Thomas the Tank Engine

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For the British TV series, see Thomas & Friends. For the American series, see Shining Time Station.
Thomas the Tank Engine
Thomas & Friends character
Thomas Tank Engine 1.JPG
First appearance Thomas the Tank Engine (The Railway Series)
"Thomas & Gordon" (Thomas & Friends)
Created by Wilbert Awdry
Christopher Awdry
Voiced by Ben Small (UK, 2009–2015)
John Hasler (UK, 2015 onwards)
Martin Sherman (US, 2009–2015)
Christopher Ragland (US, 2015 onwards)
Edward Glen (Thomas and the Magic Railroad)
John Bellis (Film cut only)
Keiko Toda (JPN)
Ringo Starr
Gender Male

Thomas the Tank Engine is a small fictional steam locomotive in The Railway Series books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son, Christopher. He became the most popular character in the series, and is the titular character in the accompanying television spin-off series, Thomas & Friends.

Thomas is a tank engine, painted blue with red lining, and displays the running number one. All of the locomotives in The Railway Series were based on prototypical engines; Thomas has origins in the E2 Class designed by Lawson Billinton in 1913. Thomas first appeared in 1946 in the second book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine, and was the focus of the four short stories contained within. Thomas' best friends are Percy and Toby.

In 1979, the British writer/producer Britt Allcroft came across the books,[1] and arranged a deal to bring the stories to life as the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (later simplified to Thomas & Friends). The programme became an award-winning hit around the world, with a vast range of spin-off commercial products.

Prototype and backstory[edit]

Thomas was designed after the LB&SCR E2 class

When Awdry created Thomas, the engine existed only as a 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"; as the Railway Series and its backstory developed, the railway Thomas and his friends worked on became known as the North Western Railway.[2]

Thomas wasn't originally based on a prototype; rather, the initial stories were an accompaniment to the toy made for Christopher.[3] After Awdry's wife encouraged him to publish the stories,[4] the publisher of the second book in The Railway Series, Thomas the Tank Engine, hired an illustrator named Reginald Payne. Awdry selected a real locomotive for Payne to work from to create authenticity; a Billinton designed 0-6-0 E2 Class of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. This may have been chosen simply because Awdry had a photograph to hand.[3] Thomas is one of half a dozen locomotives fitted with an extension to the front of the water tanks.[5] While the language used and the behaviours exhibited often closely resemble those of real locomotives[6] there are some significant and artistic differences. For example, Thomas's wheels are driven by internal cylinders typical of such tank engines. The cranks and connecting rods are therefore not externally visible.

Awdry was unsatisfied with one detail of the illustration—the fact that the front end of his footplate 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. Thomas has always been shown with a curved front buffer beam in the television series.

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. It had often been erroneously assumed that C. Reginald Dalby created the character, as he was responsible for illustrating books 3–11 and repainting the illustrations of book 1.

Thomas arrived on Sodor in 1915, when [[]] bought the locomotive for a nominal sum to be a pilot engine at Vicarstown. After rescuing James in Thomas & the Breakdown Train, he became a "Really Useful Engine" and was rewarded by being put in charge of the Ffarquhar branchline. Although Thomas is seen today on various heritage railways, the last of the LB&SCR E2 class was scrapped in 1963.[7]

Thomas in The Railway Series[edit]

Despite becoming the most popular character in The Railway Series, Thomas did not actually feature in the first book, The Three Railway Engines (namely Edward, Henry, and Gordon).

Thomas was described in the opening to "Thomas and Gordon", the first story in book number two, Thomas the Tank Engine, as:

"...a tank engine who lived at a Big Station. He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome. He was a fussy little engine, always pulling coaches about. [...] He was a cheeky little engine, too."

—from the story "Thomas and Gordon" in Thomas the Tank Engine.[8]

Thomas was used initially as a station pilot engine in the first three stories in book 2, but longed for more important jobs such as pulling the express train like Gordon; his inexperience prevented this. In the fourth story, Thomas & the Breakdown Train, Thomas rescues James and is rewarded with his own branch line.[9] He has remained in charge of the Ffarquhar branch ever since, with his two coaches Annie and Clarabel, and help from Percy and Toby. Thomas is generally 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. However, 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.

Thomas has been the source of some friction between Christopher Awdry and his publishers, who repeatedly asked for more books centered around the character[citation needed]. Although Thomas was the most popular character in the books[citation needed], both the Reverend Wilbert and Christopher Awdry had always treated the characters in the books as an ensemble, and so before the television series there had been only ten stories with Thomas named in the title, the four in each of Thomas the Tank Engine and Tank Engine Thomas Again, plus "Thomas in Trouble" (in Toby the Tram Engine) and "Thomas Comes to Breakfast (in Branch Line Engines). After the debut of the television series, there were five books explicitly named after Thomas: (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) has only one story out of the four centred on Thomas; 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.

TV series[edit]

Main article: Thomas & Friends

Thomas's on-screen appearances in the TV series (while in Britain, it was called Thomas & Friends, it was called Shining Time Station when it came to America) were created by Britt Allcroft. The first series of 26 stories premiered in October 1984 on the ITV Network in the UK, with Ringo Starr as storyteller and as Mr. Conductor in the first and second seasons. From 1991 to 1993, George Carlin replaced Starr as both the storyteller and as Mr. Conductor for the US, and continued narrating the stories until 1995. Alec Baldwin portrayed Mr. Conductor in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, and narrated the series for the US from 1998 to 2003. Michael Angelis narrated the series from 1991 to 2012 in the UK, while Michael Brandon narrated the series from 2004 to 2012 in the US. As of 2013, the series is narrated by Mark Moraghan.

Thomas's personality was originally faithful to the character of the books. As the show branched away from the novels however, modifications were made. Thomas became noticeably less arrogant and self-absorbed, developing a more friendly, altruistic and happy go lucky (if still rather over-excitable) side. He also no longer appears to be limited to his branch line and seems to work all over Sodor. These changes in his personality and duties are a result of his "star" status. He is the most popular character in the series, and therefore he has the largest number of appearances, appearing in all of the DVD specials and the movie Thomas & the Magic Railroad.

From Hero of the Rails until Series 18, Thomas was voiced by Martin Sherman (US) and Ben Small (UK).[10] From 2015 onwards, Thomas is voiced by John Hasler in the UK, and by Christopher Ragland in the US.

Voice Actors[edit]


Thomas had his genesis, like Winnie-the-Pooh, in a toy for a small child. A wooden push-along toy from the early 1940s, predating Learning Curve by many decades, is the original Thomas made by the Reverend Awdry out of a piece of broomstick for his son Christopher. However, the Reverend was happy to endorse Payne's account that the locomotive was an LBSC E2, although the first Thomas on the Awdry's model railway, from Stuart Reidpath, lacked extended tanks. In the 1979 Thomas Annual, Awdry wrote:

"I bought Thomas in 1948 when I was writing "Tank Engine Thomas Again", and wanted to start modelling once more after a lapse of some twenty years. Thomas was one of Stewart Reidpath's standard models with a heavy, cast white metal body, and was fitted with his "Essar" chassis and motor. Stewart Reidpath is now dead, and his motors, let alone spare parts for them, have been unobtainable for years; but Thomas still keeps going! He is, as you might expect from his age, a temperamental old gentleman, and has to be driven very carefully indeed."

After Hornby produced the LBSC E2 tank in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Awdry gladly adapted one to take the role of Thomas on his layout, the Ffarquhar branch.

Despite Awdry's requests for models, to which Lines Brothers (later Triang-Hornby) responded with Meccano Percy in 1967, Hornby eventually adapted the tool to be Thomas when they started Railway Series models in the 1980s.


Thomas was the only fictional character included in the Independent on Sunday's 2009 "Happy List", recognised alongside 98 real-life adults and a therapy dog for making Britain a better and happier place.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Thomas has been referenced, featured and parodied many times in popular culture. In 1988, he was parodied on ITV's Spitting Image where he was portrayed as a drunk who went "completely off the rails."[12] In 2009, he appeared in The Official BBC Children in Need Medley where he was voiced by Ringo Starr, who narrated the first two series of Thomas and Friends. In the British comedy show Bobby Davro's TV Weekly, a spoof was created titled "Thomas The Tanked Up Engine" involving Jeremy, the pink engine. Bobby Davro provided the narration by impersonating the original narrator, Ringo Starr. In Cartoon Network's MAD, Thomas the Tank Engine appears in "Thomas the Unstoppable Tank Engine," a crossover between Thomas the Tank Engine and Unstoppable. A parody of Thomas the Tank Engine was in Robot Chicken. The skit was called "Blow Some Steam." The narrator (Seth Green) spoke like Ringo Starr who was the first narrator for Thomas and Friends. Thomas was voiced by Daniel Radcliffe.


See also[edit]


  • Awdry, Christopher (2005). Sodor: Reading between the Lines. Sodor Enterprises, Spalding. ISBN 0-9549665-1-1.


  1. ^ Sibley, Brian (1995). The Thomas the Tank Engine Man. Heinemann. p. 291. ISBN 0-434-96909-5. 
  2. ^ Awdry (2005), 4
  3. ^ a b Awdry (2005), 29
  4. ^ Awdry (2005), 1
  5. ^ Awdry (2005), 5
  6. ^ Great Green Room: Parents Guide to "Thomas the Tank Engine"
  7. ^ Awdry (2005), 5–6
  8. ^ The Rev. W. Awdry (1946). Thomas the Tank Engine. Edmund Ward. p. 4. ISBN 0-434-92779-1. 
  9. ^ Awdry (2005), 35
  10. ^ "Thomas the Tank Engine speaks for the first time". Metro. 24 September 2009. Archived from the original on 13 January 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2010. 
  11. ^ The IoS Happy List 2009 - the 100
  12. ^ "Ringo/Thomas Spoof on spitting image (1988)"

External links[edit]