When I was a small child, I absolutely loved Thomas the Tank Engine. It was my favouritest programme in the world ever. It wasn’t what got me interested in railways – that had more to do with the three or four generations of railwaymen in the family. But it certainly helped. I learnt to read through the books. Much later, I even wrote my dissertation on the original Railway Series books. So I still have a considerable nostalgic attachment to that little blue dock shunter.
Which is why I was intrigued by a new book in the popular Haynes manual series. The Thomas the Tank Engine Owners’ Workshop Manual (1945 onwards). The book promises to be a technical guide to how Thomas and his friends work and how the railways of Sodor operate (probably at a loss).
This is far from being the first technical guide to Thomas and friends, but it’s the first one to tie in with the television series (as opposed to the original books) and the first one to be aimed specifically at young children. The television series has long been criticised for moving further and further away from railway realism, so this would seem to be a return to the good old days.
The book features cutaway drawings of Thomas, Gordon, Percy and Mavis (illustrating a side tank engine, a tender engine, a saddle tank and a diesel-mechanical shunter respectively) plus Trevor the Traction Engine and Harold the Helicopter. There’s also a diagram of how steam engines work and an explanation of how an engine is built, driven and maintained, including a section on the time Henry was rebuilt. An article called ‘The Tracks of Sodor’ explains the basics of railway operation and ‘Old and New Engines’ gives a history of locomotive design (The First Steam Engines, Narrow-Gauge Engines, The First Express Trains, Newer Steam Engines and Diesel Engines) using characters from Sodor as reference points. One niggle here is that Fergus is used to illustrate the first steam engines when he is in fact an Aveling Porter traction engine locomotive – not the pinnacle of modernity, but hardly a pioneer of steam. Given that Rocket has appeared in the books, it would surely make more sense to use him/her/it for this section.
There are a few factual hiccups – for one thing, I’d seriously dispute the article on how an engine is built (the cab before the firebox?). From the point of view of the fictional Thomas universe, the manual includes a number of sometimes quite obscure factoids from the books hitherto ignored by the TV series (Henry was built as an experiment, Sodor has a bridge to the Mainland, there’s a rack-and-pinion railway up Culdee Fell), but ignores others (the existence of the little-seen electric railway to Peel Godred is denied). Rather than going with the idea that Henry was entirely rebuilt into a Black 5 following the story ‘The Flying Kipper’, this book states that he was simply given a larger firebox. This, I suppose, explains why the Henry in the TV series looks nothing like a Black 5.
All in all, despite a few nitpicks, I’d say this was a perfect present for a young Thomas fan. Older children might find it a little basic, but for the young ‘uns it’s a simple introduction to a complex subject, easy to understand and clearly illustrated and just generally Really Useful.
http://www.pegnsean.net/~railwayseries/ – Martin Clutterbuck’s site on the technical side of Thomas, with some contributions by Yours Truly.