For the last couple of years, in early November, retailers started carrying the North Pole Express Christmas train set, an inexpensive battery-operated train set. But there are two distinct, and very different North Pole Express sets. Here’s what you need to know.
The North Pole Express sets are made by Scientific Toys/Eztec, though the branding may or may not appear anywhere on the box. The trains are made mostly of plastic and operate on batteries, and sell at price points of $10 and $50.
The $10 set is smaller, both in terms of the size of the box and the size and scale of the train inside. Neither set says its scale or gauge inside, but the $10 set is an O gauge train. The larger $50 set is a G gauge train. Neither is a scale model; these are fanciful approximations of what a train looks like, intended to put under the Christmas tree, and then put away at the end of the season.
I’ll discuss the two trains separately, based on where my train buddies and I have seen them. I’ll also provide some hints for making them work better, based on two decades of tinkering with model and toy trains.
The Walmart North Pole Express Christmas train set
Walmart sells the $10 version of the North Pole Express. It’s a 29-piece set consisting of a locomotive and tender, two passenger cars, 14 pieces of track, 7 signs and 4 lamp posts. It operates on a pair of D cell batteries. The size and scale are similar to Lionel, making it a good match for holiday villages like Lemax.
The people who buy these sets to run report mixed results. The track is difficult to put together so the train will run smoothly, and some people have reported issues with the trains staying coupled together. Tightening the screws on the couplers should help the second issue. Some owners also complain the set is loud. Adding weight will improve the cars’ tracking and ability to stay coupled. Ideally, these cars should weigh about 8 ounces.
Those who get a set that works well generally like it, pointing out it’s a $10 train set.
The people I know who bought these sets didn’t buy them to run as-is. The coupler on these sets works with Lionel and with old Marx trains. They bought them for projects. Pay $10 for the set, replace the trucks with 4-wheel trucks made by Lionel or Marx or someone else, paint the passenger cars and add lights, and you have a fun weekend project that didn’t cost a ton of money.
The Home Depot North Pole Express Christmas train set
Home Depot’s version of the North Pole Express is more ambitious. It’s a 4-car freight train with an animated ice skating car, a light-up caboose, and sound and operates on remote control. Purists will note the engine doesn’t have a coal tender, so it’s not a realistic train. It comes with 8 straight pieces of track along with enough curves to make a full 360-degree circle or oval. It retails for $50, but sometimes goes on sale for $35. Check the price both online and in the store to make sure you’re getting the best price. It may be cheaper to order online and pick up in the store.
Overall satisfaction with this set is a bit higher. Being a bigger train, it’s a bit more robust. The bigger complaints are that the speed isn’t adjustable and the train derails more than it should. Adding weight to the cars will help that. Given the size of the cars, they should weigh 12-16 ounces, ideally.
This set will dwarf typical holiday village buildings, though its size is a good match for the figures. However, the size is a very good match for most of the galvanized metal lantern buildings that are very popular right now. So building a Christmas display with a train, buildings and figures is very doable with either of these sets.
Dealing with the problems with these sets
Even expensive train sets generally require some tinkering to make them optimal. Cheaper sets may require even more.
Adding weight is the improvement most likely to pay off. You don’t have to match the recommended weights exactly, just get into the neighborhood. As shipped, the cars are several ounces short of the weights train clubs have found over the years to be optimal. You can use the stick-on weights for Pinewood Derby cars, available in most craft stores, but some hobbyists just use pennies. If weight costs more than 11 cents an ounce, pennies are cheaper. Just stick weight to the underside or inside the car with tape or hot glue, anyplace that’s inconspicuous.
Tighten the couplers so they don’t wobble. They should still turn freely but not have a lot of slop in them. You can add a drop of oil to help them turn freely even after adding tension. Add a drop of oil to the axles where they meet the car body as well.
Track configuration also makes a difference. Long straightaways can cause derailments on curves due to momentum. Shortening the straightaways may help.
Adding track is another issue. The only way to get more track to make a more complex layout is to buy another set. I don’ t know why Eztec doesn’t sell additional track separately, as it would be a popular upsell.
And if you’re wondering, no, the Walmart version doesn’t run on 3-rail Lionel track. The wheels fit but the third rail interferes with the engine’s design.
The Model Power North Pole Express Christmas train set
In the 1990s, a similar set made by Model Power appeared at retail. It consisted of a diesel switching engine and several freight cars, lettered either North Pole Express or Holiday Express. This was made from Plastimarx tooling and looked just like a 1960s/70s Marx set.
This set is a curiosity for Marx collectors and no longer very common, but it’s not especially valuable either.