Feature Article

Thomas The Tank Engine

Egmont have a wide range of Thomas the Tank Engine story and activity books



Thomas the Tank Engine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the fictional tank engine. For the television series, see Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

Thomas is a fictional anthropomorphic tank locomotive created by the Rev. W. V. Awdry in his Railway Series books, made into the British children's television series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and its American spinoff Shining Time Station.

In his first appearance in the television series he was described as follows:

"Thomas is a blue tank engine who lives at a big station on the Island of Sodor. He's a cheeky little engine with 6 small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome" -narrator Ringo Starr from the episode "Thomas & Gordon" (aka "Thomas Gets Tricked", as it was titled for the US release). He has also been described as "a cheeky little engine" and "a little engine with a long tongue".

Thomas the Tank Engine first appeared in 1946, when stories about him were published in The Railway Series by the Reverend W.V. Awdry. He is considered to be the most widely-known fictional locomotive in the world.

When he first appeared, in the book Thomas the Tank Engine, he was a station pilot, used to shunt coaches and trucks for the bigger engines. He longed for more important jobs such as pulling the express train like Gordon, but his inexperience prevented this. Eventually he was responsible for rescuing James after an accident, and the Fat Controller (who was then known as the Fat Director) decided that he was a Really Useful Engine, and ready for his own branch line. He has remained in charge of this line ever since.

His closest friends are Annie and Clarabel, his coaches. However, he is also very good friends with Percy, (despite a lot of arguments), Toby, and his old friend Edward.

Thomas is based on the class E2 0-6-0T locomotives built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway between 1913 and 1916.

Thomas in the Railway Series

Thomas' character differs strongly between the Railway Series and recent seasons of the television series. In the Railway Series he has generally been depicted with a cheeky and even self-important personality. He believes that he should be more respected by the others, and he gets annoyed when he does not receive this respect. Luckily, Percy and Toby are more than capable of standing up to him, and Annie and Clarabel often rebuke him.

He is aware of his fame in the real world, and following a visit to the National Railway Museum at York he became an honorary member of the National Collection, joining such legendary locomotives as Mallard, City of Truro and Rocket.

The Thomas of the early stories looks a little different from the one shown in later ones. Following the events of the story Thomas Comes to Breakfast, in which Thomas crashed into the Stationmaster's house, his front end was rebuilt without the "dip" in his footplate. He has kept this ever since.

Thomas has been the source of some friction between Christopher Awdry and his publishers, who repeatedly asked for more books centred around the character. Although Thomas was the most popular character in the books, both Wilbert and Christopher Awdry had always treated the characters in the books as an ensemble, and so before the television series was released there had only been two books named after Thomas (Thomas the Tank Engine and Tank Engine Thomas Again). After the debut of the television series, there were five more (More About Thomas the Tank Engine, Thomas and the Twins, Thomas and the Great Railway Show, Thomas Comes Home, Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines). Some of these are rather tenuous in their links with the character: Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines (the 50th anniversary volume, originally to be called The Fat Controller's Engines) features only one story out of the four centred on Thomas; while in Thomas Comes Home, Thomas appears only on the last page, the rest of the book dealing with the other engines on his branch line while he was away at York.

Thomas on Television

In the early series of Thomas the Tank Engine, Thomas's personality was similar to that used in the books. From season three onwards, however, his character was modified. He became less cheeky and pompous. He is now kind to other engines, and always ready to stand up for a friend in need. He is always eager to prove himself, and has had many exciting adventures as a result.

He no longer appears to be limited to his branch line and now seems to work all over Sodor. This change in his personality and duties is a result of his "star" status. He is the most popular character in the series, and therefore he has the largest number of appearances.

Thomas on Film

Thomas' on screen appearances have all been produced by The Britt Allcroft Company PLC, now Gullane Entertainment, and distributed in more than 120 countries to date. The TV series, first broadcast in 1984, was narrated by former Beatles member Ringo Starr, followed by Michael Angelis in later editions. (In the U.S. video releases Starr was followed by comedian George Carlin, and then actor Alec Baldwin.)

In 2000 Thomas starred in a feature film, 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad'. He was voiced by Edward Glen. He was the only engine from the television series to play a major role in the story, and he even leaves Sodor briefly. The film was not a success, but Thomas' movie career continued in the straight-to-video feature 'Calling All Engines!'.

Thomas in Toyboxes

With the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine among children in recent years, Thomas and Friends merchandise has proven very lucrative. At least five different categories of trains and tracks exist: "Take Along Thomas" with grey tracks; Tomy battery-operated engines with blue tracks; Brio-type wooden engines with wooden rails and roads (by ELC and others); electric model railway (produced in HO/OO gauge by Hornby and N gauge by Tomix); and Lego engines and tracks; along with complementary videos, DVDs, books, games, puzzles, stationery, clothing and household items. An international tour featuring Thomas and his driver was completed in 2005 in honour of the 60th anniversary. In America, Thomas the Tank Engine is thought to be an excellent rôle model for children. The former President George H.W. Bush dedicated the Presidential Train during a ceremony in 2005. Originally there was a comparatively accurate, sturdy and extensive series of toys by Ertl[1].

Thomas on Real Railways

The Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough in England was the first railway in the world to possess a full-scale replica Thomas. This was an industrial tank engine built by Hudswell Clarke that had been nicknamed "Thomas" due to its blue livery and resemblance to the famous tank engine. In 1971 the Rev. W. Awdry made the name official.

Since then other tank engines around the world have been dressed up as Thomas. Some railways, most notably the Mid Hants Railway and Strasburg Rail Road, have gone so far as to rebuild locomotives in order to produce a better replica. This has divided preservationists. Those opposed claim that it disfigures historic locomotives and trivialises the preservation movement. Those in favour claim that they draw much-needed visitors and can help to kindle an interest in railways in young children.

In the UK such locomotives form the basis of Day Out with Thomas events, which have proved to be a very lucrative source of income for preserved railways. Railways that have no "Thomas" of their own often hire one from another line.

In New Zealand, Mainline Steam's Bagnall tank locomotive has appeared as Thomas on a number of different locations, most recently in the main Railway Station in Auckland (New Zealand's largest city).

Also in New Zealand, in the Hutt Valley, the Silverstream Railway has a thomas-like steam locomotive on display at it's entrance. It's exterior is deteriorating, however.

A "Real Thomas" was used in a special play staged to celebrate the 80th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, starring beloved characters from children's literature. In the play Thomas was used to convey Sophie Dahl to centre stage. The little engine was greeted by thunderous applause and cheers from the audience of 2,000 children and their parents.

In the United States there are several travelling Thomas replicas. One is narrow gauge, the others are standard gauge. While in transit from one location to another their appearance is disguised. Thomas only appears in full dress at Day Out with Thomas events at host railroads arranged through HIT Entertainment. Many of the larger railroad museums and tourist railroads across the United States host Day Out with Thomas events periodically[2].

Behind the Scenes

When the Rev. W. Awdry created Thomas he existed only as a push-along wooden toy made for his son, Christopher. This engine looked rather different from the character in the books and television series, and carried the letters NW on its side tanks. Awdry claimed that this stood for "No Where", but later works would identify the railway Thomas and his friends worked on as the North Western Railway.

Awdry wrote four stories about Thomas, which were collected into a book called Thomas the Tank Engine. For this, the publisher hired an illustrator named Reginald Payne. Payne decided to base his version of Thomas on a real locomotive, an E2 Class of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. Awdry was initially annoyed that Thomas in the book differed so substantially from his original visualisation, but was satisfied when Payne explained that he was taken from a real prototype. Indeed, in later books, Awdry based all his characters on real locomotive classes.

One detail of Thomas' design bothered Awdry. This was the fact that the front end of his featured a downward slope, which meant that his front and back buffers were at different levels. This was an illustrator's mistake that was perpetuated in subsequent books. The accident in 'Thomas Comes to Breakfast' was partly devised as a means of correcting this.

Unfortunately, despite creating the visual image of such an iconic character, Payne did not receive any credit for his work, and it is only since the publication of Brian Sibley's 'The Thomas the Tank Engine Man' that he has started to receive major recognition. Indeed, it had often been erroneously assumed that C. Reginald Dalby, responsible for illustrating books 3-11 and repainting the illustrations of book 1, was the character's creator.


1.      ^ Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends ERTL Models

2.      ^ US Day Out with Thomas events.

External links

  • Official website


Gateway is published by Paul Edmund Norman on the first day of each month. Hosting is by Flying Porcupine at - and web design by Gateway. Submitting to Gateway: Basically, all you need do is e-mail it along and I'll consider it - it can be any length, if it's very long I'll serialise it, if it's medium-length I'll put it in as a novella, if it's a short story or a feature article it will go in as it comes. Payment is zero, I'm afraid, as I don't make any money from Gateway, I do it all for fun! For Advertising rates in Gateway please contact me at Should you be kind enough to want to send me books to review, please contact me by e-mail and I will gladly forward you my home address. Meanwhile, here's how to contact me:

Web hosting and domain names from Vision Internet