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Polar Express Comparison for Big Indoor Train Users

This article will mostly compare Lionel's O27 Polar Express set with the American Flyer S scale set they also built. I'll tell you up front that the American Flyer S scale set is more realistic and better scaled to work with Christmas villages, but it also takes up more room, so the average "Christmas town on an unused dining table" is not going to work as well as the Lionel O27 version. On a ping-pong table or 4'x8' sheet of plywood, thee S scale version will work great.

The very short version is, even though I personally prefer the American Flyer-branded S scale set, the Lionel-branded O27 version may work better with a temporary Christmas display, the kind you set up with ceramic, resin, or cardboard houses. Here's are some quick facts.

  • Lionel's O27 Polar Express train is cheaper, takes up less room, and has more accessories than the American Flyer S scale version.

  • The American Flyer S scale version (also made by Lionel) is more expensive, takes up more room, and is much more elegant and realistic.

  • Only model railroaders and serious railfans will recognize the difference. Though I have an obvious preference (and maybe prejudice) for the S scale version, if the proportions of the O27 version don't bother you, they are very unlikely to bother anyone you know.

  • Neither set is REALLY child-friendly. The locomotives are heavy enough for a young person to drop accidentally, and - sturdy as they are built - pieces WILL come off.

  • Either set would be safe for responsible children over six to run under adult supervision, once you put it on the track for them and explain that running full speed is not a good idea.

  • Both sets are superior to most other Christmas-themed electric trains out there.

  • If you come across the battery-powered set, know it's a toy and not anywhere near the quality of these trains.

  • At the opposite extreme, Lionel has also issued an O scale version, which would be closer to $2300 if you can track one down. It's a jaw-dropper, by all reports, but it's not reviewed here.

The rest of the article explains why the American Flyer S scale version is the better model, but the Lionel O27 may be the better choice for around the tree or for a temporary Christmas railroad.

But permit me to put the history of these trains into some perspective, first.

The book that started it all, Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express.  Click to see on Amazon.

About the Book and the First Electric Polar Express Train

Chris Van Allsburg's book The Polar Express is very charming and - to my delight - treats the train itself in a relatively realistic manner. It also features the kinds of trains that ran in Van Allsburg's region when he was very young, including a classic Pere Marquette-inspired steam engine and a string of mid-century passenger cars.

Though Van Allsburg seems to have been thinking about a specific kind of locomotive and coaches, the pictures in the book aren't that definitive. The Bachmann Big Hauler version of the Polar Express, made obsolete by the movie's use of a noticeably different locomotive and closed-vestibule coaches.  Click for bigger photo.So for a brief interval, the Bachmann train company "got away with" making a Large Scale ("G gauge") Polar Express train simply by relabeling the same train they were already manufacturing in their "Big Hauler" line.

This train hasn't been made since about 2000, as far as I can tell, and it doesn't look anything like the train in the movie, but it did use one of the more upscale, reliable versions of their classic "Big Hauler" ten-wheeler (4-6-0). (I have a sister locomotive in another paint job, and she runs very nicely.)

Yes, this page is dedicated to big INDOOR trains, and this train is scaled to work outside, or under really big Christmas trees, but I thought it worth mentioning in case you come across one. Also, I have acquired four of the coaches from this set and plan to fix them up to run on my outdoor railroad for our next Christmas-Themed open railroad. The locomotive that came with the coaches I bought was a "write-off," so I'll probably re-label a larger, more modern locomotive to pull them.

It's also the only reliable Polar Express-inspired train that was ever designed to run on G gauge track (also called 45mm or 1 Gauge, the most popular garden train gauge in North America). If you're interested in a Polar Express train that runs on G gauge track, you either have to build your own or settle for Lionel's battery-powered toy version described in this article. Even that has its gotcha's, because the current version of that train now runs on 2" track, and won't run on your garden railroad anyway. So if you need something to run outside, make certain the battery-powered Lionel train you buy says "G Gauge" on the box. "Ready-to-fun" is code for "you can't use it with anything else."

The balance of this article will focus on indoor trains, specifically, electric O27 and S scale trains in Polar Express colors. (Only one manufacturer is making these in HO scale at the moment, and it's too small to look right with most Christmas villages, so I'll let you do your own research on little indoor trains.)

Click to see the Polar Express movie on DVD.About the Movie and all Subsequent Electric Polar Express Trains

When the book transitioned to a movie, the producers wisely narrowed the train down to specifics - clerestory-roofed heavyweight coaches pulled by a "Berkshire" 2-8-4 locomotive inspired by the ones use on the Pere Marquette railroad in the mid-1900s.

Many things the train did in the movie (like steering across an icy lake by engaging the drivers one side at a time) were patently impossible. But the movie's artists were very careful to have the train look like the real thing, and that was something, at least.

The real Pere Marquette Berkshires were built in the Lima (Ohio) Locomotive Works, along with many sisters that were used on eighteen other railroads. In fact, my grandfather (whom I never knew) once drove Berkshires on the Nickel Plate Line.

Of course, with any high-budget movie comes merchandising, and manufacturers were quickly bidding over the opportunity to make Polar Express train sets that resembled the train portrayed in the movie. The most popular were the Lionel-branded O27 sets, which sold out quickly the first year, but are now widely available.

Click to visit last year's article.Last year, I found one of Polar Express sets that Lionel had built in S scale under the American Flyer name. I reported on it as part of a longer article about my family's involvement with S scale in my youth. That article compares the AF Polar Express with the classic AF trains, and it compares very favorably.

This year, I came across a used-but-running O27 version of the Polar Express train, and I thought it would be good to compare it to the AF version.

Note About Train Values: Whenever I post this sort of article, I start getting questions from people who have inherited old sets and want to know what they're worth. The short answer is that I don't know, but I know what you can do to find out for yourself. Check out the article "How Do I Sell My Train Collection?" for some tips.

Historical Differences Between American Flyer and Lionel

Lionel was always a bigger company than American Flyer, and to people who grew up with Lionel, there was nothing wrong with three-rail track and other accommodations Lionel made to keep trains affordable and user-friendly.

One of those accommodations was to make their starter sets run on very tight curves so people could fit relatively large trains into their homes. That limited the length of the rolling stock you run on those curves. So Lionel made serious "adaptations" for their locomotives (such as scaling down NYC Hudson-style locomotives (4-6-4s) to 2-4-2s). If you wanted bigger pieces, Lionel did make them; but you might have to buy track with wider circles. Even the smallest Lionel heavyweights, for example, required 31"-diameter track circles. These so-called "Baby Madisons" were 12" models of cars that should have been about 20" long. I mention them specifically because they come into the story later.

A line drawing of a Lionel 'Baby Madison,' the 12-inch heavyweight coach whose machining may have found its way into the Lonel Polar Express O27 train.

American Flyer also made O gauge trains and suffered the constraints of curves that were too tight for actual 1:48 models. Toward the end of their O gauge run. AF's owners decided the trains would look more realistic if they scaled the entire train down - not just the length. For a while, they made O gauge trains in 3/16" scale. And they seemed to be in much better proportion, except for the width of the track they ran on. So AF decided to go to a smaller track width, using two rails instead of 3, and the rest is history. Had they made that decision 10 years earlier, HO might never have taken over the "serious" model railroading community as it did - AF was on the right track, just a little too late.

At the time Dad was shopping for trains, Lionel's starter sets tended to include locomotives that barely resembled the prototypes they were 'based on.'  Click for bigger photo. At the time Dad was shopping for trains, American Flyer starter sets included locomotives that resembled the prototype in proportion, number of wheels, and major details.  Click for bigger photo.

Throughout most of their 2-rail history, American Flyer only made one track diameter: 40" This allowed them to make several fairly large engines without compromizing their dimensions, the largest being a 4-8-4 "Northern" that is still in demand today. Their heavyweight coaches were still only about 12" long (they should have been about 15"), but they were more convincing than the Baby Madisons because they were otherwise in a consistent scale.

The A.C. Gilbert company, owners of American Flyer, fell on harder and harder times in the 1950s and 1960s. They tried going to "Pikemaster" track in a tighter radius (presumably to compete with HO), but many of their pieces wouldn't run on it. At the same time, they cheapened the manufacturing of all their rolling stock, which didn't win them any new users, either.

Eventual AF Sellout to Lionel

After several changes of hands, the American Flyer line was eventually sold to Lionel. And after a while, Lionel started making a few limited-edition AF pieces a year, hoping to keep the collector's market interested. This eventually included an S-scale model 2-8-2 Mikado that used no original American Flyer machining to speak of, and which sold out quickly. Lionel also introduced a 15" AF-branded heavyweight coach that is a scale model by anyone's definition.

Lionel's scale-length American-Flyer-branded heavyweight.

To bad they weren't making those back in the 1960s; I would definitely have owned a set, if I had had to sell my '64 VW microbus to get it. Come to think of it, it's probably a good thing they weren't making these then.

Lionel and the Polar Express

Lionel is no stranger to making trains with popular appeal - they made the first Large Scale (G gauge) Thomas the Tank trains and still make the most popular O scale version.

When the Polar Express movie was first being planned, Lionel entered negotiations for the exclusive right to make trains based on the train in the movie (as opposed to Bachmann's version, which was inspired years earlier by the book).

Though Chris Van Allsburg's book wasn't that specific about the kind of train used, the movie's producers narrowed it down to the Lima-built Berkshire 2-8-4 that was widely used by Pere Marquette during Van Allsburg's childhood. The coaches were less distinctly drawn, but they were obviously celestory-roofed closed-vestibule heavyweights.

This movie frame is copyright 2004 by Warner Brothers.

Enter Lionel, who has been making heavy-weight coaches for decades. To reach new users and keep their existing users happy, they would have to make a locomotive that represented the Berkshire but ran on O-27 track. So the solution involved making the locomotive a little smaller than scale overall, and much smaller in length.

Lionel's O27 version of the Polar Express.Of course, Lionel has been doing this sort of thing since they started making trains, so that was mostly a question of new machining - a substantial investment that usually approaches a million dollars in today's environment. I'm not certain, but I think they saved up-front money by reusing the tender (coal car) from another set. One things' definitely true - the locomotive "shell" is "die-cast" from non-magnetic metal, and the tender is made of plastic. You'd never know that to see them next to each other on the track, though. As always, Lionel's paint job is superb.

Lionel also had to figure out how to make their "Baby Madison" short coaches run on O27 track - they traditionally required O-31 track. So little has changed on the coach bodies that collectors include the O27 Polar Express coaches in the "baby Madison" class. But Lionel did shorten the trucks, from three axles to two axles. That isn't entirely cheating; some railroads actually used two-axle cars on their heavyweights, so this is just an observation.

After the success of their original O27 Polar Express train, Lionel introduced a number of add-on cars and other accessories. If I was running one of these sets for a big display, I'd consider getting more cars. The truth is, most people wouldn't realize that the coaches are short, but some folks might realize that the train is short. No, you don't need 13 cars, which I have counted in some of the movie shots, and I'm told the locomotive won't pull that many on O27 track's tight curves. But five or six might be nice. The good thing about add-ons, though, is you don't have to buy everything at the same time.

The set came with an oval of Fastrack, Lionel's current track design, which is a lot more realistic than the old stuff with the metal ties. The stuff holds together pretty well, though you wouldn't want to snap it together or take it apart in very cold weather - the plastic components will shatter. The jointed figures that come with the Lionel O gauge set. If you wnat to use these with the American Flyer S scale version, you'll need to buy them separately.

The set also came with four little jointed figures representing the "Hero Boy," the Conductor, the Engineer, and the Fireman. You can buy a separate set with Santa, the "Hero Girl," the "Lonely Boy," and the Hobo, if you want.

If you want to use either figure set with the American Flyer S Scale version, you have to buy them separately.

Control Technology Updates Finally, the first generation of these came with only transformer control, using the big plastic transformers with the red handles. Subsequent versions have come with various kinds of remote control, including Blue Tooth in some versions. I have one of the transformer versions, and it's not a problem for me. But you might want to pay attention to that. A couple of years ago you could get the transformer-only version cheaper than the remote version. That doesn't seem to be true today, and there's no point paying the same amount for one WITHOUT remote control as you might for one WITH remote control.

S Scale Entry

To convert the 15" American Flyer heavyweight coaches to Polar Express, all Lionel had to do was to paint them (shown below). But they did need to machine a new locomotive in S scale.

Because of their success with the limited-edition S scale locomotives like the 2-8-2, they continued the tradition of making a scale model, rather than a passable approximation. Again, they could do this because they were working in a smaller scale with wider default curves.

With the exception of the molded-on handrails, the S scale version of the Berkshire has as much detail as most HO models. Unlike the O27 version, it also has a die-cast metal tender.

The American Flyer S scale Polar Express train, as produced by Lionel.

Control Technologies - The AF Polar Express I bought came with a remote control but not Bluetooth. If Lionel continues making this line, Bluetooth may come. Again, my Christmas railroads are seldom complicated enough to need more than transformer control anyway.

Product Comparisons

The combination of wider curves and a smaller scale allowed Lionel's product designer to make their S scale Berkshire model as long as the O27 version.

Here is a side view of the S scale locomotive, to give you an idea of the level of detail.

The Lionel/American Flyer S Scale Berkshire locomotive that is packaged with the S gauge Polar Express.  Click for bigger photo.

The Builders' photo for a Pere Marquette Berkshire, the locomotive that the Polar Express is based on in book and movie.  Click for bigger photo.I've included a "builder's photo" of one of the Pere Marquette Berkshires, so you could compare the model to the reality if you so desired.

Without getting out a ruler and calculator, I would say that the boiler might be a little foreshoretened, like maybe 10-15%.

Locomotive Comparisons

The following photo shows the AF S scale locomotive a the top and the O27 locomotive at the bottom.

The American-Flyer-granded S scale Polar Express locomotive on the top, compared to the O27 locomotive on the bottom.  Click for bigger photo.

As you can see, the O27 locomotive is very similar to the S scale locomotive in length, though a tad bigger in height (and width, which you can't see). Technically, it "should be" a third longer. Again, if you weren't seeing these side-by-side you'd probably never notice. In fact, people who've been running Lionel all along don't have a problem with the "foreshortening," and non-railroaders will never notice it.

The tenders are very close in size, though they wouldn't be if Lionel hadn't reduced the tank end of the O27 tender substantially.

By the way, since the version I photographed was made, Lionel has gone to molded hand-rails on the O27 version as well as the S scale version. The truth is, too many people messed up the hand-rails on the thing, so I totally understand why they made this change. That said, you might still come up with one that has the separate handrails - don't get mad if you do; just be careful.

To get a clearer idea of the differences, I measured as best as I could. The table below does not include the couplers, since many model railroaders swap those out.

Unit
Length
Height
Width
S Scale Locomotive
11 1/2"
2" 3/4"
2"
O27 Locomotive
11 5/8"
3 3/16"
2 1/2"
S Scale Tender
8"
2 3/4" (not counting the coal load)
2"
O27 Tender
7 1/2"
2 3/4" (not counting the coal load)
2 3/4"

The differences between the coaches are more striking. Remember, Lionel's O27 coaches are based on a design that was already foreshortened to handle tight trackage, while the S scale coaches were made deliberately to scale.

The American Flyer S Sale coach on the top and the Lionel O27 coach on the bottom. Click for bigger photo

Unit
Length
Height
Width
S Scale Coach
15 1/4"
2" 5/8"
1 7/8"
O27 Coach
12 1/2""
3 1/8""
2 1/4"

By the way, my O gauge set is one of the original sets. The new sets have slight differences, including snow painted on the roof like the S gauge set. They also have a very minor molding difference to allow the lettering to be printed below the windows instead of above. The window silhouettes improved over the life of the series, too.

The blue and black colors seem to be molded into the plastic, but the finish is "flat" enough that they don't look too toylike. The burgundy color is paint applied separately and very cleanly. The lettering seems to be silk-screened on, and it is very nice. Unusual for Lionel, the passenger cars are not numbered. At least that gives you the option of making the train as long as you want it to be without a bunch of the same-numbered cars.

Please don't be concerned about the lack of silhouettes in the S scale version. Initially, each train had one coach with silhouettes and one without. I just didn't realize until everything was back in the boxes that I hadn't used the same coach for comparison. By the way, the observation coach on both trains I own has only one silhouette, representing the little boy the other children find at the back of the train in the movie.

Also, the newer O gauge sets include the scary toys car instead of a generic coach.

To be honest, one of my favorite features of the S scale version is the use of 3-axle trucks. These are scale models of the trucks used on most heavyweights on most railroads. (Yes, I know I said some heavyweights used 2-axle trucks, but they were in the minority, and those big scale six-axle trucks are just cooler.) The S scale cars roll very smoothly, too. Perhaps the extra axles distribute the weight better or something.

The 4-axle trucks used on Lionel's O27 Polar Express coaches The 4-axle trucks used on Lionel's O27 Polar Express coaches
Truck on S Scale Coach
Truck on O27 Coach

About the "O Scale" Version

Remember, there is a difference between "O Gauge" and "O Scale." Both run on track with the rails 1.25" apart. But Lionel's "O Scale" trains are considerably longer than their "O gauge" trains. They require much wider curves and they cost much more.

Lionel has made an "O Scale" version of the Polar Express, but I have only seen it available as separate pieces. These are much more like high-end scale models and are priced accordingly. The Berkshire, shown below, is much closer to a scale model than the "Baby Berkshire" that is packaged with the O gauge Polar Express train sets. It's also about ten times more expensive.

Lionel's 'Legacy O Scale' Berkshire in Polar Express colors. Click for bigger photo.

The coaches are 18" long, which makes them much better models than the "mini-Madison" coaches packaged with the sets, but, again, they cost much more.

Lionel's 'O Scale

The photo above shows a pre-release version of the coach. According to Lionel's marketing information, there are figures of children inside, not just silhouettes in the windows. I can't speak to that, though, because I have yet to have my hands on one.

So if you have an O scale railroad with really wide curves and you want the most realistic-looking Polar Express train you can buy for it - this is the one. By all accounts, it's a "jaw-dropper." On the other hand, if you're only going to be getting your train set out at Christmas to run around the tree or a Christmas village, you're better off with the starter O gauge set.

For Flyer fans, or folks who want a scale model and don't have an extra two or three thousand dollars to burn, the the American Flyer version will give you want you need. It's still my favorite, but I'm prejudiced, I suppose.

About the Scary Puppet Car

For trains like this, I often pick up a few extra coaches to make the trains look a reasonable length. In fact, I bought two extra S gauge Polar Express coaches for my American Flyer set.

Ebay often has used O27 Polar Express coaches for a good price. Though some folks want $80-110 for them, you can sometimes get them for about $40 counting shipping. I have bought one and bid on several others. Pay attention to whether the coaches you already own have snow on the top or not and try to match them.

Here's the caveat! The scary puppet car is not only scary in the movie, it's also creepy on your railroad. Frankly, some of the puppets look like hanging victims. The windows of the Lionel O27 Polar Express scary puppet cars - the original set is on the top and the current version is on the bottom.  Neither makes me want to run this car for children. Click for bigger picture.And the used O27 Polar Express cars on eBay include a VERY high proportion of scary puppet cars. Since Lionel started including these in the sets by default, even moreso.

I'm guessing that other folks's children are just as disturbed by this car as the children I know. The fake Venetian blinds included on the new version don't really diminish the creepy factor very much, as you can tell in the photo to the right.

I got my first O27 Polar Express set by buying a used set from eBay. And one of the trucks on the scary puppet car was broken, so I only had two working cars. Not a huge problem - as I said, I was able to pick up a spare "generic" Polar Express coach to restore the train to a three-car train.

But when I tried to go onto Lionel's parts site to order a replacement truck for my scary puppet car (which I wasn't all that thrilled about running anyway), the truck, plus shipping would cost almost as much as a whole used scary puppet car on eBay. Why? Because they're a glut on the market. In fact one seller deliberately put up a very fuzzy photo so you couldn't tell it was a scary puppet car.

Several of the guys who buy whole sets then sell the three cars separately have one coach, one observation, and one scary puppet car. So if you buy the cars for what seems like a good deal, you get an observation car you can't use because you already have one, and a scary puppet car that also duplicates a car you already own, or which you may not want, period. So pay close attention to those "deals."

Just sayin', whether you want to run one scary puppet car or not is your choice. But if you try to find additional coaches cheap on eBay, watch out for little figures hanging in the windows. Unless you're really doing a tribute to Nightmare Before Christmas, in which case all bets are off.

Conclusion

If you've read the whole article, you now know almost as much as I do about these trains. Hopefully you can see why the recommendations I put in the introduction make sense now.

To summarize, the S scale and O Scale versions are fairly accurate models, while the O27 version is less expensive, runs on tighter curves, has more options, and will please most visitors. That said, the S scale and O scale versions both started out as limited runs, so if you think you'd prefer a scale model, don't wait too long to pick one up.

And if you're a firm O scaler, wanting a true scale version, keep your eye out for the full-scale version; just don't expect it to come at "Christmas tree prices."

Keep in Touch

Each month, we get more interest in the trains and towns we discuss. We welcome your questions as indicators of what we should be working on next (also, we always try to answer reader questions quickly). In addition, if you have any photos, tips, or articles you'd like to share with your fellow hobbyists, please let us know. All of the hobbies we report on grow best when we all learn together.

In the meantime, please accept our very best wishes for a great and holiday season!

Paul Race

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