Review by Tony Cook/photos by the author except where noted
The Lionel name is, for many, the most well-known toy train maker of all time. The company’s main focus has been O-gauge 3-rail for much of its history. As HO scale began its rise in popularity around the middle of the 20th Century, Lionel stayed out of this category. But that’s not the end of this story. In this edition of Model Railroad News, a brief overview of Lionel-HO is presented in “From the Archive.” The most recent chapter in Lionel’s HO-scale efforts is a collection of unique releases based on The Polar Express.
The North Pole by Train
Author Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book The Polar Express arrived in 1985 and continues to command the attention of young and old even today. The book became an animated motion picture in 2004. The story, set in the late 1950s, is about a young boy who, along with fellow passengers, takes an event-filled journey to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus. For railroad enthusiasts, this fantasy adventure takes on additional appeal with the youngster’s expressing appreciation for the train and its 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive, which a character calls out by its proper name.
Lionel’s catalog has included officially licensed reproductions of The Polar Express for a number of years. The company surprised many with its HO-scale rendition that debuted at 2016’s National Train Show in Indianapolis, Indiana. The collection includes the famous steam locomotive, a set of passengers, and two separate-sale passenger car model offerings.
The Most Famous Berk
Many MRN readers would say Nickel Plate Road No. 765 is the most famous example of a 2-8-4 Berkshire. However, that Lima-built 2-8-4, which was restored originally in 1979 and is owned and maintained by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, may come in second with a number of younger fans.
You’ll see the Lionel HO-scale Berkshire 2-8-4 follows scale proportions for its locomotive and tender. The model features plastic shells for locomotive and tender. The drive sits in a die-cast metal chassis and works under a variety control options.
Lionel’s HO-scale Berkshire for this line is certainly one of the most intriguing releases I’ve had the pleasure to review in my many years with Model Railroad News. When examining the 2-8-4 Berkshire locomotive and tender, you will see elements of both scale model and toy train, which is easily a large part of the draw for this effort and its uncommon design! The locomotive and tender appeared to be essentially accurate 1/87 reproductions of this late-era steam prototype. In the accompanying picture, compare Lionel’s HO Berkshire with a scale model — you initially see more similarities than differences.
On closer inspection, the more basic lines and the inclusion of a cow-catcher pilot, along with the holiday-inspired “1225” number of the cab begin to bring the fantasy to life in model form. The locomotive’s boiler, cab, and pilot are injection-molded plastic. The only obviously separate detail is the brass-colored bell on the front of the boiler. Screws secure the upper plastic shell to a die-cast metal frame housing the motor and electronics, as well as trucks and drivers.
The underside of Lionel’s HO Polar Express tender shows off its high-tech features. You can control sound output and change the type of operation from your power pack or DCC throttle over to the provided LionChief remote with a slide of a switch. Sound emits from the openings on the underframe.
Lionel’s tender is a plastic shell with plastic frame. You’ll see ladders and railings on the tender, but these details are molded into the shell similar to the approach to the locomotive. Well-defined Buckeye-style plastic truck sideframes come screw-mounted to the tender’s underframe. You’ll see electrical pickup equipment on both lead and rear tender trucks. The spring-equipped knuckle coupler very closely appears to reproduce the size and characteristics of a standard-size knuckle coupler found on many popular HO releases.
Wheels on the locomotive, tender, and passenger cars are metal.
The couplers checked out fine with a Kadee height gauge. This finding is certainly worth pointing out because it means Lionel’s collection of releases for its Polar Express line is compatible with other manufacturer’s HO-scale equipment. If you’re looking for a train to garner the interest of child or grandchild, Lionel’s set of Polar Express equipment can make for a different eye-catching excursion train for your layout.
Is this Lionel Berkshire set up for standard DC, Digital Command Control (DCC), or some other type of operation? Before attempting to place this sample on the test track, I wanted to be certain of what it was designed to operate with conventional power/control sources. Lionel includes a 20-page Owner’s Manual that answers questions in easy-to-understand instructions with diagrams. The first section includes a diagram of the tender’s underframe and shows the sliders switches residing there. There are a number of options for running this equipment. On the bottom of the tender between the trucks, you’ll see a slider switch labeled, “Remote/Track.” When set to “Track,” the locomotive will respond to your standard DC or DCC throttle. When you slide the switch over to “Remote,” you enable the use of the provided handheld LionChief remote control. The other slider switch on the tender allows for manual control over sound output.
Looking inside, you’ll see Lionel’s Polar Express is not simple toy! The tender houses control electronics and sound equipment. A standard JST 9-pin connector is Lionel’s connection for digital control. You can alter the electronics if desired, and Lionel outlines this procedure in the provided Owner’s Manual.
Preparing Lionel’s HO-scale Berkshire for operation requires connecting the six-pin plug wired into the tender into a socket below the cab on the locomotive. This design is very similar to other contemporary steam locomotive models. A metal drawbar extending from the cab mounts over a metal post on the tender underframe to connect the locomotive and tender. As you’d find on most HO-scale steam locomotive models, Lionel provides two holes to allow for operation around tight curves and another hole that will keep the locomotive and tender closer together for better appearance and use around wide-radius curves.
Using a Digitrax DCS 50 Zephyr DCC throttle/power source, I placed Lionel’s Berkshire on a test loop of Code 83 Kato Unitrack and applied power. The locomotive’s sound system came to life producing audio, and when I selected forward direction, the headlight illuminated with a warm glow. As I opened up the throttle, this model smoothly chugged to life and began making laps around the MRN test track. Low-end scale speed was very good, and the factory settings for acceleration provided a stable, even ramp up to locomotive’s speed. Remember what will likely be among the first requests from any young railroader, “Go faster!” Indeed, Lionel’s Berkshire doesn’t disappoint. I observed a scale speed close to 100 mph in my testing. See the accompanying By-The-Numbers section for speed results and pull strength measurements.
You can remove four screws at each corner of the die-cast metal frame to access the interior of Lionel’s HO-scale Berkshire. The flywheel-equipped drive ran very smoothly and demonstrated excellent pulling power. You’ll notice the center drives are blind, and the rear driver includes rubber traction tires.
The back driver includes rubber traction tires on both metal wheels. The model weighs in at a bit more than 19 ounces (13.5 ounces for the locomotive and 5.6 ounces for the tender). I measured a pull of 6.5 ounces with a Micro-Mark pull meter, which is much more than enough to pull all five available passenger cars in Lionel’s HO Polar Express catalog.
The locomotive and tender include LED lighting. You can control illumination under DCC power with the usual F0 key, and lighting functions directionally. When moving in reverse, a backup light on the tender comes on, and the headlight on the front of the boiler extinguishes.
Other operational functions are similar to usual DCC releases. The sound system includes bell (F1) and whistle (F2), as well as announcements (F5). You’ll hear the familiar voice of Tom Hanks repeating lines from the animated feature film when you press the F5 key. The set up uses F8 to quiet or mute all audio system outputs, and F3 will start up the sound again. Grates in the floor of the tender allow for sound to escape the innards of the tender with clarity. All these functions performed fine using the Digitrax Zephyr, as well as with Piko’s Smart Control DCC system.
Looking for an easy way to hand over operation of this train to a young engineer? Lionel includes the blue handheld LionChief remote controller with its HO-scale Berkshire. Under DCC power, I switched the setting on the bottom of the tender from “Track” to “Remote” to test the LionChief unit. When set for “Remote” and power is applied to the rails, the lights on the Berkshire blink and chirping sound emits until you flip the on/off switch on the LionChief control to “on.” A red light over the dial knob speed control illuminates solid when the control of the locomotive begins. The knob turns left and right to send a signal for the locomotive to travel in either direction. Below the dial speed knob, you’ll see three buttons with icons: bell, microphone, and horn. These buttons, as you’d anticipate, activate the model’s bell, train announcements, and whistle. The LionChief remote requires three AAA batteries (not included), which are housed behind a screw-secured panel on the back of the unit.
The handheld LionChief was a fun controller and very easy to use. If you’re wondering if a regular model can use the LionChief remote, the answer is no. Part of Lionel’s electronics in the tender receives the LionChief signal.
Standard DC, DCC, and LionChief control is not the end of the story for this model’s operational possibilities. You’ll spot the Bluetooth icon on the front of Lionel’s Polar Express Owner’s Manual. Using the “Remote” setting on the bottom of the tender, you can pair this locomotive with a smart device (via the Bluetooth App). Lionel offers a LionChief App, as an example of a Bluetooth possibility for running this steam locomotive model.
This is Lionel’s coach body for its Polar Express passenger car models. The three-car set provides two cars of similar style, as well as an observation car model. Each passenger car model features unique shadow outline figures in the frosted windows. The models include illumination, metal wheels, and knuckle couplers.
Decked out in a wintery-like ice blue with a maroon horizontal band running the length of the window section of the cars, Lionel provides authentic-looking passenger car models for its Polar Express. I wrote “authentic,” and that’s not to compare these heavyweight passenger cars with a real world prototype, but with what you remember from the story and movie. The models include black underframes and roof sections, and the Polar Express name appears in all-capital lettering on each release.
The HO-scale Polar Express passenger cars come fully assembled in three releases. Lionel offers a three-car set, as well as two individual car offerings. The set provides two coach body styles and an open-platform observation with working red end marker light. Each car includes LED interior illumination.
Lionel offers a three-model passenger car set (#6-58019), providing a Polar Express coach, abandoned toy car, and observation car. The coach and abandoned toy car appear to utilize the same tooling. This body style is also used for Lionel’s separate-sale Polar Express coach (#6-58024) and Hot Chocolate car (#6-58023). What differentiates the similar coach bodies from each other is the inclusion of outline figures in the windows. Using a true bit of hobby heritage, Lionel provides the illusion of an interior with shadow figure outlines present in frosted windows on its Polar Express passenger cars. Anyone who owned and operated vintage Mantua-TYCO, Penn Line, Varney, or other classic HO-scale passenger cars will be fondly familiar with this approach and appreciate it.
Each passenger car includes LED illumination. The observation car includes the interior lighting, and its end marker light over the open platform glows red during operation. These lights are suitable for standard DC, as well as DCC use. Naturally, DCC power provides a strong, constant current to the rails that greatly enhances the appearance and function of the interior lights and end marker light.
The observation car model resembles well the open-platform car bringing up the rear of the train in “The Polar Express” feature film. The set carries a $149.99 suggested retail, and individual passenger car models list for $49.99 each.
Similar to the locomotive and tender, the passenger cars include metal wheels and spring-knuckle couplers. Lionel recommends 18-inch radius curves for minimum operation of all its existing Polar Express HO-scale equipment. Also using a hobby heritage approach is the Talgo coupler design on these passenger cars. The models come with the coupler attached to a plastic bar extending from the kingpin area of the truck. Good planning on Lionel’s part finds a set of plastic two-piece coupler boxes and screws included with its Polar Express passenger car models.
This is the view from below for Lionel’s Polar Express observation car included in a three-model set release. The passenger car models come with Talgo-type trucks with couplers and include LED interior illumination. Lionel includes replacement coupler pockets, allowing these cars to be altered to body-mount couplers with ease.
You can unscrew the truck and the coupler bar, replace the truck alone and put the supplied knuckle couplers into the provided pockets, and body-mount to the models. Locating slots and a pre-drilled hole for the screw is present on the underframe of each passenger car. The cars measure 9-inches long, out to the ends of the shell, not over the couplers, which works out to approximately 60 scale feet. Each passenger car model weighed in at 5¼ ounces, which puts them on the mark for NMRA Recommended Practices for weight.
Conclusion and Coming from Lionel
Being a long-time hobby history enthusiast, Lionel’s place in HO trains has always been one or intrigue and interest. Over the years, I approached representatives at train shows many times and asked about Lionel’s possible return to HO. I remember getting a big eye roll in the 1990s when I asked about Lionel coming back to 1/87 model trains.
This latest group of Lionel for the HO market is easily unique and something to check out. The concept of merging toy trains with the operating merits of scale models is a satisfying combination. The Polar Express in HO from Lionel is a quality product that serves as a great introduction to scale trains and this great hobby.
Following the release of its set of models for The Polar Express, I didn’t know what — if anything — to expect additionally from Lionel. I’m happy to report that more is coming for Lionel and its HO line. Specifics regarding new additions to Lionel’s HO catalog were not available as of press time but are likely to arrive in early 2018.
At this summer’s 2017 National Train Show in Orlando, Florida, Lionel showed samples of a new roadbed track system and a working camera car in HO. These early pre-production track sections show that magnets will hold pieces together with metal clips making an electrical connection. This design is subject to revision. Information shared with Model Railroad News indicates complete train sets are ahead for Lionel in HO (photo by Otto Vondrak).
Based on Conrail’s theater car, Lionel is working on a new HO passenger car model. This 3D printed shell shows the stadium seating and wide rear windows of this executive theater car model. The black, round object between the seats is a working miniature lens to capture the view your rail execs enjoy as they survey your pike. Early information indicates this model may be offered in multiple versions, including a high-end release that would match the best of contemporary HO-scale passenger car models (photo by Otto Vondrak).
Berkshire Locomotive and Tender with Remote
#6-58018, MSRP: $249.99
Passenger Cars set
#6-58019, MSRP: $149.99
Hot Chocolate Passenger Car
#6-58023, MSRP: $49.99
#6-58024, MSRP: $49.99
6301 Performance Drive
Concord, NC 28027