaller it will appear darker as it loses pixels, so I’ve only brought up the bright levels in these pictures to compensate, otherwise these are raw sim images!

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Let’s start with the main view, above. Here’s your new office: the engine’s cab! In here, every valve, lever, and switch have distinct function that affect the performance or behavior of the engine. And they’re all represented here in the sim. Everything works. Even the gauge lamps will draw an appropriate amount of current from the battery… and eventually drain it if the generator isn’t running. And all these controls may look daunting but soon enough you’ll learn what every valve wheel in the cab does, and where each pipe start and end. (The cab today has even more valves and pipes though, due to numerous modifications through many years). I’m sure once you’re familiar with the sim, you’ll be able to talk like you’re part of the crew on your next tender ride.

Now, let’s take the left seat… the fireman’s side:

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This is a hard working machine! She’ll be out of the roundhouse for up to 20 hours on some days, and it shows here! Every surface has distinct wear and tear on it. If it’s a bright work, it’ll have received some dulling from constant contact with heat and oil, as well as repeated wiping. In the picture above, you can see the dirt and water stains that the forward windows have picked up.

Now let’s get even closer: the hydrostatic lubricator has traces of oil and fingerprints. The oil glass is almost opaque from the thick oil inside. The steam pipes here get a covering of fabric material to protect the crew because they get really hot. You wouldn’t want your arm to graze it when reaching for the blowdown valve!

The electrical duplex box still has a little bit of shine on it, but repeated wiping and contact with grease is taking its toil on the stainless steel finish.

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Down below by your feet is the fire door, which is fully operable in the sim with a locking latch/handle. Here is where the hardware is exposed to the greatest amount of heat, so the metal around it has lost their luster and finish a long time ago. We can see the burns that have formed on the inside of the door as well as rust forming around the opening. The concentric circles around the door are the head of the boiler stay bolts. (What are stay bolts? I talked about them previously here and here. These two posts also give you a great section view to see how the stay bolts work).

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Right above the fire door is an oil shelve… where you see all the oil stain build ups. The crew put their lubrication oil here on this shelve because the oil is too thick to flow freely at room temperature.

The running boards, which become the seating platform for the crew has also dulled out from use. You can see little bits of grime and dirty oil build ups near the raised pattern.

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For the next part of the tour, let’s move over to what you’ve been waiting for… the right seat! Here’s the engineer’s view of driving the CK Holliday. Note that I’ve opened the forward window and the side sliding window. You can see the water stains from the rain that has built up on the outside of the window.

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From the engineer’s seat you get a commanding view of the tracks ahead, as well as the few gauges adorning the cab. The speedometer is mounted right above the right forward window. Let’s take a closer look at the other gauges for now…

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The main gauge is the boiler pressure, and to the right is the air brake system gauge, that you as the engineer will use to stop the train. The gauges are rendered in 3D per their respective manufacturer’s specifications. You can even see the three screws, 2 pan heads at the bottom and a flushed flat head at the middle top, that mount the gauge’s face to its body. The faces have been faithfully reproduced, right now to their specification fine prints! And of course the gauges’ have a covering glass, which you can see in the sim with real time dynamic lighting and reflections. There are some smudges and grimes at the edges of the glass where yet more dust and grease have collected.

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In the above picture you can see the controls on the engineer’s side. Again, each control shows its wear and tear from constant use. But that doesn’t mean the engine isn’t well taken cared for! You can see that some surfaces still retain their shine, like the brass air brake handle glowing when the sun hits it just right.

Now, back to the speedometer. It’s the green box mounted above the right forward window. It’s been reproduced in the sim right down to the individual graduation and the “SF & D RR” marking. You can also see that the speedometer reads in feet per second.

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Okay, let’s show off some of that dynamic real time lighting and shadows I’ve been talking about.

Now the sun is setting to the left. The lighting color has grown warmer, and it’s casting a very graceful shadow from the Johnson bar across the right seat.

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This is probably one of my favorite time in the sim (and real life, too!). The shadows are now much softer and even landing on the boiler gauge’s face. All those controls cast their shadows on the cab’s side panel. The sky has turned pastel…

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… so it’s about time to hit the lights! As the dark evening sets in, we can hit the lights to illuminate the gauges. We can see the lamp casting shadows onto the pipes as well as the bright highlights from the brass gauge stand. The speedometer at the top of the picture also lights up from its internal lamp, activated from the same switch.

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Similarly, there is a lamp for the water glass, also controlled from the same switch. The way the light casts the shadows from the water glass’ geometry and the bolts really give a feeling of depth to the scene. There’s even very subtle hints of bevels in the sight glass itself.

But with all good things we have to take bit of caution here. The real time dynamic shadows can be very costly to the sim’s performance—you’ll need a fairly strong computer to run all these features well. There will be an option to turn off these shadows to help with the performance on your computer, but it still looks great and very convincing even without these shadows. There will be several options like this in the sim purely for you to tune the sim’s performance, of course at the cost of losing some eye candy.

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This might be hard to see (make sure you check out the enlarged picture), but the other light in the cab is of course the fire! Here I’ve lit a very low fire, and its warm red hue glows dimly on the foot plate. What you can’t see in the picture is the flickering of the light. It’s very cozy and I could just sit there and watch it for hours like a real fire.

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I hope this next one shows up okay. Well, just because the whole cab is painted doesn’t mean there’s no surface details! Here, if you look closely enough you’ll see slight variation in the paint due to the wood grains beneath the paint. The shininess of the paint even follows the wood grain! These wood grains were hand-placed following the correct orientation of each piece. For example, a post will have vertical grain while a panel might have horizontal grains. You’ll be able to see all of this. Check this out in the side panel, or the panel in front where the edge of a panel gets hit by the sun beam.

And while we’re here check out the try-cock funnel too! There are variation in the shininess again because it had been used before, and the brass is wearing dull.

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Let’s take a closer look…

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Ahh ha! The back of the boiler jacket has received its share of wearing also. A part of the jacket’s bright coat has dulled away from the heat and constant use and contact with the crew. There’s even water stains on the jacket, perhaps from the try-cock or even from the dripping of water/steam from all the pipes around it.

Here’s another closer look at the wear on the boiler jacket. The area around the throttle packing has received considerable wearing and is much duller than the area around. This is because the throttle packing gets disassembled and reassembled quite often as part of routine maintenance. The boiler’s ID plate right above the throttle has also been faithfully reproduced here in the sim.

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And finally, if you prefer the natural state of things, you can have the cab without the paint, exposing the ash wood underneath all that green paint!

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What do you think? In my opinion, it looks much warmer and bigger than the painted green. But hey… the green is proto typical and it does help cover up all the oil and grease.

I hope you enjoyed this update. There’s still a lot more work left (as always!) but you can see that it’s actually coming together. You’ll be able to have your very own CK Holliday soon!

updates: the engine in motion

For the past few months I’ve been working on a pretty big project to convert the sim into a 3D environment. In the first preview video I showed you that the sim was going to be a flat 2D/2.5D picture of the cab, with a view that’s like operating the engine from the tender seat.

Well, all that has changed and the entire project is slowly being converted into a 3D simulator very similar to the popular train simulators out there. Now, I have to put my disclaimer again that I’m not aiming to compete with those games and sims out there because I have a completely different intent than what they achieve. My simulator will very largely focus on the operations and physics of a particular steam engine(s) itself, so if you’re looking for a “digital train set” sim/game then those exist to fulfill your need.

But if you’re interested in learning how a steam engine really works, including…

  • how opening the throttle too quickly can cause water in the boiler to draw into the cylinders and stall the engine
  • how managing the fire correctly for each phase of the day, like idling at a station or starting a heavy train
  • speaking of starting a heavy train, how to manage the throttle so as not to cause the drivers to slip… and if they do, what you can do about it (…when the fire goes out due to a vacuum caused by the rapidly moving pistons!)

…then, okay, this is the simulator for you!

So, the 3D aspect is a bit of a bonus and it will certainly give you a very realistic perspective of being in the cab. There is much more to do but I want to highlight some of the features that are coming your way.

Here’s a start: check out how the sunlight coming through the cab windows hit the valve wheels, shining brightly and laying their shadows onto the boiler. The shadows are also in realtime, which means that they’ll move properly while the engine is moving and when the valve is operated. I’m also spending a lot of effort “painting” photorealistic textures onto each surface and device in the cab. In this shot, check out the subtle rusting on the pipes and the scratches/buffs on the boiler jacket. Indeed, you’ll get an authentic feel like you’re right there in the cab of a well-used but well-maintained steam engine.

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It doesn’t end there. Even the subtle movements of the gauge needles have been considered. Take for example, when the engine is moving. The forces of the tracks (roads) get transmitted throughout the engine and get translated into vibrations. In this animated shot, check out the very subtle “wiggle” of the needle as the engine rolls down the track. Watch carefully and you’ll see that the gauge frame is also vibrating a little bit. In the sim, you’ll see the whole engine vibrates that varies with the speed! (The animated picture is quite large in file size, so if you don’t see it just open it in another window here).

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As before, the vibrations get transmitted everywhere. Imagine what would happen if you have a bottle of water in your car as you’re driving. Well, it happens in the sim, too! The movement of the engine can make reading the water level a bit challenging. You’ll have to be careful to not read (too much) into the level when the engine is accelerating or decelerating, because the water level will read too high or low due to its inertia.

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What about draining the water glass due to clogging from sediment buildup because you either didn’t use water treatments or you used water with a lot of impurities? Or if you close the top (steam valve) and the water in the glass starts to rise due to the cooling steam at the top of the glass creating a vacuum? Yep! It’s modeled. (Thanks to Mowsefan at Burnsland for the information on that!)

The heart of the simulator has also been extended quite a bit since the last video preview. Check out all these options, spread out over 5 different pages, that’ll allow you to control control and customize your engine to your specific liking and needs. The menus are not done yet either—there will be additional options to add in the future, too. (Click on the picture to get a larger size that’ll let you see the text better).

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I’ll have to devote some other time to discuss what those options do, but for now I think you get the idea of what I have planned.

The beauty extends beyond the cab’s interior, too. Here’s a small part of a fictional track that I’m using for building and testing the engine. Grass, flowers, and small shrubs and trees all make a part of a realistic scene outside of the cab. Oh, and they’ll react to the wind and weather, so on a windy day you’ll see the grass blowing and the trees sway… or even when you open the blowdown valve you’ll see the grass sway away from the escaping steam!

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And finally, you will have a dynamic sky! It’s just so pretty that I’ll let the pictures do the talking. But let me just say that the sun, moon, clouds, and weather are all dynamic. You can have a clear sunny day or a foggy or a rainy day. It’s all customizable in realtime or you can just let the dynamic time and weather engine handle it all. Oh, and the celestial objects, including the sun, moon, stars, and planets are all accurate depending on your chosen date.

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That’s it for now. Not a very long update but I feel like it’s a big one; at least it’s a big step for the sim for sure and it took a lot of work to get to this point. I hope you enjoyed it!