Grand Central Terminal is recognized as one of the world's most stunning train stations. Thousands of visitors stop by daily to gaze up at the celestially-detailed ceiling or to play in the arches of the Whispering Gallery.
But a few levels below, dimly lit platforms serve as the terminal for Metro-North's fleet of commuter trains. This part of the terminal is typically characterized as dreary for commuters — but for train simulator enthusiasts, it's a playground.
That enthusiasm is on display in a new expansion of Train Sim World 2, a video game highlighting a collection of global train routes that players can pick and choose from to operate. Developed by Dovetail Games, Train Sim World 2 can be played on several consoles and live-streamed on Twitch, a popular streaming site for gamers. Early last month, Dovetail Games added a route to the game that recreates a portion of Metro-North's Harlem line.
The addition serves as a kind of love letter to the near 200-year-old route. It highlights what train enthusiasts see in the Metro-North's Harlem Line that other New Yorkers may miss.
Like most train simulators, there's no competition in the game. The only goal is to successfully operate the train along its route. The joy for players comes in the mechanics, and scoping out the route’s digital scenery.
One streamer, who goes by "trainsimulatordriver," demonstrated the game online for the company. In the live-stream, viewers were able to see digitally-recreated depths of Grand Central Terminal and inside the cab of the simulated Metro-North train. "Trainsimulatordriver" slowly chugged his train out of the tunnels of Grand Central Terminal, and pointed out his favorite little landmarks.
“I especially love all the water tanks on top of the buildings, because that's just something that you see,” he said while streaming on Twitch. “I know a local would probably never even see the water tanks.”
Even so, some New Yorkers still notice them. And many New York City train enthusiasts who've been playing the game have been looking with an eye for more than just spotting water tanks.
The game is widely talked about in a Facebook group called MTA Memes for Perpetually Swiping Teens. Some have pointed out bugs in the game, like crashing too easily. Others were skeptical that developers based in England were going to get their beloved line right.
That includes 24-year old Michael Koyff, an auditor from Sheepshead Bay who rides the Harlem Line every weekend to get out of the city.
“The one thing I was like, they are never going to get this right: at White Plains, there's this clock on this little podium," Koyff said. "But they got that right — the color and everything."
Koyff said he appreciates that developers recognized the magic of the Harlem Line versus the glitz and glamour of Metro-North's Hudson Line, with its sweeping Palisades views.
In real life and in the game he prefers the Harlem Line, since trains actually stop in the heart of the route’s towns, giving you a chance to glean an area’s charm just from the train window.
“I feel like Bronxville at least had an England vibe with the buildings — just with how it was laid out,” Koyff said.
The Harlem Line’s socioeconomic and landscape diversity also makes it stand out, according to the game’s executive producer, Matt Peddlesden. The route cuts through Midtown, Harlem, the South Bronx and Westchester.
“At one end of the route, you are just in an epic city," Peddlesden said, "and then suddenly the route has changed to being very green, lush and really beautiful."
While Peddlesden has never been to New York City, the route’s designers consulted archival photos and a community of commuter-rail lovers. Still, there are tidbits that overseas game developers and even some locomotive-loving New Yorkers might miss, like the route's historical significance.
The line started as the city’s first streetcar route in downtown Manhattan in 1831. “Its route is pretty cool to see, because it started in the 1830s," said Jodi Shapiro, the curator at New York City Transit Museum. "Not all of it was built then, but it kept expanding. So by 1873, you have stops all over the place."
The game does not include all of the line's actual stops: it only goes up to North White Plains. But in Koyff's view, players get to think about all these unique elements of the route while playing. And that’s after learning how to operate different types of trains: the modern M7A and the older M3A electric-multiple-unit.
After learning how to play the game, Koyff explained, he finds the experience simply calming.
“This hits home,” he said. “Someone took the time, energy and money to recreate something that we ride on a daily basis.”
Koyff has been working from home since the pandemic started, so if he can't make time for a weekend ride, he picks up a controller to watch the digital water tanks zoom by.
“It’s just a great mental health thing for me,” he said.