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The Flare Path: Derail Valley Diary

The parable of the greedy engine driver

My favourite Thomas the Tank Engine book is 'Zlatko the Shunter', the one where Thomas travels to Yugoslavia for his holidays, makes friends with a Series 621, and becomes a committed market socialist. Sadly, the little orange Zlatkos that are everywhere in Derail Valley: Overhauled have nothing to say on the subject of planned economies, worker self-management, and the perils of unchecked incentivisation. If they had perhaps my week with Altfuture's better-than-ever Early Access rail sim wouldn't have ended the way it did.

Returning to Derail Valley, an unusually physical freight-only train game set Somewhere in the Balkans, for the first time since May's root-and-branchline 'Overhauled' update, I make a bee-line for one of the new Class DE6 diesels. When I find a “This locomotive requires a licence” message affixed to the locked cab door, I go looking for an office in order to purchase the relevant paperwork. The office's multi-function ATM delivers bad news. Of the $200K licence price, I possess roughly two percent. For a fleeting moment I contemplate a save file text edit then self-respect kicks in and, rolling up my sleeves, I stride over to the jobs table.

Unlike other train sims DV doesn't do scenarios or timetables. Each of the sixteen towns and industrial sites on the map periodically generate new tasks that pay according to the length and mass of the train, and the distance, complexity, and risk of the journey. You're very much your own boss, but until you've purchased licences, can't take every job on offer. Of the fairly meagre selection of contracts I'm eligible for, I settle upon a relatively short $15K container run from my current location, Food Factory, west to Machine Factory (One thing Overhauled didn't overhaul was the utilitarian place names. An option to toggle South Slavic sounding ones would be nice).

Although it has been months since I last operated a little orange DE2, my right hand has little trouble recalling the sequence of flicked switches and lever adjustments needed to coax the dinky 0-4-0 into motion. Leafing through the game's beautifully designed book of track diagrams, I locate my wagons, couple up, and am on my way.

I drive extremely tentatively on that first outing despite the fact that new speed limit signs shout “Physics have been totally reworked. You can go faster if you like.” as I pass. When it launched Derail Valley lived up to its name and, haunted by memories of expensive slow-speed prangs like the one pictured above, I find it difficult to trust in my steed's unfamiliar surefootedness.

My rustiness shows too in my route selection. Rather than approach my destination from the north I come at it from the south, not appreciating that the junction arrangement there means an awkward reversing movement of around a mile. As the sim doesn't feature AI traffic or signals at present, there's no danger of a SPAD and little chance of a collision, but reversing a train while simultaneously switching points with the infra-red remote is something of an art.

Choosing the next job is easy. Scanning the contracts table at Machine Factory a row of tiny tractor icons darts me as consummately as any Cupid. It looks like the nine red IMT 533s are destined for export because they are wanted in Harbour, far away to the SE.

The complicated cross-country trundle goes swimmingly until, winding eastward through a valley in the centre of the map, my loco's engine suddenly gives a cough and lapses into silence. What a clot - I've managed to run out of fuel! Cursing my stupidity I weigh-up my options and decide the best thing to do is to quit the footplate, and hotfoot it across hill and vale to Steel Mill. I should be able to collect a Thunderbird there.

Unencumbered, the rescue loco goes like the clappers as I hurry back to the scene of my ignominious breakdown. Even though I know I've blown my chance of an early delivery bonus, I'm eager to get the cargo moving again. Too eager it turns out. When the rear wagon of the abandoned train looms unexpectedly into view as I round a blind bend, I know instantly I'm not going to be able to stop in time. Brakes squeal, tractors embiggen, a mortified idiot braces himself for the inevitable. The impact when it comes isn't hefty enough to cause a derailment, but the rescue loco's cab glass explodes with a condemnatory crash, and the damage ravages the payment I eventually collect when I reach Harbour. Two blunders in one trip? If I carry on like this, acquiring that DE6 licence could take weeks.

The train of five container flats that snakes out of Harbour a short time later is hauled by a loco with a brimful fuel tank, and yet, on a steep grade a mile or so out of town, it too comes to an unscheduled halt. I'd love to say the brake application is caused by rocks, timber, or livestock, on the line, but such subtleties are beyond DV at the moment. No, I've simply worked the shunter's engine too hard on the climb from the coast and it has shut down in protest. Cooled by a few minutes rest and reassured by my promise that I will pay greater attention to the temperature gauge in future, the abused diesel eventually agrees to restart and we are able to continue our winding, picturesque journey to Food Factory.

It's at Food Factory that I succumb to temptation and buy one of the new 'Hazmat' licences. The purchase all but wipes out my DE6 fund. but will, I reason, ensure my bank balance grows rapidly in the days to come. I'm not best pleased when I realise that the only Hazardous Materials jobs to be had in the locality also require a Shunting licence – something I can't afford. The promise of a $24632 payment at Machine Factory & Town eventually persuades me to attach Zlatko to a string of eight boxcars and container flats loaded with meat, dairy products and pet food.

My longest and heaviest train to date needs delicate handling on the grade out of Food Factory – delicate handling that initially I seem incapable of providing. After my first ascent attempt ends in failure, I roll back into the yard and try again with a longer, more vigorous run-up. This time the sander does the business, the temp needle stays out of the red zone, and momentum is maintained. I reach the summit with sweat beads on my brow, a satisfied smile on my face, and a thought circling my cranium like a bottled bluebottle. "When was the last time Train Sim World worked me this hard?"

Before embarking on job number 5 - the conveyance of a train load of brand new Fiats Zastavas to City SW (Hazmat jobs are thin on the ground in Machine Factory too) - I scuttle off to the local service point to fill Zlatko's fuel tank and sand boxes. Having forgotten that some of DV's engine sheds are accessed via turntables, the short trip almost ends in the railway equivalent of a wolf pit. Zlatko screeches to a halt with his forward coupler dangling over the abyss.

Ninety hatchbacksfronts is a heavy load for a small loco, but I'm starting to get comfortable with the new physics now. With judicious use of sand and careful throttle modulation we reach City SW without incident. Rolling cautiously towards the deserted destination siding, infra-red gizmo in hand, I find myself picturing a peopled Derail Valley. Right now the sim is a model railway layout without Noch figures. An occasional glimpse of a permanent way crew clad in hi-vis orange or a shopping-laden town dweller shortcutting across weed-invaded tracks would work wonders.

Desperate to use my Hazmat licence I spend some of my earnings from the car delivery on a Shunting Licence so that I can tackle a fiddly but lucrative contract unloading and moving oil tanks within City SW. Things start inauspiciously when I clout a buffer-stop while reversing light-engine. The jolt deglazes the cab and reminds me that not all freight yards have mainline access at both ends. Another schoolboy error late in the task persuades me to hang up my shunting pole for the day and climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. Page 1 of 'The Idiot's Guide to Shunting' - “When dropping off wagons in a dead-end siding, it's wise not to enter the siding loco-first.”

The simmer who clambers onto the footplate the following day is fresher and more focused. Whether he's wiser is open to question. Not impressed by any of the contracts strewn on the table at City SW, myself and Zlatko set out for Oil Well Central. There a document with the mouthwatering figure of $53K printed at the bottom immediately catches my eye. For hauling seven tanks of crude oil to Harbour, the remuneration seems awfully generous. I feed the document into the validator, singing 'We're in the money' as I do.

Zlatko is less enthusiastic about the oil job. It takes a Bondi Beach of sand and all my skill and persuasive powers to nurse him up the long incline from the river bridge. Several times during the ascent the overheating bell tinkles and the wheelslip warning light glowers at me from the dash. But we make it to Harbour, albeit forty minutes too late to claim the prompt delivery bonus. Another three jobs like that and I'll have my DE6 licence, I think to myself as I feed and water my faithful orange workhorse in the local roundhouse.

Although Job #8 doesn't pay as well as its predecessor, the $20K I pocket after hauling five containers of tools and electronics the short distance to Goods Factory is not to be sniffed at, and the run puts me close to Oil Well North, a location likely to furnish the kind of NLEs (Nice Little Earners) I now crave.

Sure enough Oil Well North comes up trumps. Ignoring Zlatko's howls of protest and defeatist doom-mongering, I say “Da” to a methane moving job that promises to net me a cool $88K in under an hour.

The snag – the reason Zlatko grumbles while I gingerly back on to the rake and see to the coupling-up - is “FREIGHT HAUL OWN-FH-24” is a bit of a monster by our standards. Two hundred metres long and weighing in at 588 tonnes, it's more than double the size of anything we've hauled in the past. Will Zlatko cope?

I get my answer roughly an hour later when a weary but proud orange 0-4-0 at the head of fourteen clanking LNG tanks, rolls into City South-West with horn sounding. We rarely exceeded 35kph and almost came to grief transiting the yard at Oil Well Central (a points change gaffe sent us into an occupied siding) but the important thing is CSW now has its liquefied methane and I have my $88K. At this rate I'll have the keys to that DE6 by lunchtime.

No more pocket money jaunts for Tim and Zlatko. Shunning the nearest office I make for Oil Well Central where I find a contract that makes my heart hasten and my wallet drool. Job #10 is going to make me rich – well, rich enough to upgrade to a DE6 in one fell swoop. Someone wants a train of crude oil tanks delivered to Harbour and is willing to pay $117K to the deliverer.

It's only when I'm back in the sunshine (oddly, it never rains in DV), the job spec in my hand and the rake of wagons in front of me, that I fully appreciate what I've taken on. Fifteen tanks of liquid methane on the fairly flat line from Oil Well North to City South-West was gruelling. Eighteen tanks of crude oil through the mountains to Harbour may just be impossible. There's only one way to find out.

The yard at Oil Well Central is as flat as a billiard table but Zlatko, bullish after his recent triumph, still needs plenty of sand under his hooves to coerce the first revolution from the train's 76 steel wheels. We snail through Farm under a cloud of sooty clag. Approaching the journey's first incline, a mile or so of curving grade beginning just beyond the river, I glance at the temperature gauge and, not liking what I see, decide to stop to let the engine cool before attempting the ascent. It's a tough call. The momentum was precious, but restarting after a shutdown on the slope would have been impossible.

Once the temp needle has retraced its arc I open the throttle, prod the sand button, and wait for the scenery outside to start sidling. It doesn't. The lineside fields stubbornly refuse to budge. Unwilling to give up on that huge paycheck, I decide to split the rake into two parts and haul each section to Harbour separately.

So much for that bright idea. Even with his burden halved, Zlatko strains to no avail. Perhaps I've inadvertently stopped on a slight slope.

“What would a real engine driver do in this situation?” I think to myself. They'd use a banker or they'd double-head the train! Eager to find out whether DV allows double-heading I jump down onto the ballast and set off on Shanks' pony for the engine shed at nearby Steel Mill.

Ten minutes later, I'm back at the river peering through Zlatko II's rear window as he backs towards Zlatko I. The impressive curve of rolling stock backclothed by spectacular peaks proves irresistible to my inner shutterbug. I quickly frame the scene and press F12, not realising that my steed is slyly gathering pace while I screengrab.

Frivolous/reckless 20200709102225_1.jpg is the reason Zlatko II's buffers biff Zlatko I's buffers much harder than intended. At first shattered glass seems to be the only consequence of the tooth-loosening collision. Until inky smoke starts belching from the underside of the closest tank, I have no idea that escaped black gold is dripping onto hot axles.

Do DE2's carry fire extinguishers? I'm frantically scouring the gloomy cab (DV's cab lights are ridiculously feeble) for something red and cylindrical when the punctured tank goes off like a bomb, knocking poor old Zlatko I onto his side.

Instinct kicks in. I bail out sharpish then watch impotently from a safe distance as my lovely oil train – my life-changing $117K – goes up like a string of firecrackers.

Thank heavens for DV's automatic insurance scheme (every purchased licence increases your cover). Without it I'd now owe the local environment agency, the oil company, and the owners of the immolated train a grand total of $1.6 million in damages rather than $9K. Assuming I rein in my greed and resist the urge to take footplate snaps while shunting, a DE6 before lunchtime still isn't out of the question.

* * *


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Tim Stone