Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Praise of the Gravy Train



Go on! Get out there on your message boards and  email lists and model railroad clubs. I defy you to find one single railfan, of any age, that doesn't have a special place in his heart for this cheeky little blue wunderdampflok:

Author's Collection

I would venture as far as to say that the Reverend W. Awdry's Railway Series and the better known television show based off of his books have done more to make individual people interested in trains than any real locomotive or railroad company. While the research for the second part of the track history article is still ongoing, let's look at where, exactly, the world's most famous locomotive was forged, and what makes him a cut above the rest.

Thomas the Tank Engine and the rest of his friends are not the first and by no means not the only story to feature living locomotives. Most of us, as children or in the process of entertaining our won children, have encountered Tootle the Train, Chuggington, The Railway Children, and others. None of them, though, have endured through time into the same sort of pop cultural icon that Thomas has.
from www.ttte.wikia.com

The Railway Series sprouted up from the same source as many other children's stories that have found a place our hearts.  The Reverend Awdry, a wiry Andy Worhol lookalike known to have a bit of a cantankerous disposition, though up a number of stories about living steam engines to entertain his son Christopher as he recovered from the mumps. He chose their now-familiar names off the cuff: Gordon, James, Henry, Edward, Thomas, and all the rest.

The Reverend dedicated as much passion to studying the British railroads as he did the holy scriptures, though, and after a few years he had fleshed out enough of these stories that his wife encouraged him seek out a publisher and illustrator.  The first volume was published in 1945, and contained four separate stories focusing on  Henry, Gordon, and Edward. Thomas himself did not appear until the second volume was published the next year. Reverend Awdry publish a total of 26 books, averaging one every year, with an additional sixteen written and published by Christopher. The television series that eventually resulted tended to follow these stories almost to the letter, with only minor changes such as revising the dialogue or changing the color of a minor character.
"Axels? Tenders? Who needs 'em? I got enough flowers and
butterflies to make a Disney Princess jealous."

Reverend's Awdry's  artistic ability was limited, and his drawings of the steam engines that would eventually be famous around the world were simple line-drawings with faces sketched on the front.  After publishing his stories, though, he chose his illustrators carefully, and insisted on technical accuracy.  The locomotives in his stories did not simply resemble the shape of railroad equipment, but were based specifically on existing models or, at their most inaccurate, combined features of two different real-life engines. A few examples:



The E2 locomotive--an obscure class until it became the visual
inspiration for Thomas the Tank Engine himself.
 


Henry--AKA a LMS 5MT "Black Five".


The one remaining member of the Caledonian 812 class, and the only running example of ex-CR
locomotive at all--AKA half of the Scottish Twins. I don't know which half, but I defy you to
find a more beautiful steam loco.

Some of the characters, such as Stepney, were bolt-for-bolt importations of locomotives that existed in real life, and on two occasions, locomotives famous beyond railfanning circles--the City of Truro and the Flying Scotsman--visited the Island of Sodor.
The real Stepney.

City of Truro  
Flying Scotsman  



After 36 volumes, the geography, history, and lives of the non-mechanical inhabitants of the Island of Sodor had reached almost Tolkienesque levels. Keeping continuit between so many different stories required making detailed maps of the island and keeping a record of of every physical feature along the tracks.

The Revered Awdry also attempted to make the railroads on Sodor function as realistically as their real-life counterparts.  Many of the stories based their plotlines off of known pitfalls of railroading at the time, such as engines having trouble ascending hills or losing some of their freight cars on the incline, engines accidentally running away without their crews, and different kinds of coal resulting in the engines performing differently.

Often, unusual but true events that the Reverend encountered in newspapers and magazines or was told by railroad employees became Railway Series plotlines in and of themselves. These often became some of the more humorous stories--remember the one where Thomas got a craving for pancakes, or when James got sick after a strong wind spun him on the turntable?--but also made for some harrowing moments in the books and on the show. The scenes of the mechanical characters wrecking and derailing are sad enough on their own, but many of the real accidents these stories were based on claimed human fatalities--14 people died in the real-life version of the The Flying Kipper--or, at the very least, required the locomotives involved to be permanently taken out of service.

That's a blowtorch, and the engine knows it.
Sweet dreams.


By the time the fifth or six Railway Series book was published, the transition away from steam was underway. The Reverend did not shy away from using his stories as a veiled criticism of the British Railways' Modernization plan. Many of the stories enforce a sense of competition, even animosity, between the steam-powered characters and the diesel-powered ones, who know full well that they are the future and the solution to all the inherent drawbacks of steam traction. Some of the stories such as Escape and Donald and Douglas/The Deputation feature characters that have come to Sodor as refugees and state in clear terms that they would have been scrapped--killed--in the same way as all the other steam engines that remained at their previous home. Write that same plotline, but with human characters, and you basically have Schindler' s List.
And the seven words you can't say on the railway are...?

In the early 1980s, the Railway Series was picked up for a television show that was produced by Britt Allcroft and David Mitton. It aired first in the United Kingdom, then was- distributed in United States by PBS. The series was narrated by ex-Beatle Ringo Starr for the original run, then, in arguably one of the oddest casting choices in history, George Carlin redubbed the show for the overseas release and played Mr. Conductor in the PBS spin-off Shining Times Station. 

(Let me just mention here, I refuse to acknowledge the crap computer animated series not based on the books. Ever. **)

For many involved in the production, the production of the Thomas show must have been a dream job. The show was produced entirely with model railroads, on an incredibly large and technically complex layout that occasionally involved scenes with water, snow, and night scenes. Check out some behind-the-scenes videos here, and here. 

With the show, of course, came an incredible array of merchandise. Thomas and his friends have decorated almost every imaginable type of product--from clothes, to bedding,  to bathtub squirters. There were also  number of runs of model trains based on the characters, ranging from children's toys to high-quality electric models designed for professional model railroads. My family counts among its heirlooms an entire plastic tub of well-loved ERTL die-cast models.

I'm knocking on thirty's door, and still look back fondly on the adventures of Thomas and his compatriots, more so than almost any other show I watched as a child. On reflection, it does not stick with me simply because it is a relic of my childhood, or because I was precocious enough to appreciate the show's technical accuracy. The appeal is simple, and timeless: The books and the show were created by people who loved the railroads for what they were. They saw the beauty of the system functioning, cataloged the perils of it breaking down, and understood that even if the locomotives are not literally imbued with souls and consciousness, they do have distinct personalities.

This is what had so endeared us to the short, stumpy engine. Like those fleeting glances of the fire at a locomotive's heart, the creators' passion shines through the plotlines and the illustrations, and no matter the subject, passion is at the heart of any good fictional work.

Images from this article are from Wikicommons, except where noted. Most of the information was sourced from The Railway Series itself, from the show, and from The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank Engine: A Railway Series ReaderIt's a great sight--go read it.

* The entire history of the Island of Sodor is chronicled in  a rare book published by there Reverend,  entitled The Island of Sodor: Its People, History, and Railways.  Christopher Awdry updated events that had happened on the fictional island since 1996 in Sodor: Reading Between the Lines. Additional unpublished information about the island found its way into The Thomas the Tank Engine Man, a biography of Reverend Awdry.
** The Skyrim mod was awesome, though.