Tired of the activities that are available with the normal installation of MSTS? Do you want some activities that are more challenging? Well, there are plenty available from various sites, such as Train-Sim.com.
There is plenty of variety: shunting (oops, sorry, switching for North Americans), long freight trips with drop-offs and pickups over Marias Pass, or time-critical passenger trips on the NEC.
Activity authors use the MSTS Activity Editor, part of the MSTS Tools package, to create and package an activity. The resulting file (of type APK - you'll see such a file in the zip after you've downloaded it) will usually contain several other files: a player consist (the train you drive), AI (computer-controlled) traffic consists, loose consists (a few wagons or passenger cars in a siding) and some other files that MSTS needs.
Immediately you can see that you may need extra rolling stock for an activity. So, before installing an activity, check the author's "readme" in the zip that you've downloaded. At Train-Sim.com, you can do a "View" and read any special requirements before you download.
Your first task, however, is to download and install the fix to the TSUnpack utility (available from Train-Sim.com's file library; it's only a few kb in size). This updates an error in the original TSUnpack utility that didn't associate a packaged activity file (APK filetype) with the TSUnpack.exe (you may find instructions to do the file association by hand - the little patch is much quicker and simpler).
Firstly, you may want to create a sub-folder (named Activities) in your special downloads folder because, after a time you'll find, as webWiz has, that you get a fairly large collection of downloaded activities. At least, when you're asked to save the download zip file, precede its name with activity_ so you can easily distinguish downloaded activities from rolling stock files and other files.
Extract the packaged activity (its the file with type APK) to your unziptemp folder. webWiz is a bit fussy at this stage; he prefers to use the Run.. command on Windows' Start button to install any program or packaged activity. So close any programs you're running; for example, WinZip. Click Start and choose Run... Now:
Now here's an important part: there'll be consists the author has used which form part of a normal installation of MSTS, so as the activity is unpacked, answer "No" to any prompt to overwrite a file. The only occasion to allow an overwrite may be when an author has an update to one of his/her actvitiies and you're sure the file you're being asked to overwrite is one of the author's earlier files.
To be sure you have all the necessary rolling stock for this activity, start up ConBuilder and do a test on the activity. However, at this stage, after reading the author's "readme", you should be ok.
However, in the unlikely event of you not having a loco or wagon for the activity, there are a couple of measures to fix the problem:
After installing an activity when you've had a problem with a missing loco or wagon and you've deleted the offending consist file, just remember to not choose that particular activity when you start MSTS until you've found all the required rolling stock.
You'll find shunting (oops, sorry, switching) activities on Marias Pass siding yards difficult without the help of some maps. The views available on the 2, 3, etc. keys are not sufficient, especially when the activity requires you to move freight wagons from one siding (yard) to another.
At Train-Sim.com there are maps for particular yards, such as Columbia Falls, and others that show all the sidings along the track between Shelby and Whitefish and Kalispell.
One good download is newmaps.zip (12-Feb-02, 400kb) in Adobe Acrobat Reader PDF format. Not only are such maps handy for activities, but they enable you to more fully explore all the ins and outs of a route - and not to have disasters when you come to a dead-end!
You can also get a get map of the Glacier National Park so you can learn more about the spectacular scenery along that section of Marias Pass - follow the link from the Marias Pass site.
The Engineer's Handbook contains some information about signals - different aspects and what these aspects indicate. However, for more detailed information, especially if you're going to design activities, you'll need further references.
If you download the Marias Pass 3 route, its authors include a document on how they've organised signals according to BNSF's working documents for Marias Pass.
Another document (draft 0.1) is sigdoc01.zip (21-Feb-02, 115Kb), is available from Train-Sim.com's file library. It's a good tutorial on how signals are used and includes examples of how dispatchers or controllers switch signals to maintain safe working distances between trains. Here's an excerpt about the four basic indications:
On occasions you may receive a message from MSTS that an activity has an out-of-date TrackID and should be re-saved in the Activity Editor. That's ok if can run Activity Editor on your monitor, otherwise you'll have to wait for someone to buy you a big, 19" screen.
One handy tool that appeared recently is the Activity Changer which enables you to alter the starting time and/or weather conditions of an activity. webWiz has used it for shunting (sorry, switching) activities to change the time so he can see what he's doing in the yard, otherwise it's too dark. (actchg10.zip, 28-Feb-02, 180Kb - check for a later version).
However, remember that ConBuilder is the most useful tool, especially to help you solve any missing locos or wagons in a consist. As well, after you've run a train through a particular activity, use ConBuilder to find the [PLAYER] activity, make a backup of this consist file in a folder out of the Train Simular folder, then edit it to include locos and passenger or freight cars to suit your interests. Re-run the activity for a different driving experience.