Meet the Just Trains developer

Q&A with Tom Williams
19 June 2017

Tom WilliamsWhile we all enjoy the fruits of their labours, we generally don't hear much about the people behind the train sim routes and locos we use every day, so we thought it was high time we introduced some of the talented developers we work with at Just Trains and asked them to tell us a little more about themselves and the work they do.

First up is Tom Williams, who has been with Just Trains for many years now and has put a great deal of work into routes and locos such as Western Mainlines, Chiltern Main Line, Class 60 Advanced, Class 67 Advanced & Car Carriers, Bristol to Exeter, Voyager Advanced and Class 222 Advanced.

Tom is currently hard at work on several new TS2017 routes but he's taken time out to answer a few questions for us...

Q: Where does your interest in railways and trains come from?
I’ve had an interest in trains for as long as I can remember – probably starting with Thomas the Tank Engine books! When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes take me to Westbury station to watch the freight trains hauling limestone from the Mendip Hills, and to this day I still have a soft spot for the Class 59 locos (the forerunner of the now ubiquitous Class 66) which were based at Westbury.

Q: When did you start creating train simulation software, and for which simulator?
The first sim I worked with was Microsoft Train Simulator, when it was initially released in 2001. My first project was a set of jointed rail sounds to replace the rather bland-sounding default ones. After this I worked on a few more sound projects before moving on to 3D modelling for the MSTS West Somerset Railway add-on.

Q: What’s the secret to a creating a good locomotive to for use in Train Simulator?
I think the number one thing is attention to detail. Simulation customers are typically very discerning and will soon spot if a model doesn’t match up to the real thing. Before you even start building a model you need to spend plenty of time looking at plans and photos and getting a feel for how the real thing is put together. Never trust plans 100% either – even the official ones can have errors or omissions in them! If you’ve really got to know the loco, you’ll spot these before they make it into your 3D model.

Q: Are there any areas of development which continue to be particularly challenging - and for what reason?
Probably the most challenging area of development is getting the 'physics' data correct - the numbers which define how a loco performs. In an ideal world it would simply be a case of typing in real values and letting the simulator do the rest, but in reality a lot of testing and fine-tuning is required to make the driving experience feel authentic. Wherever possible we try and get our locos tested by people who drive the real thing - they'll let us know very quickly if a product isn't behaving in the way they'd expect it to from their hands-on experience!

Q: On average, how long does it take to create a locomotive?
It usually takes three to four months of work. Each loco requires two 3D models (exterior and cab), along with sounds, physics data and programming for the on-board systems. Once everything is in place the loco will go through an extensive beta testing process to identify any bugs – this usually takes another few weeks before the product can be signed off for release.

Q: What is your favourite part of the process when creating a locomotive?
Modelling the cab and simulating the on-board systems. The LUA scripting in Train Simulator has a lot of potential when it comes to accurately recreating the behaviour of the controls and computers built into a modern locomotive, and seeing those systems come to life based on code you’ve written is always very satisfying.

Q: Aside from locomotive creation, what other development do you do for Train Simulator?
A major part of my work is scenery creation – everything from generic items like track and signalling which get used in multiple routes, all the way up to very detailed models of major terminus stations.

Q: You’re also involved in route creation - is this as challenging as developing locomotives?
Each has its own unique challenges. Locos and other rolling stock generally require much more detail than scenery for routes. On the other hand there are usually drawings and large amounts of photographs readily available for any loco you can think of, whereas with scenery you’re quite often working from a small number of photos of a building and trying to guess how it all fits together!

Q: Train Simulator is an impressive platform, but is there anything you'd like to see added to it - or you'd like to see programmed differently in it - that would allow you to add even more realism to your add-ons?
It would be nice to see the scripting system expanded to allow for more complex systems and displays. At the moment you can do a lot of 'behind the scenes' programming but the sim is quite restrictive as to how you can display data within the cab. If the scripting system allowed you to create code which generated its own graphical output that could be displayed on a screen in the cab, that would open up a whole lot of new possibilities.

Q: Which do you prefer, and what’s the most rewarding – route work or loco work?
If I had to choose, it would be building locos – it’s nice to spend the time really getting to know a particular type and trying to recreate every detail in the simulator. On the other hand, a good loco is no fun without a good route to drive it on, so from the customer’s point of view I think they’re both equally important parts of the job!

Q: How do you see train sim add-on development progressing over the next few years?
Although Train Simulator and its add-on market will no doubt be around for a good few years to come, I'm sure we'll see a gradual shift of both players and developers over to the recently released Train Sim World. At the moment this is a single-route product with no add-on support, but the Unreal Engine 4 based graphics look superb and I'm really looking forward to the chance to develop some content for this sim. I also hope we'll see train-driving simulators make the jump to consoles and VR in the next few years; up to this point I think that the limited number of controls available to console players has inhibited the development of a console-based sim, but hopefully in the near future you'll be able to put on a headset and enter an immersive driving cab where you can reach out and manipulate the controls rather than relying on a hand-held controller.

Q: Finally, are there any routes or locos for Train Simulator you'd really like to develop, given the chance?
Route-wise I'm always drawn towards branch lines for some reason - I'd love to do a highly detailed reproduction of the Liskeard-Looe branch with the reversal at Coombe Halt and the connection to Moorswater cement depot, or possibly re-create the now closed Yelverton-Princetown line running across the wilds of Dartmoor. As for a loco, most of the British diesel locos have been covered now, but I wouldn't mind doing my own version of the Class 59!