Unpacking Thomas the Tank Engine

by Alex Owens

Wooden train tracks used to snake around my living room, their paths constantly changing around the obstacles I created for them. Bound eternally to these small toy tracks were Thomas the Train and his friends. Was I the eternal train overlord? No, I was a kid who really liked trains.

 I remember Thomas the Train themed birthdays growing up and just how excited I was every time I could expand my little train universe just a little. I can’t remember exactly when I grew out of this phase (I am sure glad I did,) and while Thomas was definitely one of the more memorable parts of my early childhood, looking back on the show now brings up a lot of questions about the sanity of children’s television show writers.

All the trains in the show are fully aware that they are alive, specifically, they are aware of their mortality and terrified of death. Yes, the talking trains with humanoid faces can die. In the 2015 origin movie, “The Adventure Begins,” viewers are introduced to Glen, the original number one train. Thomas had replaced him some 30+ years ago and ever since then, Glen was left idle on a siding, unused until overgrown by the surrounding foliage. During these thirty years Glen watched all his friends roll by on the tracks, helpless to move himself and exiled for an eternity from the tracks on which he once ruled. This brings into question the level of autonomy and freedom that these trains have in the first place. Each aspect of their lives is controlled by the tracks they ride on and the places they are directed to go. If Glen was once the number one train before being outclassed by the younger Thomas, how long will it take before the bullet train comes along and relegates our current number one train to the same fate as his predecessor?              

One of the even more disturbing parts of the television series are the junkyards that trains roll right past, seeing leftover train parts littered throughout the area around the tracks. If these trains are truly living beings, this is comparable to seeing an arm or leg on the sidewalk during your morning walk and proceeding to ignore it and continue your path. It gets worse, in the 2009 movie, “Hero of the Rails,” Thomas meets Hero, the oldest engine on the island. When Thomas crosses paths with Hero, he is currently living in the woods, consumed by vines and in abject terror of being sent to the scrap yard. He tells Thomas about what happens to the trains that no longer have a use. (Don’t forget these trains are living, mortal beings) The trains relegated to the scrap yard are ripped apart and burnt alive for their metal. If that isn’t nightmare fuel, I’m not sure what is.