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Real Live Steam Locomotive vs a Computer Train Simulator

Updated on October 22, 2011

The advent of the information age now means we can all sample our heritage interactively without ever leaving the comfort of our own living room via the Internet. Instant access to thousands of heritage websites opens a small window to allow us to take a brief look at our culture and history. But, nothing compares with actually going out and sampling the real thing first hand.

Travelling Online from Home :

While heritage in digital form has to be applauded as it is now possible to ‘visit' online numerous heritage sites, all activities really need to be experienced face to face and get real soot in your eyes. One of the most exciting moments in my life came last year, when I was lucky enough to ride on the footplate of a steam locomotive, and actually got my hand on the throttle and drove it for a while. The experience was so surprising and nothing like I imaged.

After all, I had visited as many websites as I could find about railroads on the net and even downloaded various train whistles and cab sounds to play back on my computer. I have even driven steam locomotives for many hours on the Microsoft's Train Simulator and considered myself to be quite good at driving an interactive locomotive.

Ride of Your Life :

Yet none of this prepared me for the ride of my life on a real steam locomotive. The moment I climbed onto the footplate, I was instantly deafened by the noise as the crew prepared the engine for departure. You might think the whistle is darn loud standing next to a steam locomotive on the platform, but you can't start to comprehend how loud the whistle is while standing on the footplate. I can still hear that engine's whistle ringing in my ears even now.

Assault on the Senses :

And the smell that filled your nostrils - it's a unique and unforgettable smell. A combination of hot oil, coal dust and smoke from the fire. As well as the noise and smell, the other thing you instantly notice is the searing heat from the firebox, which hits you squarely in the face, taking your breath away. Meanwhile, the floor was so hot, I could actually feel the heat through the soles of my sturdy safety boots. Nothing could have prepared me for the assault on my senses, not even numerous hours spent driving trains on my computer.

Feel the Raw Power :

Although a steam locomotive is inanimate metal object, basically a kettle on wheels, however, once you put a light to the fire in the fire, the engine starts to come to life. As soon as full pressure has been reached, you can really feel the power, power generated by simply harnessing the steam produced by boiling water. As you take control of the throttle for the first time and open it up, you can really feel the raw power of steam.

The Real Thing vs Computer Simulator :

The whole awe-inspiring experience on the footplate of a steam locomotive proves that there is no substitute for the real thing. While computer train simulators have come a long way in recent years, they have got a massive gap to bridge before they become even close to the real thing.

Experiencing it for Real :

You can for example study thousands of close-up pictures of the fastest steam locomotive in the world, the British London, Northern Eastern Railway Pacific – ‘Mallard', sit for hours watching footage of her in action from every conceivable angle, and still be completely blown away by seeing her in the flesh. One of my earliest memories is being taken to the Science Museum in London, aged about four, and being totally overwhelmed by the sheer size and might of Great Western 4-6-0 Castle steam locomotive ‘Caerphilly Castle' and the prototype ‘Deltic' diesel locomotive. While these exhibits were persevered in ‘aspic' and had not run for years, they had a profound effect on me and were probably part of the nucleus for the start of my lifelong interest in railways.

You can digitally synthesise a ‘prefect' copy of the sound of a steam locomotive's whistle, but it will never hit you quite the same way as the ear splitting wall of sound of high pressure steam being forced through a highly polished brass two chime whistle. It's sheer raw power.

Too Interactive? :

But the big question is, as the internet and train simulators get better and better, will it affect the numbers actually going out and sampling heritage first hand? After all it's now expected for every railroad to have its own website, and not just a simple one either. Those of you who regularly surf the net perhaps have already noticed there seems to be an unofficial competition going on between railroads to out do each other. As computers get more powerful and internet connections become faster and faster, it will not be long before its possible to download a video clip of a complete trip along the line. So why go visit the real thing if you can sample it in the warmth and comfort of your home?

Leonardo Da Vinci's ‘Mona Lisa' : In the Flesh

And its not just trains too. Any heritage site, museum or art gallery has to be careful not to provide too much information over the net, which at the end of the day will seriously affect numbers. Although, I have to admit, I have seen hundreds of copies of perhaps the world's most famous painting - Leonardo Da Vinci's ‘Mona Lisa' and even visited Paris's Musée du Louvre website to look at it. However, I actually spent last Christmas in Paris and got to see this great masterpiece in the flesh and was completely blown away by it. Despite being housed behind a massive glass screen, that tiny painting has to be sampled first hand to really appreciate it.

First Hand Experience :

Basically, what I am saying is, there is a real danger that the rapidly growing online culture is becoming the 21st century stay at home couch (or should be computer chair) potatoes electing to only visit our railway heritage via the internet. Which is sad, as they are missing out on a truly interactive experience of sampling the real thing first hand.

Log off, and go get some real soot in your eyes!

© David Lloyd-Jones - Copyright 2010

Nothing beats the real thing...
Nothing beats the real thing...


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