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O gauge scale Polar Express 2-8-4 Berkshire from Lionel

Lionel’s scale Polar Express 2-8-4
Eric Siegel
O gauge scale Polar Express 2-8-4 Berkshire from Lionel

Locomotive price: $1,349.99 (no. 84685) Min. Curve: O-54 Speed range: 1.6 smph to 100.7 smph Drawbar pull: 2 lb., 12 oz. Features: Lionel Legacy TrainMaster Command Control; RailSounds sound system including CrewTalk dialog, TowerConn announcements, and DynaChuff; Bluetooth connectivity for LionChief app control; Odyssey II speed control; Wireless Tether; ElectroCoupler on rear of tender; cab illumination, headlight, backup light, and classification lights; adjustable smoke output.
Back in the pre- and postwar years, exposure to trains was a given. Boys and girls craved toy trains because they saw real trains on an almost daily basis. As passenger train travel began to fade in the 1950s and air travel and the newly created Interstate Highway System came into prominence, interest in toy trains slowly but surely began to wane. Toy and model trains, especially O gauge, began to see growth only in the collector market and through those who were, like me, lucky enough to inherit the hobby from a parent or grandparent.

The hobby needed a shot in the arm. It needed a miracle. That miracle arrived in 2004, when The Polar Express movie hit theaters across the nation. The film became a smash hit, and almost overnight youngsters again had trains on their minds. Lionel wisely acquired the licensing rights to The Polar Express, and it has been producing Polar Express trains and accessories ever since.

For a long time, Lionel’s Polar Express models were traditionally sized O-27 toy trains. After all, the products were intended for children. It’s been 14 years since The Polar Express hit screens, however, and kids who grew up on the movie are now young adults. Because of this, there is now a market for a more realistic scale rendition of this famous train. To answer this demand, Lionel has released full-featured scale models of not only the Polar Express locomotive but also matching passenger cars. As an adult scale modeler, the previous O-27 offerings never particularly appealed to me, but with the introduction of the scale models I decided to take the plunge.

Polar prototype
When The Polar Express was in the planning stages, filmmakers needed a real-life prototype on which to base the locomotive. They chose Pere Marquette no. 1225, a 2-8-4 Berkshire that had been on static display at Michigan State University for many years before its restoration to operating condition in 1988.

This choice was special for two reasons. First, the road number of the engine was 1225 – as in 12/25 – Christmas Day. I have no doubt that when the movie makers noticed the road number there was an instant consensus of, “Yes, this has to be the engine!”

Second, The Polar Express movie is based on a children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. The author grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had seen Pere Marquette no. 1225 many times while attending Michigan State football games. Van Allsburg was absolutely thrilled when he found out the same locomotive would be the basis for the movie locomotive.

Many fans of The Polar Express movie have become fans of the 1225 as well. As a side note, Lionel has also produced a new model of Pere Marquette’s 1225. That O gauge model (no. 84693) is, except for its road name and some of its sound effects, essentially identical to the no. 84685 Polar Express engine featured here. The PM 1225 Berk shipped right around the same time as The Polar Express Berkshire. I have added both to my collection. They are outstanding locomotives.

Opening the box
Instead of Lionel’s classic orange-and-cream box, this engine is packaged in a beautiful Polar Express-themed carton. I was taken back to my childhood when the first sight of the box could be as exciting than what was inside.

Details on the engine are on par with what is typically found on high-end models – lots of separately applied parts, including pipes, grab irons, builder’s plates, and more. The paint job is flawless. The sound effects on the engine are, for the most part, the typical high-quality RailSounds Lionel installs on all its Legacy locomotives.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lionel loaded some Polar Express specific crew talk sound sequences onto the engine. I thought that was a wonderful touch.
The combined 11-pound-8-ounce weight of the engine and tender lets you know this engine is no joke. The weight, plus the two traction tires on the rear set of drive wheels gives The Polar Express an impressive 2 pounds, 12 ounces of pulling power. You’ll be able to pull as many matching Polar Express passenger cars as you want!

Operation of the engine was smooth as silk, which is par for the course for almost all Legacy TrainMaster Command Control-equipped locomotives. The low-speed average was 1.6 mph, allowing for beautiful crawls. The high-speed average was 100.7 mph, which should be enough to satisfy die-hard speed junkies. The overall length of the engine and the tender is right at 26 inches, and the locomotive operates on curves as tight as O-54. In addition to being equipped with Lionel’s Legacy command system, this engine is outfitted with Bluetooth. This means the engine can be operated from most modern iOS and Android devices with the use of Lionel’s free LionChief app. Lionel wisely is putting Bluetooth into just about every one of its new engines. Like it or not, smartphone control is the future of this hobby.

For those of you who may be looking for a grown-up version of the famous Polar Express, your search is over. Lionel has delivered a perfect mix of scale realism with a hint of fantasy. As I noted, Lionel is also producing matching scale passenger cars to go with this Berkshire. As of the writing of this review, the passenger cars have not yet reached the market. According to Lionel’s shipping schedule, however, the cars should arrive in time for Christmas 2018. This engine and the matching passenger cars will make for a splendid display under the Christmas tree. I can’t wait!

The impact of The Polar Express on this hobby cannot be overstated, and its effect on youngsters can still be seen today. As proof of this, I bought a Lionel no. 11803 G scale Polar Express set this past Christmas for my then 3-year-old nephew. (He’s not quite big enough for O gauge yet.) He absolutely loved it and subsequently spent the entire remainder of his holiday visit to my house playing with that set. Although after a couple days the sound of Tom Hanks’ voice was getting a little old, I couldn’t help but be tickled that a new generation of kids has been able to fall in love with trains again. This hobby is truly indebted to The Polar Express.


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