Fear and Gaming: Crazy Train

Jonathan Gourlay loves every train, simulated or real, with the exception of the one in Atlas Shrugged.


The royal blue Class 55 British Railways “Deltic” locomotive pulls out of York with a satisfying metallic chunk-a-chunk. The twin diesel engines whine majestically as they begin a special service, hauling a group of hooligans to a soccer game in Darlington. This is post-war England, an era of industrial brawn ruled by hulking metal behemoths that tear across the countryside and whiz past sheep and ancient stone cottages, a place where a giant diesel locomotive embodied the pinnacle of technological achievement.

Today, these locomotives are rusted, dilapidated, and relegated to museums. Our future is small. It comes to us in pads and pods and apps. Progress is pulled from the clouds. It seeps through screens in our houses. The tons of rolling steel, steam and diesel engines, that once wove the world together are forgotten relics of another era, long gone. The only place where new 55 BR Deltics gleam and flash is Railworks 2, a train-simulator for rail nuts who sit at computers and play choo-choo.

As I play with my train, my ten-year old daughter enters my office dressed in a too-small black tutu that she insists actually fits. No amount of argument will move her from her belief that her tutu still fits. Though as a matter of objective fact, it doesn’t.

She stands on one leg like a ballerina and cranes her neck to see the old locomotive pull out of the station on my computer monitor. For good reason. The trains in RW2 have been rendered with a fetishist’s eye for detail. The Deltic diesel sounds and feels solid and real. Zoom in, and exhaust fumes will obfuscate your view of the air intake grill and spinning radiator fans. Railworks 2 encourages you to aim your gaze at these mighty engines. In fact, most of my game time with RW 2 is spent playing with the many camera angles, both inside and out of the train. For many minutes, even hours, there is little else to do but consider the rain, the metronomic clinking of the track, and the power of these gorgeous, deceased diesels.

Eventually, my daughter gets bored with the idea of watching someone play a train simulator and prances off to listen to Cody Simpson. Cody Simpson is a boy with hair. That’s all I know about Cody Simpson.

It’s raining in RW2‘s England and I switch on the Deltic’s wipers and lights. I turn up the sound of the engine to drown out my daughter’s growth spurt. The train devours the track as I push the engine past 100 MPH. It must have seemed natural back then, in the age of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that all one need do is create the best train and you would rule the world. If you can hack your way through to chapter eight of Atlas Shrugged you will find pages of orgasmic prose describing the first run of the John Galt Line. On this line rides Dagny Taggart’s wondrously metal-muscled über-train (with six diesel engines!). The train is “moral code cast in steel.” Every man who embraces his own soul has in him the capacity to create a roaring, phallic monster of industry that splits the mountains apart like “two wings… of naked rock.” Humanitarians who stop to consider others are pathetic impediments to progress. Such is the steel-cast moral code of the John Galt Line.

No government or union or consortium of railroad owners impedes my diesel engine at they do Dagny Taggart’s. However, I am told to watch out for something in this scenario that might “throw a spanner in the works” of the special passenger service. Twenty minutes of straight track and mushy, gray English countryside go by and the spanner has yet to be thrown. I check Twitter. I grab some coffee from the kitchen. I listen to the muffled strains of Cody Simpson’s kid-pop through my daughter’s bedroom door. Still no spanner. Ca-thunk, hiss, growl, ca-thunk goes the diesel. Playing Railworks 2 is like one epically long game of pop goes the weasel.

There was no happier place in my childhood than underneath my father’s model train set. I was fascinated by the spaghetti of wires that hung beneath the model town and the train signals. I liked to lay there and listen to the model Amtrak, which would run round and round until the room smelled of electrical sparks. To this day, I love trains with a deep, burning, indigestion-like feeling. Ayn Rand sees power and domination in a train. I see only joy. I intend to pass along this joy to my family. By “pass along” I mean “force them to like.”


On Father’s Day I made my wife and daughter board a retired Norfolk and Western diesel engine and be mercilessly yanked down a portion of little-used and not terribly scenic rail in central Kentucky. The old Erie-Lackawanna line carriage cars (built in the 20s and used until the 80s) were full of families indulging their fathers or, more likely, grandfathers. The windows were cracked and we were warned that they might slip from their runners and guillotine our hands if we weren’t careful. Faded advertisements for Grape Nuts and Ovaltine hung in the curved ceiling of the car.

As we slowly bounced down the track, a retiree provided description via crackling speakers. “On your right you’ll see a field. That’s the Dawkin’s farm. They don’t have horses now. Not sure where the horses went. Last year, they had horses in the field. I guess the Dawkins moved.”

About a half mile into our journey, as we pass more green fields bereft of horses, my daughter asks for the iPhone so she can play with her wedding cake simulator. I refuse. It’s my day, after all, and I can obstinately demand enjoyment of this train ride. What is Father’s Day for if not for that? Gone are the days that she loved trains just because I loved trains. I guess I was about her age when we packed up my father’s train set to make more room for hanging laundry in the basement. Like a circular model train set, my daughter will move away and instantly hate or at best barely tolerate the things I like. Then, many years from now, she will come around the papier mache mountain again and the train obsession will descend upon her. She will drag her family on the Mother’s Day train. She’ll look out of the cracked glass and think of her father. Maybe I’ll be the retired guy providing the play-by-play on the empty fields rolling by outside.

Across the aisle from us is a pair of new parents and their baby. The new father is wearing a “Who is John Galt?” t-shirt and a pair of ineffective birth-control glasses. The baby, obviously agreeing with Ayn Rand that her own happiness is the purpose of her life, refuses to be held by her father. She squirms bitterly for a minute or two before the John Galt follower and presumptive tea-partier returns her to her mother. It strikes me that someone who takes the John Galt oath, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” would not make the best father.

Who is John Galt? John Galt is the mysterious hero of Atlas Shrugged. Reading Atlas Shrugged to uncover the mystery of John Galt is about as exciting as reading the phone book to find out what happens in the Zs. Spoiler alert: John Galt, when he finally appears, makes a long-winded speech. Altruism is bad. Poor people mooch off the kindness of the rich and grow lazy with their sweet, sweet handouts. (Government cheese! Whee!) “Producers” like John Galt, people that today’s Randian psychotics call “job-creators,” will collectivize, move to Colorado, and begin a general work stoppage of wealthy capitalists. Shrug.

The Father’s Day special ambles to a rousing and clackity 10 MPH. The train doesn’t go over 10 MPH, explains the conductor, for insurance reasons. More moocher regulations keeping us from the free expression of speed…

I turn to Mr. “Who is John Galt?” and say, “Look, Ayn Rand was a crazy person who, in a fit of logorrhea, dropped a thousand page asshole manual called Atlas Shrugged.”

He stares at me through his thick glasses like a stunted mole fascinated by a yo-yo.

“Do you know who worshiped at the feet of Ayn Rand? Alan-fucking-Greenspan! And now we’re all on the Bullshit Express, it’s like the little engine that could but instead of ’I think I can!’ it says ’Hate the poor! Hate the poor! Give to the rich! Steal from the poor!’ I realize that’s much more rhetorical content than the little-engine-that-could expressed, but nevertheless screw you.”

Then I throw his glasses out of the window, fart violently, and sit down. Everyone applauds.

“On your right is a field of what I think is soybeans,” says the conductor. I wake up from my revelry. I can’t bring myself to speak across the aisle to “Who is John Galt?” Let the tea party steep as it will. I am lost in thought amid fields of possible soybeans. The moral code expressed by this slow train is quite different from the John Galt Line. We are on a barely functioning diesel in a cast-off passenger car on a short line restored by affable, retired volunteers. An elderly lady in a home-made Thomas the Tank Engine dress walks up and down the aisle offering to take pictures of the fathers on their special day and making sure that everyone is having a good time. “Of course! Wow! This is incredible!” the fathers say. Their families force a smile, snap a picture, dream of the moment the engines reverse and we inch back towards home. This is a train of families sacrificing their afternoons for their fathers. The moral code of this train is the simple enjoyment of a life together.

In Railworks 2, the spanner is finally thrown in the works. An excited soccer fan accidentally hits the emergency brake. The train squeals to a stop. The huffing, wheezing diesel engine idles on the track like a tired malamute. After waiting a few minutes, I am given the go-ahead to roll on towards Darlington.

My daughter enters still wearing the too-small tutu that she, in a fit of anti-reality thinking worthy of an Ayn Rand character, still believes fits her. She has augmented her outfit with purple eye shadow and a pair of pink sunglasses perched on her head.

“Why don’t we ride our bikes?” I ask.

“Pshaw!” she says. I believe this means “yes.”

Out on our bicycles in the summer heat, I wonder what it must be like to never live for the sake of another human being nor accept the help of another human being. To sneer at those in need. To look at a train and see not childhood, not togetherness, not the quaint choo-choo of yesteryear but rather the dominion of industry over humanity, the average soul crushed by a capitalist machine, the rule of a few rich oligarchs over the sniveling masses. Is such a life even possible? Did Ayn Rand never skin her knee and need a kiss to make things better? Did she never look underneath the trains and the towns and see the little red and blue wires connecting us all?

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.