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Lionel™ Polar Express

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As the excitement and glory of the holiday season embraces us all, I thought it might be nice to take a look at an item with strong ties to the season, Lionel's wonderful O gauge rendition of the magical Polar Express.


In 1985, Chris Van Allsburg released the book titled "The Polar Express." Now a holiday classic, it tells the story of a magical train which transports children on a Christmas Eve excursion to visit Santa Claus. The book features a relaxing story line and is wonderfully illustrated. It has become part of the fabric in our home during the holiday season as reading it is a truly wholesome experience for the entire family. The "Polar Express" has won awards and been reprinted on many occasions, achievements which attest to its wide appeal.


For the 2004 holiday season, a movie of the the same title was released. Utilizing the advanced production method of performance capture technology, the film is based on essential elements and maintains the visual feel of the book; however, it features a greatly expanded story line. Of particular interest to rail enthusiasts is the train which many, myself included, consider the movie's main character. The locomotive was inspired by the magnificent Pere Marquette 1225, a 2-8-4 Berkshire type built by Lima Locomotive Works in 1941. The 1225 is now owned by the Steam Railroading Institute of Owosso, Michigan which operates it in excursion service. The length of the Polar Express varies at different points in the movie, apparently a result of its magical qualities. The consist is painted in a tasteful red and blue scheme and the observation car features an extended open platform. Despite mixed reviews, it appears the movie is becoming a holiday classic as well with frequent television showings and multiple DVD releases. It's certainly popular in our house at this time of year! :)


Given the story's popularity, it stands to reason a model of the Polar Express would be produced at some point. Thanks to Lionel, a ready to run miniature version of the train is now available in O gauge. Lionel's complete selection of Polar Express items includes the base set and numerous separate sale items. This review will concentrate on the ready to run set.


Lionel's O gauge Polar Express set contains everything needed to have a railroad up and running in a short amount of time. The train is powered by a 2-8-4 which features details very faithful to the locomotive in the movie. The engine and tender are painted flat back with gold numerals and lettering. The road number of 1225 has been applied under the cab windows in traditional prototype fashion and "Polar Express" is printed on either side of the tender. The locomotive boiler is die cast and includes separately applied hand rails. The engine features a can motor, illuminated headlight and smoke unit. The tender is equipped with an operating air whistle, very similar in sound to that produced by Lionel's famous steam locomotives produced during its post World War II era.


The passenger consist is comprised of three cars - two coaches and the aforementioned open platform observation. This equipment has its origins in Lionel's 9500 series cars which debuted in Pennsylvania Railroad and Milwaukee Road liveries in the 1970's. The cars ride atop plastic four wheel trucks equipped with pick up rollers to provide a pleasing level of interior illumination. The windows feature insert strips decorated with figures to give the impression of passengers riding inside. As in the movie, the car sides are blue with red striping along the windows. Gold Polar Express lettering is applied in the letter board area. The black roofs include small metal nubs which accomodate a selection of articulated action figures for the purpose of recreating actual scenes in the movie - a nice touch. The overall effect of the train is very pleasing.


Rounding out the set's contents are an 80 watt transformer, Engineer, Fireman, Conductor and "Hero Boy" action figures, smoke fluid and enough traditional three rail track to build an oval measuring approximately forty inches by sixty inches. I should mention the trackage included is Lionel's highly reliable FasTrack system. Featuring simulated roadbed as part of the design, each section locks in place with its neighboring piece, an ideal arrangement for temporary railroads on a carpeted service. They will not pull apart, offering a tremendous advantage over older styles of track which often needed to be clipped together. The set Santa brought my son also included a replica of the bell which was given as the first gift of Christmas in the story. It even jingles when shaken!


The list price of the Polar Express set is $299.99 but it can be obtained at generously discounted prices from a variety of Lionel dealers. The set represents a good value given the fact it includes a die cast smoking locomotive, whistling tender and three lighted passenger cars. Also, Lionel was required to pay customary fees for the license to manufacture and market Polar Express items which must be recouped as well. That said, given the popularity of the book and movie, Lionel's O gauge Polar Express set is an excellent way to entice youngsters to become interested in railroading as the hobby and passion it is for us.


Happy holiday railroading,



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I been waiting for this review!


I used to have this train in the larger G scale size they had. It was in storage, but no one knows what happened to it. Perhaps i can get the smaller one some day. :)


- A

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