On paper this is a very attractive train set. It comes with two separate engines - a British Rail fairly modern Type 47 Diesel and a Pacific Class steam engine in BR Experimental Blue. Included are three passenger carriages in BR colours but ex-LNER stock and four goods wagons. Also included is an extensive range of track - sufficient for two interconnected circles and a siding. A trackmat comes with the set which seems to be more compact than other mats I've seen. To complete the layout as per the trackmat only one additional Hornby R8224 00 Gauge Track Extension Pack D
- is needed. This is the one that includes a level crossing. The additional packs mentioned by Amazon are for a more complex layout. Usefully there are also several Building Packs you can buy to complete the setup. As the layout is fairly complex you'll probably need to put the set on a baseboard. It's not the sort of thing that should be assembled and packed away repeatedly. The track itself would deteriorate quickly if you did this.
Also the set comes with the very latest computer control system - the E-Link DCC - which comes with the associated Railmaster software which can control 9,999 trains together with signals, points etc. It allows the two trains that are supplied with the set to work independently of each other. The downside of this is that the set does not come with its own control unit but requires a Windows computer to control the trains. You get a black E-Link unit which connects to the track and supplies power via a transformer and connects to the computer via a USB port. This is great, you might suppose, assuming you have a suitable laptop around. The Railmaster software looks to resemble what I'd imagine is a real railway control room with a schematic of the track with points highlighted and the position of the trains marked.
Unfortunately the problem is that the Railmaster software is rather buggy. I'm pretty computer literate but had to resort to the manuals - and there's more than one - to start to get the software to work. More specifically there seems to be a problem with getting the E-Link box to talk to the computer. It's essential that you look at a PDF file called drivers.pdf. This talks about how to install the E-Link drivers on an XP, 7 or 8 machine. I'm running 8.1, which isn't mentioned but the 8 drivers do seem suitable. There are instructions because the E-Link box most definitely isn't plug and play. Even though the correct driver was on the supplied CD it had to be manually installed. The instructions in the PDF anticipate that you'll need to do this and even that you'll get an error message when installing the driver due to a signature issue. This means, as the instructions tell you, you'll need to restart the computer in safe mode. This involves a bit more fiddling, especially for Windows 8.1 users as the instructions are out of date and don't correctly tell you how to restart in safe mode. It's not too difficult to find out thought. Once I'd done all this, and manually installed the driver, Railmaster recognised the E-Link, and all seemed to be fine. Except that when I turned the whole system off and restarted it it would not recognise it again. After swapping to a different USB port a couple of times Railmaster did work again.
Nonetheless, although I've managed to get it working the computer regularly fails to find the E-Link box. Even when it does it thinks about connecting for a very long time - and runs through a range of COM ports until it finds the right one - in my case either COM 3, 4 or 5 depending on which USB port I use. So far I've failed to get the software to register with Hornby. The current software is time and function limited before registration so I have about 85 days to sort this problem out. I've got a long registration code but the software doesn't seem to want to talk to Hornby's server. The other thing to note is that the software that came on my CD was out of date and a new version needs to be installed. This seems to overwrite the original installation completely so is probably a fairly major update. However, if you install the software that comes with the set it should update automatically when you start it.
All of this would be OK if E-Link was an added bonus and there was another way of controlling the trains. Hornby do make PC-independent digital control units albeit without anything approaching the functionality that Railmaster offers. But as it is you have to get the software working. On the software itself, the interface is terribly dated, even though it's new, and needs an overhaul. On the plus side there's both iOS and Android phone an tablet apps which you can download. I've yet to wrestle with these but will as a tablet would be a much better way of controlling the trains. However, you still need a PC connected as well!
So a very good and comprehensive train set. The steam engine is a particularly fine model - and as a result Hornby recommend that the set is only suitable for 14 year olds and older as it could easily become damaged (and so the three years and above recommendation on Amazon is incorrect). More importantly a three year old, even with the IT literate young, is not going to be able to operate this set and the size of it means, as I've mentioned, that you'll want a baseboard. The set forms the most comprehensive package you can get from Hornby in terms of rolling stock, track and engines, but it's badly let down by the software. I'll update the review once I've tried the tablet versions out and played with some of the more complex aspects of train control - which can include collections of macros linked to timers so the trains will run when no one is about! For the moment though, disappointing, I can only give the set three stars as a great number of people are going to struggle to get the software to work. More in due course...