Subscribe Button 1

Laser Tracker Aids Polar Express Locomotive Restoration

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 modelled 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 metrologists at API Services.

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.”

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 and reverse engineer a CAD model from the data for new part production.

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. The images and motion of the running gear and the sounds all came from the Pere Marquette 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.

For more information: