Polygonal wear is a common type of damage on the railway wheel tread, which could induce wheel-rail impacts and further components failure. This study presents a finite element (FE) thermomechanical model to investigate the causes of wheel polygonal wear. The FE model is able to cope with three possible causes of polygonal wear: thermal effect, initial defects, and structural dynamics. To analyse the influences of the three causes on wheel-rail contact stress and wear depth, different material properties (i.e., elastic, elasto-plastic, thermo-elasto-plastic with thermal softening), and wheel profiles (i.e., round and polygonal) were used in the FE model. The simulation indicates that a high temperature up to 264.20 ℃ could be induced by full-slip wheel-rail rolling contact when the polygonal profile is used. The thermal effect, similar to that induced by tread brake, may then have a significant influence on wheel-rail contact stress and wear depth. In addition, the involvement of initial defects, i.e., polygonal profile, causes wheel-rail impact contact and remarkably increases the contact stress and wear. By reliably considering all the three possible causes, the proposed FE model is believed promising for further explaining the generation mechanisms of wheel polygonal wear.