Museum: Creating a Locomotive Experience

Norfolk Southern Corporation was weeks away from opening its new railroad museum when management decided that the planned locomotive simulator exhibit did not meet expectations and would need to be replaced.

The project designer/manager contacted me about taking on the project, which meant I would have very limited time to conceptualize and build an interactive device to immerse visitors in the experience of running a train. Regardless, I accepted the challenge and recruited three specialists to create the electro-mechanical-software configuration, the audio-visual components, and the 3-D animation.


  • Time: We had about seven weeks to complete the project for the VIP reception at the new museum and two more weeks afterwards to work through refinements before the museum opened to the public.
  • Education: I had to rapidly steep myself in train technology, the railroad industry, and the client’s specific business.
  • Equipment: We had to meld locomotive machinery with sophisticated electronic/computer equipment and fit it all into an existing, scaled-down cab structure built for the exhibit.
  • Location: The museum was in Virginia, I was in central Pennsylvania, and the team members were in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and England.
  • Information: How could we best compress an enormous amount of information about running a train into a simple, engaging, and entertaining experience?

I and the team had to make a number of irreversible decisions and then move ahead boldly, adeptly, and rapidly on the approach, equipment, and format.

There was no time to explore scenarios. I had to quickly grasp what is involved in operating a train and convert that knowledge into a treatment. I decided that I had to experience what I would want the exhibit user to experience.

Consequently, I was permitted to ride for two days in the locomotive of a mile-long train and learn first-hand what conductors and engineers see, hear, and do. Then, I wrote the treatment that described how we would replicate that experience visually (3-D), aurally (voiceover, ambient sounds), and tactilely (user controls).

While Norfolk Southern uses advanced control devices in many locomotives, we opted for a traditional locomotive “control stand” for reasons of historical authenticity and equipment availability. The client shipped a control stand to our selected fabricator, where the team:

  • stripped it down to the five main controls levers the exhibit user would need to operate the locomotive simulator;
  • installed electronic components that linked mechanical parts to the software program;
  • replaced analog gauges with a plasma monitor that could display the same information but visually simpler and easier to understand for the user; and
  • framed a plasma screen to replace the front window in the scaled-down cab exhibit and, using 3-D, give the effect of riding the rails through rural and urban settings.

Despite simplifying the control stand, operating the equipment would require some instruction. However, we wanted to give the user full control as soon as possible. We decided on a two-part format.

The opening four-minute tutorial would allow the user to “ride the rails” and control the train’s acceleration and braking in synch with the narrator, whose movements appeared on the monitor. Thereafter, the user could take full control and repeat the ride independently while the narrator occasionally supplied interesting facts.

Again, time pressures and multiple locations required exceptional teamwork as we worked on the parts of the project simultaneously rather than sequentially. Those parts included, among many others:

        • script-writing and continually editing to adapt to visual and mechanical developments;
        • coordinating recording and synchronizing of audio and visual elements; and
        • integrating mechanical with software components to respond physically and digitally to every likely user action from moving the throttle to his walking away before ending the trip.

Most important was staying consistently focused throughout the project on the user’s expectations and experience and not on the impressive technology and multimedia we were creating.

The combination of each team member’s expertise, the group’s precise collaboration, and the client’s confidence and decisiveness allowed the project to meet the tight schedule and budget. The exhibit proved to be the most popular attraction in the museum. A year later, Norfolk Southern contracted for a second locomotive simulator, this time for its traveling exhibit car.
Watch the animation
Collaborative production by Perfect Prototype, NoiseCrime Productions, Camagine, and SkaareWorks