Plarail (プラレール Purarēru?), pronounced in English as Play rail is a toy train and plastic track system made by Tomy and introduced in Japan in 1959. It was expanded into an battery-operated electric toy train system in October 1961. Plarail is not compatible with most other brands of model railway, although as it has a similar rail gauge to the wooden toy train systems, rolling stock may run on both systems to some degree.
In 1959, the Plarail system launched in Japan with three hand-powered trains. The first train set released was titled 'Plastic Railroad Set', which featured a plastic steam train and three freight wagons to be moved by hand, and a figure 8 of light blue plastic railway track. In October 1961, the range was expanded into a battery-operated electric toy train system, where the trains were fitted with miniature motors. The first set featuring this was the 'Electric Pla-Train Set', which included a three-car configuration of an engine and two wagons. The three-car configuration has been frequently used since, particularly for later releases based on real life passenger trains. In 1971, after previously releasing generic trains, the first Plarail model to be based on a real life train was released, the D51 Kisha. Since then, there have been hundreds of Plarail trains and rolling stock based on real Japanese trains. In 1972, the Plarail brand was becoming more known and production of track and scenery pieces greatly increased.
In March 1992, a product line based on the "Thomas and Friends" television series was introduced to Plarail. The line features characters, buildings, and sets based on the series, and has continued to be a popular sub-series of the Plarail system.
In 1997, sharing the anniversary of the first train running in Japan, October 14 was officially designated in Japan as "Plarail Day", where a commemorative limited edition item is released each year. In 1999, the 40th Anniversary of the Plarail system was celebrated with the release of a tinplate version of the C53-43 locomotive and carriage, as well as a re-release of the 'Plastic Railroad Set' with a battery-powered version of the original locomotive.
In 2008, the Hyper Guardian Series was launched. In 2009, the 50th Anniversary of the Plarail system was celebrated. A new version of the original 'Plastic Railroad Set' was released titled the 'C12 Steam Train Arch Bridge and Rail Set', and the first official Plarail Shop opened at Tokyo Station.
In 2011, three new series were released to offer variety. Plarail Advance is a range of smaller trains that fit on one rail of standard Plarail track, Te-cology Plarail is a range of push along trains that light up without batteries required, and Big Plarail is a range of large trains that include a microphone to record and playback sounds.
In Summer 2012, the Plarail Chuggington range was released, based on the television series. In 2014, a series with the Disney franchise was released as the Disney Dream Railway.
In 1987, a range titled Tomy Trains was released in the UK and, excluding Asia, exported worldwide. The range used elements from the Plarail range, including the same track painted dark blue. The trains were larger than the Plarail trains, and featured magnetic couplings, forward and reverse switches, and driver figures for the cab.
In 1998, the Tomy Trains range was discontinued in the UK and replaced with the Plarail system, renamed as Tomica World. The system featured some European based trains, but overall featured existing products from the Plarail system, including the Thomas and Friends series. In 2003, due to the popularity of the Thomas series, the range was renamed Thomas Motor Road and Rail and focused only on Thomas and Friends themed products.
In 2007, HIT Entertainment's subsidiary HIT Toy Company picked up the license to produce the USA range, which was renamed to 'Thomas TrackMaster'. The range featured similar engines and rolling stock on a new realistically designed brown track system. Track adapters were sold with sets to connect the TrackMaster track to the original blue track, thus making every system compatible. In 2008, Tomy bought the license for the TrackMaster range to be distributed in the UK, and all the Motor Road and Rail engines' packaging were re-skinned to new TrackMaster themed packaging. In 2009, the Thomas license was bought by Mattel's Fisher-Price, and since late 2009, the new TrackMaster system is now distributed by Mattel worldwide, apart from Asia. The adapters have since not been sold with sets. As Takara Tomy's license was different from its UK and USA branches, the Plarail Thomas range was not affected by these changes.
In 2010, the Plarail system was released again, alongside the Tomica die-cast system, outside of Asia and merged as Tomica. The system featured products from the Hyper Guardian series and the Tomica die-cast range. The range discontinued in 2013.
Related products and services
Plarail Lifestyle is a range of themed products with illustrations of the Plarail range including apparel, stationary, activity books, and candy.
Plarail Expos are held yearly around Japan showcasing the range of products available. 1.7 million people have attended events over its first ten years of operating. A yearly exclusive passenger carriage can be obtained for free upon visiting.
In 2009, the first Plarail Shop was opened at Tokyo Station, along with the Tomica Shop. Apart from toys, the store also sells products from the Plarail Lifestyle range. Like expos, an exclusive passenger can be bought, as well as many other exclusive trains and sets.
Various promotional DVDs are available at Plarail Expos and stores. These include a yearly released DVD featuring new products for the year and advertising reels from all Plarail and Tomica ranges, and DVDs that focus on particular smaller series.
In 1995, a computer simulator program called Digital Plarail was released for Windows 3.1/95, which allowed virtual layouts to be built and played with using Plarail products. Expansion packs covering different areas were later released. Games on PlayStation platforms have also been made, such as "Densha Daisuki: Plarail de Ippai", published by Tomy in 1998 for PlayStation 1, "Kids Station: Plarail Tetsudō Monoshiri Hyakka", published by Atlus Co. in 2002 for PlayStation 1 and "Plarail: Yume ga Ippai!" released in 2002 by Tomy for PlayStation 2.
In popular culture
Paramodel is a group of Japanese artists that utilize Plarail tracks among other things for their works of art and installations.