The wise older train, Poppa/Momma was a champion in their day. Sadly, their day is long gone, and now they hang around the freight yard, singing The Blues and preaching of the Starlight Express, a mysterious force that helps trains in need.
For clarity, this article refers to "Poppa" and uses the pronoun "he". The character's personality and role within the show, however, is the same whether we're talking about Poppa or Momma.
Poppa is the oldest train in the yard. He was a champion many years before Greaseball came into the picture, and is now retired. The Freight and Rusty love and revere Poppa. Most of the other trains disregard him as a doddery, old fool.
The material never clarifies whether Poppa is literally Rusty's father, or simply a father figure to Rusty and the Freight. In the original production, however, Poppa referred to Rusty as "son" and "my boy".
The Starlight Express
It has never been made clear whether Poppa pretends to be the Starlight Express in order to motivate Rusty to race, or whether the Starlight Express is a separate entity, voiced by the actor who plays Poppa. When asked about this, multiple actors have said that it is open to personal interpretation - there is intentionally no definitive right or wrong answer.
In the Bochum production, fans tend to believe that the actor who plays Poppa also plays the Starlight Express. During the Starlight Sequence, Rusty looks up to the heavens as a voice sings above. As a result, it is widely believed by German fans that the Starlight Express is in fact a separate entity.
However, in the original London production and subsequent UK tours, there are conflicting theories. In the original London production, Rusty was joined onstage by a shadowy figure that looked and sounded like Poppa. This led to many to believe that Poppa was pretending to be the Starlight Express.
The Broadway production initially gave Rusty a new identity after meeting the Starlight Express, he became the Starlight Express himself complete with a new costume, and nobody could recognise him as Rusty initially. As it was Rusty that became the Starlight Express, it is reasonable to assume that it is not Poppa.
We first meet Poppa after the first race, as we move to the freight yard. Poppa is singing The Blues, while the Rockies dance, Dustin plays the harmonica and Flat-Top waits for something more fun to happen. Rusty arrives, upset that he's lost Pearl as a race partner. But Poppa has an alternative for him, and introduces his old coach, Belle. Poppa reminds Rusty that the Starlight Express will help if he just believes in himself. With moments before the race closes, Rusty takes Belle. But they're racing against Electra and Pearl, and lose. Poppa then decides to show him - "I'm gonna show you that a steamer with the power within him / Can take on oil, and take on Electricity! Who'll come with me? Who'll come with me? Race behind me?". Rocky 1 has hooked up with the British Train, Flat-top flat-out refuses, but Dustin is excited by the opportunity. The trouble that the race card is full is conveniently solved as the British train is scrapped, which Poppa interprets as a sign from the Starlight Express.
Poppa and Dustin race against Bobo and Ashley, and Turnov and Wrench. More by chance than design, Poppa and Dustin manage to win the race. But he's over-exerted himself, and collapses, gravely ill. Rusty and the Freight come to congratulate him, but find him unable to carry on. Poppa begs Rusty to take his place in the final, but Rusty still feels he can't - "I couldn't face that losing shame". Greaseball and Gang, Electra, Pearl and Components all catch up and mock the steamers, calling them "Laughing Stock". Seeing Pearl with Electra is the final straw for Rusty, he takes Poppa's helmet from him and steps up.
Later, in "The Rap", a big argument rages, does Poppa have the right to give away his place to his choice of replacement? Or should it default to Bobo who came second in their heat? Poppa and Rusty eventually win the argument, and Rusty keeps his place in the final.
Poppa, old, and worn out, is not seen again until the end of the downhill final, where the winner, Rusty, has disappeared. Well, Rusty went looking for Pearl, but where is Pearl? Poppa picks up the wrecked Greaseball, who had disconnected Pearl at high speed during the race, and makes him lead Poppa and most of the cast to find Rusty and Pearl. Once they find the young lovers, Poppa leads the finale "Light At The End Of The Tunnel"
In later versions of the show without Belle, Poppa realises that Rusty isn't going to change his mind and immediately decides to race himself.
Poppa's songs have remained the same in all productions worldwide.
He also features in Race 3 (OLC) / Race 2 (other productions) where by fluke he wins, but is too worn out to continue, and is declared a "Laughing Stock" by the other characters. During The Rap he typically pulls Dustin, but stays away from the main argument.
|1984 - 1985||Lon Satton (cover Abraham Osuagwu)|
|1985 - 1987||Lon Satton (cover Richie Pitts)|
|1987 - 1996||Lon Satton|
|1996 - 1997||Lon Satton / Ray Shell (cover Maurey Richards)|
|1997 - 1998||Ray Shell (cover Maurey Richards)|
|1998 - 1999||Trevor Michael Georges (cover Maurey Richards)|
|1999 - 2002||Trevor Michael Georges|
|1987 - 1989||Steve Fowler|
Japan / Australia Tours
|1988 - 1989||Trevor Michael Georges|
|1989 - 1992||Stevie Woods|
|1992 - 1995||Lothair Eaton|
|1995 - 1998||Dennis LeGree|
|1998 - 1999||David E Moore|
|1999 - 2000||Darren Lee Frazier (cover Jimmie Earl Perry)|
|2000 - 2001||Jimmie Earl Perry (cover Austin Jetton)|
|2001 - 2002||Lothair Eaton (cover Austin Jetton)|
|2002 - 2004||Lothair Eaton (cover Gavin Ashbarry)|
|2004 - 2007||Lothair Eaton (cover Carl Abraham Ellis)|
|2007 - 2009||Carl Abraham Ellis|
|2009 - 2010||Ray Shell / David E Moore|
|2010 - 2016||David E Moore|
|2016 - 2018||Reginald H Jennings|
|2018 - 2019||Reva Rice (as Mama)|
US Tour 1989 - 1991
|1989 - 1991||Jimmy Lockett|
Las Vegas 1993 - 1997
|1993 - 1994||Jimmy Lockett|
|1994 -||Jimmy Lockett|
|1996 - 1997||Lothair Eaton|
US Tour 2003 - 2004
|2003 - 2004||Dennis LeGree|
UK Tours 2004 - 2008
|2004 - 2005||Anton Stephens|
|2006 - 2008||Michael Samuels|
NZ Tour 2009
UK Tour 2012-2013
|2012 - 2013||Lothair Eaton / Julian Cannonier|
Poppa being named McCoy might be a reference to Elijah McCoy,  a black man born in Canada in 1844, the son of fugitive slaves, who went on to invent and patent many train-related inventions, and may be the source of the phrase "The Real McCoy".
Poppa's hat usually reads "Kansas City Central". However, no such company exists, though there is the American railroad Kansas City Southern. A mistake? A sign that Poppa is so old that his company doesn't exist anymore? Or that he isn't really an earthly engine?
The Broadway concept art showed that Poppa could have been potentially from the Burlington Northern . Burlington Northern was in competition with the Union Pacific (Greaseball) and the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railway (repesented by two of Electra's components). As Rusty takes Poppa's place in the final, this would have probably meant that Rusty would be officially/unofficially representing the Burlington Northern, thus visually adding another layer to the competition between the three main engines. However, Poppa's hat was possibly changed due to the fact that the BN was founded in 1970, making it 17 years old by the time the Broadway opened. The Kansas City Southern, on the other hand, is the "second-oldest Class I railroad company still in operation." Much more fitting for an old racing champion.
It is just as well that the BN idea had been dropped. In 1996 the BN merged with the Santa Fe to form the BNSF -- which would have made the visual competition somewhat awkward between Electra and the steamers.
While it is often assumed that Poppa is Rusty's father, there are inconsistencies in this theory - if Belle is Poppa's coach, that would make her Rusty's mother, or step-mother at least. Yet he appears to never have met her before. However, Belle and Pearl are both Pullman carriages, leading to an alternative theory - Poppa is Pearl's father. He knows his daughter is going to be a desirable race partner, and he doesn't approve of diesels, so he encourages Rusty, knowing he's the best partner for his daughter. He already knows Pearl and Rusty had agreed to race together before she changed her mind and went with Electra.