|Written by Paul D. Race for and|
The Real Hogwarts ExpressYears ago, I listed the "Hogwarts Express" trains among the Halloween Trains, because that was how most people were using them. Until this year, I've only seen models and movies. This year, though, I got a sense of what these would look like in real life.
I didn't see the one from the movie, however. What I saw was two full-sized replicas in an amusement park - Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. They are full-sized models of real steam locomotives that served British passengers for over a quarter of a century on the Great Western Railway.
The "Hall" locomotives were named after the great country houses of England and Wales. (No, there wasn't a Grantham Hall locomotive to my knowledge). They were so successful at hauling both freight and passenger trains, even in hilly country like Cornwall, that 259 of them were built between 1928 and 1943. ("Modified Hall" locomotives were built even later).
You may well have seen these in various movies. They stand out. On the Great Western Railway, they were a beautiful deep green, as in this photo of #4936 Kinlet Hall, by photographer Tony Hisgett.
Sadly for steam fans, the Hall class locomotives were all withdrawn from service by 1965.
Several have been restored or are under restoration as of this writing, including the Kinlet Hall shown above. I confess, they are my favorite European steam locomotives.
A Popular Movie Series Renews InterestWhen the first Harry Potter book was slated for filming, producers started looking for a locomotive they could use to pull the train that gets Harry to Hogwarts. Initially, they considered a locomotive that had been repainted in Hogwarts Railway colors to promote Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - a Southern Railway "West Country" class 4-6-2 Pacific, #21C127 Taw Valley.
Photographer Hug Llewelyn caught it during this phase (it's green again now).
However, Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies wanted something that looked a little more old-fashioned than the powerhouse Pacific.
The Hall locomotives were based on an older design that had become iconic. In addition, so many had been built that several restored and restorable locomotives were available, as well as a virtually unlimited supply of spare parts.
The photo below is of Olton Hall, the working locomotive selected to star in the Harry Potter movies. It operated in its original green livery as #5972 on the Great Western Railway before its decommissioning in 1963.
Restored in 1998, the locomotive was running under its own steam for a private excursion train company, West Coast Railways. So getting it ready to work in the Harry Potter movies required relatively little more than a clean-up and repaint.
Yes, the nameplates on the front and over the center driver don't seem quite right. The nameplates were soon changed to "Hogwarts Express." The nameplates over the center driver (at least) changed again at some point to "Hogwarts Castle." I'm not sure exactly which nameplates appear in which of the films, sorry.
The coaches that the train pulled were ordinary GWR coaches, also repainted for the film. Four at first, five later on.
Since pulling four- and five- coach trains across Scotland's countryside for the length of the movie series, the original #5972 has been retired - temporarily at least. For a time - I am told - it was part of a static display at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in London.
Incidentally, the nameplate on the front has disappeared. In the most recent photos I could find, the nameplates over the center driver still say "Hogwarts Castle." British railfans consider this a little silly, since there was also a Castle class of locomotives, which were larger and more powerful.
Modelers Get TheirsEventually Bachmann made an HO train set and Lionel made an O gauge set that represented the train from the movies. Needless to say, the Bachmann is a scale model and the Lionel set has undergone some adaptations to let it run on tight curves. Neither are toys, though toy versions have appeared.
As a hobbyist who enjoys larger scales (S and up), I was delighted with the Lionel set because it was Lionel's first modern foray into Euro models. and it's frankly, a very nice representation.
If you have wider curves on your O gauge railroad, you could snug the tender a little closer to the locomotive.
This set has run out of stock and been reissued several times. The current version has a remote control and the ability to link to Bluetooth, so you should be able to control it from your cell phone (your mobile, for you UK fans). Click here if you want to see the latest version on Amazon.
Variations on a Theme - For folks wanting a more authentic UK look, Lionel also made the same set in GWR green (with GWR brown coaches). One issue was labeled for Albert Hall (Lionel set #6-81279) and one was labeled for Kinlet Hall (Lionel set #6-30084). Lionel has also made a black and orange Halloween version (locomotive #6-18745 and coach set #6-35256), as well as a red and green holiday version called "Victorian Christmas" (Lionel set#6-81280). None of these sets are widely available. Or cheap if you can find them.
Not to get ahead of myself, but Lionel has also made at least two battery-powered toy versions that I'll explain presently. The point is that I was thrilled to see an iconic UK locomotive get such exposure in the states.
The Parks Get TheirsBack to the Hall Class locomotives, several of which are still intact. As the Harry Potter movies became more popular, theme parks started setting up their own "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" sections. I'm told that there are static displays of the Hogwarts Express in Hollywood and Japan. I've seen the one at Universal Studios in Orlando.
As a fan of "high fantasy" and of trains, it's not often that those interests converge, but it's a lot of fun when they do. In 2010, Universal Studios, Orlando, completed a Hogsmeade village in their Islands of Adventure. The addition was so popular, Universal Studios decided to build Diagon Alley in the original Universal Studios park. By the time Diagon Alley opened in 2014, tracks connecting the two parks were installed and two locomotives and six coaches were ready to go.
I know this because in October, 2019, Shelia, our daughter Emily, and I went to Orlando, with the deliberate intention of seeing everything we could in the "Wizarding World." To that end, we bought 5-day 2-park passes so we wouldn't have to worry about one long wait for a ride keeping us from enjoying the rest of the park.
You have to buy "Park2Park" tickets to ride Hogwarts Express between the parks, but we saved money by not buying the 3-park version (I am SO over waterparks).
I was very pleasantly surprised how well everything was built, including the castle, both communities, and the "King's Cross" station. You could film another Harry Potter movie in any of those places and everyone would assume you were in the original studio.
I was especially pleased to see the trains up close. Over the course of the week, we took them both ways multiple times. The coaches are based on the legacy GWR coaches used in the movie, with adaptations to make it work as a ride. For example, the windows are replaced with video screens, so as you ride, you seem to be crossing bits of London and Scotland, and you see characters from the movies waving at you. Some people are offended by that, but otherwise you'd just be seeing storage lots and construction equipment.
One reader told me that his friends said the trains didn't move at all - you just saw video screens that made you think you were moving. But I explained that you get on in one park and get off in another, so if the trains aren't really moving, some other sort of magic is at work.
The photo below from Joey Cortez shows one of the trains running over Universal Studio's back lot, in case you wondered if they ever really "came out to play." No, when you're inside the parks, you don't see this view.
As for the locomotives, even the ones that "run" are not running under their own steam. Rather they are pulled by cables. Knowing how much it costs to keep a real steam locomotive operating safely, I totally understand why they do that. In addition, the trains run "up and back," so they pull into Hogsmeade station and back into Kings' Cross station. That's fine, too.
By the way, serious Harry Potter fans tell me that the fictional Hogwarts Express used to run on steam but now it runs by magic. So the cables might not be as far off the mark as you might think.
Are the Locomotives Replicas or Real?The answer is that the two "locomotives" that run between stations in Universal Studios Orlando are replicas, built mostly of fiberglass and carefully weathered to look real. I'm told that since you can't actually see the right side of either locomotive, there aren't even drivers on that side, just wheels. That's disappointing to me, but they spared no expense on the parts you can see.
The static unit in Hogsmeade looks like the real thing. If it is, it has not apparently been restored to running condition.
The same applies to the static units at Universal Studios Hollywood and Osaka. For all I know, they may be real Hall class locomotives, but it's also possible that they're fiberglass. After all, a real steam locomotive is very difficult to move around where there aren't already tracks installed.
By the way, since I mentioned the name plates, I'll share that all three Hall locomotives in Hogwarts Livery at Universal Studios Orlando say "Hogwarts Express" on the front and "Hogwarts Castle" on the side.
Rolling Your Own?In case you're modeling in a scale that doesn't have a ready-to-run Hall class locomotive, and you'd like to build your own, click on the following illustration for a blueprint of sorts, from the archive at GreatWestern.org.uk. Thanks, guys, that's very helpful. Modelers, you'll have to resize it to scale yourself.
Unlike the old Model Railroader Cyclopedia, the builders' blueprints didn't show every detail, just the measurements. I'm sure you can fill in any gaps by looking at photographs.
Also, if you have trouble resizing this to print correctly on your printer, I have made a:
Notes for Large ScalersThough I am a fan of other scales, my primary operating railroad is a garden railroad using Large Scale (G gauge) trains. No one has made a Large Scale model of any Hall locomotive. However, Lionel has produced two battery-powered toy versions, one of which runs on "G gauge" (45mm) track.
I reviewed Lionel's other battery-powered "G gauge" trains a few years ago here, but the Hogwarts set came and went so quickly, I never got my hands on one while they were in stock.
Last year I managed to pick up a battery-powered Hogwarts Express set (#7-11080) on a thrift shop auction page. Later I came up with a couple more coaches, which aren't too bad, considering. Then I discovered that Lionel had issued a NEW battery-powered Hogwarts Express that looks almost exactly like the one I have. The difference is that they are now built to run on 2" track, not G gauge (45mm or 1.775"). This new scale was obviously invented to keep people from mixing and matching Lionel's battery-powered trains with trains from, say New Bright or EZ-Tec. However, it also keeps garden railroaders from running Lionel's current trains on decent track. I say "decent" because the track that comes with them is the chintziest I have ever seen from any manufacturer. That said, if you put it on a flat surface (not carpet), it holds together well enough, and the trains made for it run well enough, for kids to enjoy running with the included remote control.
So the short version is, if you want an inexpensive battery-powered Hogwarts Express for your kids to run on an oval of track that isn't compatible with anyone else's, check out the #7-11960 "Ready to Play" version.
If you want a version you can run on 45mm (G gauge) track, you'll have to buy used and to shop carefully, since many vendors are selling the 2" version as "G gauge." Some probably don't know any better, and some, I suspect, are "dumb like a fox." Look specifically for set #7-11080. Other sets, like #7-11960 will NOT run on your garden railroad track.
For myself, I've discovered that the older, "G gauge" (#7-11080) version runs very well on my garden railroad track, even if it's a little small for my buildings and accessories. I'm planning to use it in some way in my next Christmas-themed holiday railroad. The photo below shows it on a test run in late October, 2019. Click on it to see more detail. If you have a small screen on your computer, click on the photo that pops up to see even more.
Update for 2020 - Since I wrote this article, I came across one of the "Ready-to-Play" (2-inch gauge) Lionel Hogarts Expresses very cheap. Turns out that the passenger cars are made from the same molds. The locomotive has been redesigned to hold the batteries, and it's been widened by about 1/4" to allow for the wider gauge. But they look almost identical.
In addition, a reader has determined that if you have a file and a dremel, it's possible to convert the "Ready-to-Play" set to G gauge. Click on either of the little pictures above right to see articles about those topics.
About Stations, Castles, etc.I took photos of the Hogsmeade and King's Cross (London) stations so I'd have them on file in case I see something I can easily adapt at some point in the future. I have to say that the iron work in the roof of the King's Cross station is strikingly well done, a scaled-down version of the original right to the ring-shaped embellishments in the base of the arches. Not that I'm likely to model the inside, of course.
At this time, the only thing approaching a scale model of Hogwarts itself is the Lego set, which is impressive, but not that useful for an outdoor modeler. I have acquired three different all-plastic Fisher Price castles that I plan to spraypaint gray and use in some manner. More on that later.
At any rate, I have no intention of specifically recreating Hogwarts or the Hogwarts Railway stations, or Hogsmeade, or Diagon Alley. Rather I'd like to have a few pieces that give a general impression of the sort of thing the Hogwarts Express - or any other English train - might pass in its journeys. The Glenfinnan viaduct, now, that's more appealing. I've already experimented with one viaduct, albeit a simple, straight one I built for a portable Thomas railroad.
Repurposing Fisher Price Castles - In late 2019, when were were planning our annual Christmas-themed open railroad, I decided to use one of the discontinued G gauge Hogwarts Express trains on the display. We also wondered how to make that train look at home without spending hundreds of dollars or hundreds of hours, or both, trying to build a representation of Hogwarts Castle. We settled for repurposing some battered old toy castles in a way that would let us use them for other purposes. But they served this purpose just fine, I think. Please click on the photo to learn more.
About the Real Model Hogwarts - When we got home from Orlando, I went looking for clear photos of Hogwarts for inspiration. I stumbled upon a stunning article about the huge model they built for establishing shots, etc., in the movies.
No, my repainted toy castles won't hold a candle, but seeing the thing from several angles has given me some ideas.
ConclusionThis is not necessarily a recommendation of every aspect of the "Wizarding World" park features. For example, you can spend a lot of money buying "magic wands" that work "magic" several places in the park but are just so much plastic when you get them home. Depending on your family situation, you might consider that a worthwhile investment in your children's experiences. We didn't take any small children on this trip, so it wasn't an issue for us.
I can recommend the "Three Broomsticks" lunches. They're expensive but the large ones are big enough to share between two people.
Whatever you do, be sure to buy "Park2Park" tickets if you want to ride the train and see both parts of the "Wizarding World."
Back to the Hogwarts trains. Perhaps I seem too enthusiastic about them - after all the ones at the park aren't even running under their own steam. But I'm glad to see anything that gets the generations who didn't grow up with trains interested in them, and I'm glad to see Americans get introduced - even in the "wrong" color - to these iconic GWR locomotives.
Your mileage will vary, of course.
In the meantime, please keep in touch. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions or would like to subscribe to any of our newsletters.
Appendix: More About Lionel's Toy Hogwarts Express and Related Trains
Since I wrote this article, several readers and I have experimented with running Lionel's battery-powered toy trains on our garden railroads. For our readers who like this sort of thing, we're including links to other articles with tips and tricks about related topics.
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