Christmas in July. The Restoration of Polar Express Locomotive

25 July 2023 · 4 min read

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Laser Tracker Saves Christmas

API Service’s Precision Measurement Aids in the Restoration of Polar Express Locomotive

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Globally Local Services Team Keeps the Famous Film’s Real-World Namesake Running in Time for Christmas

In the heart of Michigan, a piece of real-word (and Hollywood) history is being meticulously restored to its former glory. The Pere Marquette 1225, the historic steam locomotive modeled by Warner Bros. and Robert Zemeckis for The Polar Express, is undergoing a significant restoration process, guided by the Steam Railroading Institute and the precision measurement expertise of the Globally Local team of Real Metrologists at API Services. Using Radian Laser Tracker, API Services was able to support this ambitious project by:

· Bringing personnel and equipment onsite to avoid component disassembly

· Measure the “as-found” dimensions bearing boxes, shoes, wedges, and wear plates

· Reverse Engineer a CAD model from that data for new part production

A Journey Back in Time

The Steam Railroading Institute’s journey began on the campus of Michigan State University during the 1969-1970 school year. A group of students embarked on a mission to restore the Pere Marquette 1225, a locomotive that had been donated to the university in 1957. This locomotive, which ran in Michigan for about a decade from 1941 to 1951, was retired in favor of diesel locomotives. However, its historical significance was recognized, and it was preserved for future generations. This student group eventually evolved into the Steam Railroading Institute, dedicated to preserving and operating historic steam engines.

The Role of API in Restoration

API was brought on board to provide accurate measurements of the 1225’s frames, a critical aspect of the restoration process. The goal was to accurately locate all of the driving axle bearing boxes, which are essential for the locomotive’s operation.

“There are some shoes and wedges, think of them as wear plates that are designed to wear out over time and they have,” says Dean Pyers, Executive Director, Steam Railroading Institute. “So we’re replacing those, and those parts are all machined within a few thousandths of an inch of tolerances as they fit together. You want all the matching parts to be fit snugly together.”

The measurements taken by API will guide the machinists who will shape the metal surfaces that hold all the running gear together tightly. Using API’s Radian Plus Laser Tracker, John Buttrey of API Services was able to capture 1000 points of measurement data every second, with accuracies within a handful of microns.

“All the measurements that we take are important from food production to Automotive trains and airplanes,” says Buttrey. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re building or what you’re trying to produce, you want it to fit, you want it to work and you’re cutting out a lot of the guesswork by bringing API on site.”

The Pere Marquette 1225 and The Polar Express

The Pere Marquette 1225 holds a special place not just in Michigan, but in popular culture. In the early 2000s, Warner Brothers and the Zemeckis production company used images, video, and sound recordings from 1225 to create their animated train model in the 2004 Polar Express feature film. The Polar Express features the voice talents of Tom Hanks, Josh Hutcherson, and Nona Gaye. It was released to strong critical acclaim, and became an instant holiday classic, grossing over $300 million at the box office and becoming a part of yearly Christmastime traditions for families all over the world.

“They contacted us and they used images and video and sound recordings from 1225 to do their animation,” says Pyers. “So, when you see the movie at Christmas time, know that most of it is in fact from that engine. The images and motion of the running gear and the sounds all came from here in Michigan with 1225.”

The Future of the Pere Marquette 1225

The restoration process includes replacing some shoes and wedges and wear plates. Once all the frame measurements are taken and turned into a CAD drawing of the frame, new shoes and wedges will be designed to keep the bearing boxes in alignment. These parts will be shipped back for reassembly over the next couple of months. Later in the summer, the team plans to test it all out, getting it back on its wheels and running some test runs in preparation for their fall holiday operating season.


API is proud to be a part of this historic restoration project. Our precision measurement technology is not only helping to restore a piece of history but also ensuring that the Pere Marquette 1225 can continue to delight and educate future generations. Whether you’re a fan of railroads, a history enthusiast, or someone in manufacturing who is interested in the measurement technology, we invite you to join us in this exciting journey. Visit the Steam Railroading Institute’s website to learn more about this project and how you can get involved. Or fill out the form below to Contact Us and speak to a Real Metrologist today.

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