What to do if you can’t find a Lionel Polar Express set

The Polar Express is turning out (so far) to be a bigger hit for Lionel than it is for Tom Hanks. Dealers are sold out and the sets are turning up on Ebay, usually with asking prices $100-$200 higher than the suggested retail price. It’s not as hot as Tickle Me Elmo, but since the words "hot selling" and "train set" haven’t appeared together since the late 1950s, well…

So what should you do if you (or someone in your household) wants The Polar Express and can’t get one? Hint: Ebay shouldn’t be your first resort.First and foremost, Lionel did little other than apply new lettering to existing product to make this set. So if you can live without the posable figures that were included in the set, any 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine pulling a string of heavyweight passenger cars is going to look like the Polar Express. That’s Greek to you? Don’t worry. If you call up a hobby shop that sells trains and ask for that, someone there will know what that means.

But, from a playing with trains standpoint, passenger cars aren’t nearly as interesting as freights. Once you get tired of watching the Polar Express run around in circles, the set’s going to do time in the basement or the attic and maybe come back out around the holidays to grace Mom’s porcelain village with its presence. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless the train was intended to be played with.

If the Polar Express has kindled an interest in trains, Junior is going to have more fun with a freight set, because freight trains haul stuff. Gondolas and hoppers can haul loads of marbles, flat cars can haul automobiles and construction equipment, and so on. New cars can be added to make it more interesting, usually at fairly low cost. Besides, a freight train isn’t going to scream "Christmas," which the Polar Express certainly does.

I recommend O27 type trains for kids for two reasons. First, I recommend it because it’s what I grew up with and it’s what my dad grew up with, so it must be the best, right? More seriously, O27 trains are big and heavy enough that they can be handled without breaking. The track can be permanently attached to a table, but that isn’t necessary. It works just fine set up on the floor. HO and N scale track don’t work as well if they aren’t bolted down, and an O27 set has much more tolerance for kinks in the track. Also, because of O27’s sharp curves, you can actually squeeze a better O27 layout into a 4’x5′ space than you could an HO set. It isn’t as realistic, but kids aren’t as worried about perfect realism as adults. Another advantage of O27 is that it’s scaled at 1:64, which is about the same scale as the Matchbox-type cars that every kid already has. Kids would probably play with the trains and cars together anyway even if they weren’t the same scale, but since they’re sized to go together, they give more play options together.

What brand? Lionel is the venerable brand, but there are others. If you go to a store like Hobby Lobby, you’ll see sets from a company called K-Line, if you’re lucky, maybe one or two Lionel accessories. Many of the so-called anchor department stores carry a set from either Lionel or a company called MTH in their catalogs, if not in the stores themselves. While the brand loyalty to Lionel and MTH is even more ridiculous than Ford and Chevy pickup truck loyalty, there isn’t a lot of difference these days. The nice thing is that even if you buy a set from one company, the other companies’ cars will work with them. Most of the hobby shops here in St. Louis carry a large selection of inexpensive cars from a company called Industrial Rail. Unfortunately, no matter which brand you get, it’s very difficult to find an O27 gauge set for less than $200.

Used, er, vintage trains can be a lot less expensive than buying new, but I don’t recommend it for a first-time buyer looking for a train set for a child. I’ve bought a lot of used vintage trains, and about half of them run. It’s usually impossible to tell from looking at the outside or from its age if it’s going to run. An 85-year-old train I bought ran–poorly, but it ran–while a 30-year old train I bought didn’t run at all. If you’re going to buy used, buy from a hobbyist who has been using it and can demonstrate that it still works, or buy from a dealer who will stand behind it.

But if you must have the Polar Express, what to do? Ebay may be your only option. Lionel fanatics have known this set was coming for about a year, and they bought up a good percentage of the sets. Most of the remaining sets are spoken for. A phone call to your local Lionel dealers (look in the phone book under "hobbies") might turn up a set. If someone actually advertises a set in the ads on the left-hand side of this page, they’re worth checking out too, on the logic that they wouldn’t pay to advertise something they don’t have in stock.

If you must turn to Ebay, e-mail the seller before you bid to make sure the seller actually has the set. A lot of people are listing sets on Ebay with the intent of ordering a set if someone buys it. This practice is illegal, but these buyers either don’t know or care. But why should you pay someone $350 to order a set and wait until March to get it when you can pay $250 for the set yourself and wait until March to get it?

The other option is to wait until March. Lionel will make more sets. Trust me on that. They need the money.

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