Ultimate Guide to Thomas the Tank Engine (2024)

Thomas the Tank Engine is the most widely known fictional locomotive in the world. For 60 years, Thomas and his friends have been delighting children and adults alike with stories of exploration and imagination. With his slightly "cheeky" attitude and can-do outlook, Thomas leads his friends and kids everywhere on adventures that teach timeless lessons such as discovery, friendship, and cooperation.

With the help of Britt Allcroft, the producer who created the Thomas the Tank Engine television, film, and licensing franchise, we take a look inside Thomas the Tank Engine -- his fascinating history, his cross-continental television series, and his cast of characters, all as we find out what's in store for the future.


"Thomas is a blue tank engine who lives at a big station on the Island of Sodor. He's a cheeky little engine with six small wheels, a short, stumpy funnel, a short, stumpy boiler, and a short, stumpy dome." So goes the Storyteller's introduction in the very first episode of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" for television.

But let's go back to the beginning and uncover the origins of the world's favorite little engine. Thomas the Tank Engine is a "true blue" engine who proudly wears "#1" on his side. He and his railway friends have been working the railways on the Island of Sodor for more than 60 years. Thomas is a Really Useful Engine -- which is the highest compliment that the railway director, the Fat Controller (a.k.a. Sir Topham Hatt), offers to an engine -- and though he sometimes gets into trouble, he always comes out on top. He usually learns a really useful lesson in the process.

But did you know Thomas wasn't the very first train in the "Thomas & Friends" stories? It's true. The English television series and its U.S. counterpart are based on "The Railway Series" books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry (1911-1997). The first book by Rev. Awdry followed the stories of three engines: Edward, Gordon, and Henry. Thomas didn't even exist until two years later.

The late Rev. Awdry was a lifelong railroad enthusiast and an Anglican clergyman. He was inspired to create "The Railway Series" stories by the steam engines he had grown up around. Awdry said, as quoted on the official Awdry Family Website, "I, along with my brother George, inherited our father's love of railways, and after moving to Box, Wiltshire, in 1917, our house was within sight and sound of the Great Western Railway's main line near Middle Hill. I 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."

In 1942, Awdry's young son Christopher came down with a bad case of the measles. Awdry amused his son with original stories and rhymes during the long days of his recovery. His tales of the trains of Sodor proved to be Christopher's favorites.

As chronicled in Wikipedia's entry on "The Railway Series," the first of these stories to be written down was called "Edward's Day Out," about a little old engine named Edward who hadn't been out of the yard and on the rails for a long time. Awdry wrote another story featuring Edward that also introduced Gordon, a proud and boastful engine who eventually got his comeuppance. A third tale, titled "The Sad Story of Henry," was about a silly engine who thinks the rain will spoil his lovely paint. He won't come out of a tunnel and ends up bricked up inside it. This story also introduced the Fat Controller.

Awdry decided it was time to commit the stories to print after Christopher kept correcting his father during his frequent retellings. Awdry drew simple companion illustrations as well -- pictures of the engines with human faces on them -- each with a different expression.

Encouraged by his wife to "do something" with his stories, Awdry sent them to various children's publishers. After many rejection letters, he finally found a publisher willing to take the stories to print. At the publisher's request, Awdry wrote a fourth short story, "Edward, Gordon, and Henry," which brought the three engines together and released Henry from imprisonment in the tunnel. These were published in one volume, "The Three Railway Engines," in 1945.

Shortly after the first stories were finished, Awdry began the idea for a new engine. Christmas 1942 saw the birth of the character that would become the favorite locomotive of many children and adults. Awdry constructed a toy tank engine for Christopher as a Christmas gift, which he named "Thomas." Of course, stories about Thomas soon followed, and were eventually collected and published in 1946 as "Thomas the Tank Engine."

One important and fascinating element of the stories is their basis in fact. Awdry always felt it was important to model his fictional stories and characters around real-life trains and events as much as possible. A few examples of actual incidents recreated in "The Railway Series" include: an engine slipping on excess leaves on the track, a newspaper and bootlaces being used to repair a leaking brake pipe, a cow and her calf charging a moving train, and the inspiration for very first Thomas story -- in which an over-eager Thomas heads out of the station without being coupled to any train cars.

Awdry looked to real life for his trains, too. An obscure 0-6-0T Class E2 shunting engine built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway was the model for Thomas. Gordon was based on a Gresley A3 Pacific from the London and North Eastern Railway. Percy was pattered after an old Avonside locomotive, and the Scottish Twins, Donald and Douglas, are based on members of the 812 Caledonian class of 1899. (A meticulous accounting of the connections between "Railway Series" stories and real events is maintained at the Real Stories Website.)

The Reverand Awdry continued to write a new book nearly every year until he retired in 1972. His son Christopher -- now grown and with a son of his own -- took up the writing of the series soon after. He followed the template his father had used before him. He wrote three short stories (this time about Thomas, Percy, and Duck) and then brought them all together in a final story. His first book was titled "Really Useful Engines."

The younger Awdry wrote an additional 40 stories and was instrumental in bringing the popular series to the small screen. Like his father before him, Christopher was also quite adamant that his stories be set in real time and based in real-life events. Consequently, his stories introduced "The Railway Series" readers to more modern machines with the high-speed trains Pip and Emma, and Harold the Helicopter.

Interestingly, neither Rev. Awdry nor his son Christopher ever envisioned Thomas as the star of the books. In fact, at the time the television series began, there had only been two books named after Thomas specifically. Rather, the Awdrys treated the characters in the books as an ensemble and wrote about many different characters, some recurring and others appearing only in one or two stories. Encouragement from fans and pressure from publishers and producers eager to capitalize on the tank engine's fame convinced the Awdrys to focus the spotlight on Thomas. The result is the worldwide phenomenon we know today.

Sadly for Thomas fans, the original "Railway Series" books are currently out of print, but copies may be found online and at used booksellers. The good news is, Thomas and his friends are as close as your television. In the next section, we'll look into Thomas's very popular television show.

Ultimate Guide to Thomas the Tank Engine (2024)


How many RWS books are there? ›

There are 42 books in the series, the first published in May 1945 by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry. Twenty-six books were written by Awdry, the final one being written in October 1972.

What is the dark theory of Thomas the Tank Engine? ›

A theory that has gained traction over the years posits that the trains on the island are slaves to the island's leader, Sir Topham Hatt/The Fat Controller. According to the theory, these trains are forced to work for the Fat Controller, and if any of them get out of line, they are sentenced to a fate similar to death.

Are Annie and Clarabel twins? ›

As of the twenty-second series, Annie and Clarabel are the only non-human twin characters who are both still voiced by the same actress. A real coach based on the television series version of Clarabel (a former LNER "Sunshine" coach) has been put into service at the Llangollen Railway in North Wales.

Who is the strongest engine on Sodor? ›

Gordon boasts that he is the strongest engine on Sodor, but George claims he is stronger and crushes a stone on the level crossing to prove his point.

What train is Gordon based on? ›

LNER Gresley Class A1

What time period is Thomas the Tank Engine set in? ›

As a long term fan of the show, and an active observer to the fan forums, I can clarify that the Thomas the Tank Engine books are set from the time period of 1925–1960. Later books the Reverend Awdry's son, Christopher, presumably work their way from the 60's through to the 70's.

What is the controversy with Thomas the Tank Engine? ›

Although similar stories of this were thought to have reached the press in the 1990s, University of Alberta professor Shauna Wilton came to that conclusion "Thomas the Tank Engine pushes a conservative ideology and relegates female characters to the back of the train" - She noted that characters are discouraged from " ...

What is the darkest Thomas the Tank Engine episode? ›

Darkest Thomas the Tank Engine Episodes
#EpisodeRelease Date
6Duncan Gets SpookedOctober 15, 1998
5Haunted HenrySeptember 28, 1998
4Percy and the Haunted MineOctober 2, 2002
3Toby and the FloodSeptember 25, 1998
6 more rows

Who was bricked in Thomas the Tank Engine? ›

Henry, a big green engine, doesn't want to risk paintwork being ruined by rain, so refuses to leave a tunnel he enters on a trip. But he may end up being there longer than he wants as he ends up being bricked up.

What happened to diesel 10? ›

Fun Fact: When we last saw Diesel 10, he had fallen into a barge sailing down a Sodor canal. Although no one knows his whereabouts, we can only guess he's up to no good.

What happened to Annie and Clarabel in Shed 17? ›

After thirty years of remaining inside a forgotten shed with Diesel, Annie died when HiT Logistics ordered John and Terry to melt Clarabel down, forcing the telepathic link between the two coaches to cause Annie to die and burst into flames.

Who pulled Annie and Clarabel? ›

Thomas pulling Annie, Clarabel and Old Slow Coach by SuperHeroTimeFan on DeviantArt.

Who was the number 1 engine before Thomas? ›

Glynn: Glynn was the original number one engine on the North Western Railway and used to work on the Ffarquhar Branch line with the other "Coffee Pots." By the time Thomas had arrived, Glynn was the only Coffee Pot engine remaining and had been left rusting on a siding at Ffarquhar station.

Who is bigger, Henry or Gordon? ›

Even though Gordon and Henry are just about the same size, after careful thinking, the Fat Controller decides that Gordon will pick up the building materials, and Henry will deliver the empty trucks for Gordon to collect. Henry is upset, but Percy, Emily and Thomas all reassure Henry they know he is big and strong.

Who has a crush on Thomas the Tank Engine? ›

Emily may have a crush on Thomas and sometimes displays that in episodes and it's a possibility that Thomas may feel the same.

How many books are in Thomas the Tank Engine? ›

Also available are annuals, picture book versions of the classic Thomas stories, as well as books that tie into his long-running TV series. Thomas the Tank Engine: The Classic Library contains all 26 books in The Railway Series written by The Rev. W. Awdry.

How many books are in the eye of the world? ›

Originally planned as a six-book series with the publication of The Eye of the World in 1990, The Wheel of Time came to span 14 volumes, in addition to a prequel novel and three companion books.

How many of the books are there? ›

The organization estimates that 2.2 million new titles are published every year, so if we add that number to Google's count, we can surmise that there are roughly 158,464,880 unique books in the world as of 2023.

How many Thomas the Train series are there? ›

Big Adventures!) is a British children's television series that aired for 24 series and 584 episodes from 9 October 1984 to 20 January 2021. Based on The Railway Series books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son Christopher, the series was developed for television by Britt Allcroft.

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