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Parents Guide to "Thomas the Tank Engine"

originally posted: July 23, 2004
last updated: April 30, 2008

As usual, I'd like to begin this article by denying any claim to special expertize. I am not a railway buff, or an expert on children's literature. But I do have a son who is a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, and, like many parents, have read far more Thomas stories and watched far more Thomas videos than is entirely consistant with retaining sanity. Out of self defense, I have attempted to figure out some of the odd features of these stories, some of which I'd like to comment on here.

Railway Terminology

The Thomas stories are packed full of English railway jargon, which is in many respects quite different from American railway jargon. Much of it is easily understood from context, others are less obvious. Some of the terminology is can be clarified for Americans simply by giving the American equivalents.

UK TermUS Term
TruckFreight Car
Brake VanCaboose

The word "conductor" is also sometimes used in England. Some terminology that requires a bit more explanation is listed below.

Tank Engine
I've heard many parents refer to "Thomas the Train" or "Thomas the Tank". Thomas pulls a train, but isn't one. "Tank," on the other hand, does seem to be a legitimate shorthand for "tank engine."

A steam engine needs two things to run - fuel (usually coal) to make a fire, and water to boil into steam. In fact, they consume water much faster than coal. So all steam engines carry supplies of coal and water with them. In larger engines, these are carried in a separate train car pulled right behind the engine, the tender.

But for a smaller engine, especially one that just switches cars around in a yard, a tender is an annoyance. It can be slightly awkward when you are running in reverse, pushing cars behind you, and if you rarely go far from the coaling station or water tower, then you don't need to carry that much coal or water with you. So smaller engines often don't have a tender. Instead, they have a coal bunker attached to directly to the engine. Thomas and Percy both have bunkers in back, behind the cab. Water is heavy, so it makes sense to put the water tank where the weight will do the most good, that is, right over the driving wheels. Thomas's water tanks are the two rectangular boxes on either side of his cylindrical boiler. Duck has similar, but larger, rectangular tanks on either side of his boiler. Percy's water tank is a bigger cylinder encircling all but the front end of his boiler. These water tanks quite dramatically alter the appearance of an engine, so it's not surprisingly that engines with built-in water tanks are sometimes called "tank engines".

Level Crossing
Simply a railroad crossing where the road crosses the track. In the U.S. this is a "grade crossing".

Most steam engines have two cylinders, one on each side near the front of the engine, in front of the driving wheels. Steam is injected into the cylinders to drive a piston back and forth, which moves the tie rods and rotates the wheels. Unlike the cylinders in automobile engines, both the forward and backward strokes are driven by steam being injected alternately at the front and back of the cylinder.

Percy and Gordon have very obvious cylinders, but on some engines, like Thomas and James, the cylinders are harder to see. They have "inside cylinders," placed inside the frame. For this to work, the drive wheels have to be on a cranked axle instead of a straight axle.

In America, this is called a "throttle". It's the valve that controls the amount of steam that flows from the boiler into the cylinders.

The reverser is a control the effects the timing with which steam is injected into the cylinders. Pulling the lever all the way puts the engine into reverse, with steam slowing the motion of the piston instead of speeding it up. Smaller movements of the same lever adjust the "cut off" which effects for how much of the stroke steam is injected into the cylinder. Steam is normally injected into the cylinder for only about the first 15 to 75% of the stroke. After that it is automatically cut off and the natural expansion of the steam drives the rest of the stroke. The reverser can be used to adjust the exact cut off point. When the engine is starting, steam is injected into the cylinder for as long as possible to give maximum power. At speed, this is reduced. So the function of the reverse is actually kind of similar to shifting gears in a car.

There are several types of domes found on the tops of the boilers of steam locomotives. The most common type is a steam dome, which houses the regulator that collects steam from the boiler and sends it down through a pipe to the cylinders. The regulator needs to be above the boiler to collect the hottest steam, preferably quite a bit above the boiler so that boiling water doesn't splash into it and enter the cylinders, which is why it is usually in a dome above the boiler.

Domes may also contain safety valves, for releasing steam from the boiler if the pressure exceeds safe limits, or sand. Sand can be poured through pipes onto the track directly in front of the driving wheels to improve traction. Even modern diesels still carry sand.

Older, shorter train cars usually just had two axles, one in front, one in back, and these axles could not pivot. Most of the train cars we see today ride on bogies, one at the front, one at the back. Each bogie has two axles and four wheels on it, and the whole unit is free to pivot slightly when the car goes around a curve in the track. This arrangement makes the cars ride more smoothly, and causes less wear on the tracks. In America, this is usually called a "truck."

Foot Plate
The foot plate is simply the floor of the cab of the locomotive. A driver who "falls off the foot plate," falls entirely off the engine.

It is important that the rails of a train track stay fastened firmly to the ground, so they remain level and keep a uniform distance apart. On early railroads, this was a big problem. As the ground freezes and thaws in the winter, it shifts around, sometimes forming mounds called frost heaves.

To prevent this, most railroad tracks are laid on a bed of stones, which have large enough gaps between them so that water will drain away rapidly. No water means no freezing. These rocks are called "ballast". If the ballast grows too dirty, the water won't drain any more, and it may need to be replaced.

When a train is unexpectedly stopped on a track, or when some other obstruction blocks a track, it is important to warn any other uncoming trains well in advance, so they would have time to stop before hitting the obstruction. One way to do this was to send someone running out along the track to attach a detonator onto the rail far enough from the obstacle. A detonator is a little disc-shaped explosive device that, when a train ran over it, would explode with a loud noise. When the driver heard the noise, he knew to immediately hit the brakes.

Fiction and Reality

One of the things that adds some adult interest to the original Thomas the Tank Engine stories is something a bit surprising to find in stories about talking locomotives: accuracy. Thomas and his friends actually behave quite a lot like real steam engines. The chatter of coaches and trucks is written to sound like the actual sounds they make. When troublesome trucks give an engine an unexpected push, or refuse to stop, the results are pretty close to what you'd expect from the momentum of heavily loaded freight cars.

I strongly suspect that many of the original Thomas stories were inspired by true stories. I suspect the procedure of using a bootlace to make a temporary repair a leaky brake line was not unknown, and the story of James and the bootlace was inspired by this. Really the only part that is fiction is James having an opinion about the procedure.

The creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry (1911-1997), was, from childhood, a major league steam engine buff. His father was a vicar who was so interested in railways that he was known as the "Railway Parson." Awdry grew up along the Great Western Railway's main line, and says he "used to lie in bed at night, listening to the engines struggling up the hill to Box tunnel, and imagining that they were talking to themselves." As an adult, he involved himself in railway preservation societies and built model railways for exhibition. The man collected a lot of information about railways, and stories about odd incidents on railways, and worked them into his books as much as possible.

The starting point for modern children's stories is often a lesson that the the authors want to teach. Some of the more heavy-handed ones, like Jay Jay the Jet Plane or Dragontales, seem gratingly clumsy about it to me. The original Thomas stories, had some morals - mostly just hard work and good manners - but I think that takes a back seat to sheer love of steam engines.

The realism of the early stories is in marked contrast to some to of the later stuff, notably the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000), in which magic gold dust figures prominently. Given Reverend Awdry's interest in keeping his railway stories accurate even in small details, one doesn't like to think what he would have made of this movie. At this point all copyrights to Thomas are held by HIT Entertainment, and the Awdry family has no control.

Engines and Drivers

In the original Thomas stories, the engines always have drivers. In the rare cases where they lose their drivers, they find themselves unable to stop. They actually have very limited ability to control their own actions. Yet they have some, they may run faster or slower than their drivers wish, may entirely refuse to run at all, or run more roughly or smoothly. Limited though their power of self-determination is, they are still held responsible for their actions. Sir Topham Hatt may praise or punish them, and, more commonly, not-so-random fate may serve them punishments for their rudeness or misbehavior.

This pattern seems to be somewhat common in older stories. Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) hardly counts, as Mary Anne is only just barely anthropomorphized - in the illustrations she's drawn with a face and shows emotions, but she really shows no ability to act independently at all. The same author's Choo Choo (1937) stars a steam engine rather similar to the Thomas engines - Choo Choo has a driver, thinks it would be wonderful to run away from him, but then finds himself unable to control himself. Choo Choo's driver is a fully realized character though. The drivers in the Thomas stories stay much in the background. They don't even have names.

However, in probably the oldest of all anthropomorphic train stories, The Little Engine that Could there are no drivers. (The actual authorship or date of publication for this book is unknown. Watty Piper, the author listed on the most common modern edition, never even existed. There were versions of the story in 1906.) Gertrude Crampton's Tootle (1945) is also driverless.

I can't think of any modern stories where anthropomorphized machines remain under the control of humans. In Bob the Builder the machines are completely independent beings. Bob and Wendy never "drive" them. The machines have cabs, but Bob and Wendy never go in. If they ride the vehicles at all, they dangle precariously from the side of the machines as they zip down the road. The planes in Jay Jay the Jet Plane are similarly independent. They have no pilots. In more recent Thomas stories, the drivers tend to disappear. In the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000) only Lady has a driver and she's not exactly a Sodor engine. All the other drivers have vanished.

One could be tempted to seek an explanation of the mildly strange driver/engine relationship in Thomas the Tank Engine in Freudian psychology (driver as superego, engine as ego/id), or even Christian theology (Aubrey was a reverend, after all), but I think it would be unproductive and rather silly.

A more interesting premise would be that this reflects a change our perception of the role of parents. In the Thomas stories, the engines function as children, learning manners, the value of hard work, and their place in society, while the drivers (and Sir Topham Hatt) are parent figures. Bob the Builder is similarly often a parent figure to his child-like machines. Does the fact that the older stories depict the parent figures more tightly in control of the child figures reflect an evolution our views of parent's ideal relationship to children? Beats me. I'm no social historian.

I think there is a better explanation, and it goes right back to the realism of the Thomas stories. I suspect that the willful engines in the Thomas stories are actually quite close in spirit to the way many railroaders at the time thought about them.

To understand this, you need to understand that running a steam engine was an entirely different matter than running a modern car, or even a modern diesel-electric engine. For starters, remember that a steam engine was an iron machine into which great quantities of water where being poured and then puffed out in clouds of steam. In otherwords, they were rust magnets, inside and out. Add a large number of moving parts, frequent heating and cooling, rough handling, and fierce vibration and you've got a maintenance nightmare. Whenever a steam engine stops moving, it's time to get out the oil can and start oiling everything. Typical steam engines had availabilities of 40 to 60% - that means that they spent about as much time being maintained or repaired as they did actually running. I don't know about you, but if my car required that much work to keep running, I'd send it straight to the dump.

Furthermore, steam engines mostly predated the days of mass production. That means that no two were really exactly alike. Fixing one was a creative process. You don't just get a replacement part off the shelf. You probably found something approximately right and machined it to fit. With this kind of repair process, even engines that started out alike would gradually diverge with age, turning into unique devices with unique behaviors.

So these were devices that were pretty darned cantankerous, malfunctioning frequently. They were each distinct, behaving differently and requiring different handling. Variations in fuel and just plain weird randomness would alter their behavior from day to day, running smoothly one day, but not the next. Spend much time working with such devices, and one would certainly start to think of them as creatures, with distinct personalities, and moods. I'm sure they talked to their engines. Really the only change Awdry made was to have them talk back in words.

Real Engines

Awdry's desire to keep the stories technically accurate lead to some conflicts with the men who illustrated his books. The first illustrator for the Thomas books was C. Reginald Dalby, who drew handsome pictures, but Awdry complained that the engines were not realistic enough. Because of this, Edward and Percy don't actually look like any real engine - they are Dalby inventions only vaguely corresponding to real engines.

Awdry complained that Dalby's drawing of Percy looked like a caterpillar. Years later, in "Tramway Engines" (1972) he completed the transformation. Awdry was so unhappy with the appearance of Henry, that he wrecked him and sent him off to be rebuilt into a "new shape". The new shape matched a real engine, a "Black Five".

Thomas himself was first draw by a different illustrator, Reginald Payne, who modelled him closely on a London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) E2 class tank engine.

Gordon was later revised a bit to turn him into London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) A3 Pacific, the same design as the famous "Flying Scotsman". There was a train by that name that ran from King's Cross in London to Edinburgh for many years. It was pulled by various engines at different times. The one refered to in the Thomas stories, which was itself named "Flying Scotsman" made a record-breaking run on November 30, 1934, where it managed an average speed of 80 mph over a distance of 250 miles. For a short part of this run, it's speed exceeded 100 mph. The Flying Scotsman has been restored and is now in the British Railway museum.

For later engines, Awdry was careful to supply his illustrators with models that they were supposed to match. Toby was based on the Wisbech tram. Duck is a C. B. Collett's 57xx class pannier tank engine. Donald and Douglas are members of the "812" Caledonia class of 1899. For a detailed identification and rather entertaining guide to all the engines, see this excellent page.

Skarloey's narrow-gauge railway, and all the engines on it, are closely modeled on the Tallylyn Railway in Wales, which is still alive and well, carrying tourists along at the leasurely pace of nine miles per hour. Talyllyn, the model for Skarloey, and Dolgoch, the model for Rheneas, are still in operation there.

Many of the non-Sodor railway engines that appear in the original stories are, like the Flying Scotsman, real engines. Stepney really was the first engine obtained by the Bluebell Railway, a real railway preservation society. He is still in operation.

The City of Truro is claimed to have been the first steam engine to exceed 100 mph, on May 9, 1904. This was not well documented and not everyone believes it really achieved 100 mph 30 years before the "Flying Scotsman" set that record. It has recently been restored to working order.

Steam Engines and Diesels

Diesel engines sometimes appear as the villains in Thomas stories. Steam engines are depicted as more reliable than diesels. Unfortunately, this was Awdry's love for steam engines speaking. Of course, at first steam engines were an old and established technology, while diesels were new and probably needed some kinks worked out. But ultimately, there was a good reasons why steam-powered locomotives were abandoned in favor of diesel engines - they were much cheaper to operate.

Diesel engines were generally more efficient, using less fuel. They also used vastly less water - just a bit for cooling. Water may not seem like an expensive commodity, but when you switch to diesel, you no longer need to maintain all those water towers along the tracks, or stop frequently to refill your water tanks. This was a very substantial savings.

Maintenance was also a important issue. As I've mentioned before, steam engines were typically only available to work half the time. Diesels are available for work 90% of the time or more. That means much less money spent on maintenance work, and you don't need to have as many engines because half of them aren't in the shop at any given time. Diesel engines also vibrate much less than steam engines. This reduced wear on tracks, further reducing maintanence costs.

The first diesels were not as nearly powerful as the best steam engines of the time, but they had a compensating advantage - it was much easier to have multiple diesel engines pulling the same train. If you try this with a steam engine, you need a full crew in each engine, but with diesels you can slave one engine to the other, so one engineer can control all the engines. Some diesel engines were even built without cabs, to be used only in combination with a cab engine. Thus it became easy to match the power of a steam engine with diesels simply by using as many as the job required. And, of course, as time passed diesels grew steadily more powerful.

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