Or at least the huge steam locomotive depicted in the 2004 movie is, alive and well, and steaming away in Michigan! NPR had a story on the 66 year old steamer which recently returned to service after a boiler rebuild. Follow me below the Orange Omnilepticon for a look at this American giant of the rails, and a discussion of trains and the holiday season. Here's a video of #1225 on a sunny summer day - listen to that sound!
When Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks went to turn the awarding winning book by Chris Van Allsburg into a movie, they were gambling on doing so with a new animation technology - motion capture. Tom Hanks played 6 roles in the movie this way. As he would move his body while acting the different roles, those motions were captured by special equipment, and used to animate 3D computer models of the characters. While it can be complicated at times, the advantages are that such animated characters move in a natural fashion - and within the limits of the laws of physics (unless special efforts are made.) The Polar Express is, by some accounts, the first all digital capture film.
The most spectacular character to be modeled in 3D was #1225, a 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive built by Lima Locomotive Works for the Pere Marquette Railroad. NPR has a bit of the history - and both video and sound at the link of the engine in action.
At hundreds of tons and 16 feet tall towering over the rails, 1225 is an impressive piece of machinery. Even sitting still, it's like a living organism as steam fans often note. Steam hisses; smoke rises from the stack, throbbing pumps go on and off. And in motion, it's a visual symphony as wheels turn, rods rise and fall, pistons go back and forth. (For a fascinating account of what it was like to build locomotives like this, David Weitzman's Superpower, the Making of a Steam Locomotive is hard to beat, if you can find a copy.)
Ironically, that very spectacle is why steam locomotives were so rapidly replaced by diesels in the 1950s. A steam engine in motion is doing its best to tear itself apart - all those heavy masses of metal moving back and forth at high speeds, steam under pressure - it requires an army of specialists to stay in good working order. In the days when railroads were all steam, a big percentage of the locomotives in a fleet were out of service at any given time for maintenance.
1225 had several factors in its favor when being cast in the starring role. It was in operation in 2002 when the film crew needed to capture it in motion, measure it in detail, and record all of the sounds it produced in order to recreate it as a 3D model. The locomotive in the book by Chris Van Allsburg probably drew on it a lot (literally) as Van Allsburg grew up in Grand Rapids and had climbed on it numerous times while it was on static display before being restored!
And the number 1225 turned out to be crucial too. The story goes that when it was one of a number of similar engines waiting to be scrapped, a Michigan State University trustee was offered one for preservation. He asked for one in good shape, and it was picked out for that reason - on the day before Christmas!
The Polar Express as a movie added a lot of plot complications to pad out the story into a feature length film, but it's still very entertaining and not unfaithful to the original story. The book is more focused and deservedly a classic for its evocation of the holidays, the nature of gifting, and a belief in larger things despite evidence to the contrary.
Railroads and the Christmas season have had a long tradition in both story and real life connections long before the Polar Express arrived. Canadian Pacific's holiday train echoes similar efforts by railroads over the decades, both as charity and pubic relations. There are any number of stories of train crews going out of their way to spread holiday cheer on their own, too.
It's hard to appreciate in this day how integral railroads used to be to almost every part of American life. Before the coming of the automobile and the highway network, trains were how people and goods moved across the land. Engineers were comparable to astronauts or athletes for young people growing up. People trying to get home for the holidays counted on railroads to make it possible. And, the railroad industry used to be the single biggest source of employment in the United States.
The Polar Express formalized holiday excursions by any number of tourist railroads, and they've now become a staple. It's also been a real shot in the arm to a traditional kind of toy - the model railroad. It's been one of the most successful train sets Lionel has ever offered, and has given rise to a whole assortment of associated products. The latest version of the train set includes a wireless remote control system.
But, trains around the Christmas Tree go way back before the Polar Express. Lionel and others in the toy industry have always tried to connect the holidays with the kind of investment a train set represents - including classic advertisements. And, they haven't been unsuccessful. There are any number of families whose holiday celebrations include setting up a train layout. (Gallery of mostly holiday train layouts for your viewing pleasure.)
Model railroading clubs and other groups often set up large train layouts for the holidays - it can be a real crowd draw. Museums, malls, any place looking to divert the public for the holiday often turn to big train layouts.
Part of the magic of the Polar Express, aside from the message within the story, is the way it connects so many threads in the American experience with trains and the holiday. I suspect a similar magic occurs in other countries with a history of railroading.