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Literature / The Railway Series

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What Thomas & Friends is based on.

"There was no doubt that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversations they were having with each other: 'I can't do it! I can't do it!' 'Yes you can! Yes you can!'"
The Rev. W. Awdry on the inspiration for the series

The Railway Series is a series of British children's books that started in the mid 1940s by the late Reverend Wilbert Awdry (or Rev. W. Awdry as he’s titled on the books). Originally starting off as small stories to entertain his son Christopher, thanks to a little convincing by his wife, he would go on to publish these stories in a short children’s book called The Three Railway Engines in 1945, kickstarting the series.

The original Railway Series consists of 26 books and ran from 1945 to 1972, in which Wilbert retired afterwards. A decade later, the series resumed under his son, Christopher Vere Awdry, who would go on to write 16 more novels in the series (as well as some additional tie-in stuff) until he also retired in 2011, making up for a whopping 42 books.

Every book contains a small collection of short stories that revolve around a large Ensemble Cast of talking engines owned by the Fat Controller, and the various misadventures they have on the island of Sodor, a fictional island set right in-between Great Britain and the Isle of Man. While most of the books took place on the mainline North Western Railway, later books would showcase several other railways on the island, such as the narrow gauge Skarloey Railway, The miniature Arlesdale Railway and the mountain Culdee Fell Railway, each with their own cast of unique engines and misadventures separated from the mainline railway.

The books have become beloved for not only their witty writing, utterly gorgeous artwork and the memorable cast of characters, but for how mundane and grounded they are in spite of the talking engines, with Wilbert and Christopher Awdry taking great measures to ensure everything about the engines and the railways they ran on are as accurate and close to real life as possible. They have even gone as far as to use real-life train incidents as the basis for several stories, with later books often commenting on the railway privatization and subsequent dieselisation that was rapidly occurring on railways across the UK at the time of their writing. Thus, the books have gathered a large following amongst railway fans and adult readers, on top of children.

However, what the series is undeniably most famous for, and arguably the reason why most today are even remotely familiar with the books at all, is that they would become the basis for the hugely popular and successful television show by Britt Allcroft, Thomas & Friends, which began airing in 1984. While the books and the show shared a relatively close relationship early on, with Christopher even writing at least one novel for the show to adapt stories from, due to displeasure with the show’s increasing detachment from the novel’s grounded roots in favor of more outlandish scenarios after season 3, the Awdry family began to distance themselves from the show and the two would ultimately split and go down their own separate tracks after the early 1990s.

See the Recap page for a list of the individual books.

The books contain examples of:

  • Achilles in His Tent: The Sad Story of Henry. Gordon, James and Henry try to invoke it in Troublesome Engines, but it backfires on them.
  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: A few examples:
    • Thomas becomes a bit stuck-up after he gets his branchline.
    • Percy becomes arrogant after braving the stormy weather.
    • Oliver becomes flattered by the remarks of the other engines about his escape from scrap.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The Skarloey Railway events borrow heavily from the real life history of the Talyllyn Railway, but comparing them to historic books on the real railway (such as Railway Adventure) shows a few changes that are especially noticeable in Four Little Engines and Gallant Old Engine.
    • The events of "Old Faithful" and "Gallant Old Engine" split the incidents as having happened on both Skarloey and Rheneas. On the real Talyllyn Railway both events happened with Dolgoch (Rheneas's real life counterpart) and were only weeks if not days apart from each other.
    • Sir Haydn had multiple derailments on the Talyllyn before it was finally decided to side-line the engine. Even the addition of "steamroller wheels" on the trailing bogie wasn't able to help Sir Haydn function well, and it took a full track maintenance program to finally bring the Talyllyn's track to good enough condition to allow the engine to run reliably. In comparison Sir Handel in the books only has one big derailment, and is never seen out of the action for a long time with his "steamroller wheels" seemingly a good enough fix for the railway.
    • Edward Thomas (the real life counterpart to Peter Sam) and Dolgoch were the primary engines of the 1952 season on the Talyllyn running alongside each other. In the books by this point Rheneas was already depicted as having been sent away from repairs and it's implied Peter Sam and Sir Handel don't get to really know him until his return. As well to depict Peter Sam as a reliable runner (which nevertheless did reflect Edward Thomas' general reliability as a workhorse), Awdry glosses over some of the major derailments the real Edward Thomas endured during this era.
  • Alliterative Name: Jeremiah Jobling, who is forced to surrender his leather bootlaces to make an emergency repair when James treats the coaches roughly.
  • All of the Other Reindeer:
    • Edward often gets teased by the other engines (mainly Gordon, James, and Henry) for being old.
    • Thomas initially gets this due to him being self-important and cheeky.
    • Duck gets this from the other engines, though he really brought it on himself with his constant harping on about the inherent superiority of the Great Western Railway above all others.
    • Peter Sam was subject of this due to his broken funnel, and then his special one until its usefulness was shown.
    • Sir Handel gets this for his wheels, although these make him egotistical.
  • All There in the Manual:
    • The books The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, Sodor: Reading Between the Lines and The Thomas the Tank Engine Man explain between them pretty much everything about the series. What's amazing is how much history there is, from the formation of Sudric kingdoms all the way up to the modern era.
    • The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum in Tywyn, Wales (at the Talyllyn Railway the real life inspiration for the Skarloey Railway), has many of Awdry's notes and models in their collection. Meaning that even more information about the Railway Series has been coming out as the museum has been publishing Awdry's notes. The very impressive Narrow Gauge Rails in Sodor lecture pieced together from Awdry's private notes and shared publicly in 2021 contains plenty of lore tidbits for fans.
    • Several characters who are not mentioned in the books but were on Awdry's model railroad exist. Among them is Bloomer a vintage locomotive used on Thomas's branchline for enthusiast specials, and several Mid Sodor Railway locomotives. In the case of the Mid Sodor Railway, Awdry's need for having more locomotives on his model railroad than those mentioned in the books was for practical reasons; as the motors in small model trains at the time were often faulty, and when book characters like Falcon, Stuart or Duke failed Awdry needed a replacement to continue running the model layout at exhibitions... leading to very underdeveloped characters such as Tim or Jim being kept as spare locomotives for the job.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Most of the troublesome trucks.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: The big engines think the "verra wee engines" (Rex, Mike, and Bert) are some sort of magic, despite the fact they met small engines before (e.g., the Skarloey engines). Granted, Donald and Douglas' Scottish accents probably didn't help.
  • Art Evolution:
    • Across four different official illustrators. The style of C Reginald Dalby (1945-1956), the first, was rather sunny and miniature-like, though his disinterest in consistency and technical details led to disagreements with Awdry. John Kenney's (1957-1962) style was more realistic and dynamic, and often painted from life or photo-reference. Peter and Gunvor Edwards' (1963-1972) work resembled Kenny's, but with greater emphasis on landscape and weather, and an impressionist influence. Clive Spong's (1983-present) work features landscapes about as picturesque as Dalby's, but with Kenney's eye for accuracy and detail.
    • Among individual artists:
      • Despite Dalby's reputation for sunny, idyllic toy-train-box scenery for Sodor, the books in the latter half of his tenure feature some beautifully atmospheric art with more of the technical detail and verisimilitude the Reverend asked for, particularly his last two.
      • Clive Spong's illustrations for his first novel "Really Useful Engines" and some early tie-in books used a more cartoony style reminiscent of Dalby's and the TV adaptation, especially concerning the engine's facial expressions. Afterwards a more realistic, detailed design took over that still maintained the colors of Dalby's work.
      • John Kenney by contrast, started off detailed and realistic but became slightly more etchy and simplistic as time went on (allegedly due to failing eyesight which eventually led to his retirement). This is most evident with his designs for the engines' faces, which became much more cartoony and simplistic after his first couple of books (to the point of codifying some of the funny expressions used for the TV series models).
  • As Himself: Whereas the Engines of Sodor have their own names, engines from "The Other Railway" (British Railways, on mainland Britain), are referred to by their real-life names. For example City of Truro, Flying Scotsman, and Mallard.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The Welsh-sounding name of Ffarquhar (The town where Thomas' branch line terminates) is in fact derived from "Far-away quarry".
  • Audio Adaptation: Several audiobooks of the novels have been made in the past, with narration provided by the likes of Johnny Morris, Willie Rushton, Ted Robbins, Sir John Gielgud and even an early one by Rev. W Awdry himself. The TV series narrator Michael Angelis also did multiple audiobooks of both the original novels and the show's retelling.
  • Author Avatar: The Thin Clergyman in the original book series was Awdry, with another railway buff friend, The Rev Teddy Boston, as the Fat Clergyman.
    • The company which drained the bog around Knapford in the Island of Sodor book is named "A. W. Dry & Co."
  • Barsetshire: The whole fictional setting of the Island of Sodor (which is supposed to be just west of the Cumbrian and Lancastrian coast and to the east of the Isle of Man). "Sodor" is an ecclesiastical in-joke — the real world Church of England Diocese of Sodor and Man now covers the Isle of Man and a few tiny islets in the vicinity, which led Awdry to imagine an "Isle of Sodor". "Sodor" was actually the Norse name for what are now the Western Isles of Scotland.
    • As Awdry himself notes in The Island of Sodor reference book: "We [the Reverend and his brother George] would, we felt, be doing the Bishop and his successors a kindness by restoring the other half of their diocese to them!"
  • Battle Couple: Sigrid of Arlesdale and her husband Orm in The Island of Sodor reference book fighting off Norman invaders. The local legends and legacy they left behind is explained as part of the tourist appeal of the Mid Sodor Railway and later the Arlesdale.
  • Berserk Button: A few examples.
    • Don't make Gordon pull trucks. The same applies to Sir Handel.
    • Don't remind James of any of his accidents (e.g., the bootlace incident). Also, don't threaten to paint him blue (which, by the way, led to said bootlace incident).
    • Don't compare Duck's Motor Mouth to a quacking duck. Also, do NOT insult or belittle the Great Western Railway.
    • Don't call Toby an electric tram, as the granddaughter of the Stout Gentleman (actually the Fat Controller) does.
      Granddaughter: But trams are electric, aren't they?
      Stout gentleman: They are mostly, but this is a steam tram.
    • Don't make fun of Donald and Douglas' whistles as Gordon and Henry found out. And don't threaten Douglas in Donald's presence (or the other way round for that matter). Just ask The Spiteful Brake Van.
    • Don't refer to Daisy as "feeble".
    • While the troublesome trucks play tricks on you for their amusement, they'll also do it to you when you order them around or bump them.
    • Don't bump the coaches or they might bump you off the rails. Just ask Sir Handel.
    • Don't threaten anyone with scrapping.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Thomas started out as one in his Character Arc. The same goes for Percy. Bill and Ben are always this as BoCo points out how they can be maddening at times.
  • Breakout Character: Thomas was a popular character after Book 2, but was only the focus of a few books before the TV series. After that, a good chunk of the books focused on his adventures alone.
  • Break the Haughty: A recurring trend in Awdry's stories is that whenever an engine become boastful and full of themselves, they will end up getting into an accident or an humiliating situation that will humble them. Gordon, James, and Thomas are common examples.
  • British Stuffiness: Played with, although many characters such as Gordon or Duke meet the stereotype to the letter; many Sudrians themselves while proudly British would take great offense if they were mistaken for being English not unlike how some Welsh or Scottish citizens might view themselves in the real world.
  • Bully Hunter: Duck and Percy stood up against the trio of Gordon, Henry, and James who were heckling the little engines in "Duck Takes Charge".
  • Bullying the Dragon: The troublesome trucks will often find out that messing with engines like Duck, Donald, and Douglas is a big mistake.
  • Can't You Read the Sign?: Several characters face the consequences of ignoring signs.
    • In Down the Mine, Thomas sets out to disobey a sign saying "Danger: Engines must not pass this board". He ends up... down the mine, whose roof is not strong enough to hold the weight of an engine.
    • In Percy takes the Plunge, Percy sees a sign at the quay simply marked "Danger". Thomas tells him that "Danger" means falling down something, telling of how he fell down the mine. When Percy sneaks past it, he finds that the rails slope steeply down to the sea, where he ends up.
    • Bulgy the double-decker bus ends up wedged under a low bridge. Although not referred to in the text, a "low bridge" sign is visible in the original illustration.
  • Cast Herd: The extensive cast is broken down by their rail guage and what railway they regularly work on.
    • The standard gauge engines are split between the Main Line engines, those that work on the branchlines assosiated with Thomas, Edward and Duck.
    • In the other guages there are the Skarloey engines, the Culdee Fell engines and the Small railway engines.
  • Christmas Episode: A few stories are Christmas-themed, including "Mrs Kyndley's Christmas" and "Thomas and the Missing Christmas Tree".
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: A few background characters in the earlier books appeared in a few illustrations, and were then phased out once Awdry had a more solid cast in mind.
  • Circus Episode: In "Henry and the Elephant", the circus comes to the Island of Sodor. The engines have a wonderful time pulling the train, until it is time for the circus to leave. It is later revealed that an elephant escaped from the circus and is hiding in Henry's Tunnel, and it's up to Henry, his crew, and the elephant's keeper to get the elephant back.
  • Comically Lopsided Rivalry: Common in the series. Smart, hardworking engines such as Edward, Toby and Duck always have the last laugh on arrogant, reckless ones such as Henry, Gordon and James.
  • Conlang: Sudric, the native language of Sodor, will be instantly recognisable to a speaker of the Gaelic languages (Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx) as a close relative of Manx, with more influence from English (including occasional English word order) and a smattering of Viking/Cumbrian vocabulary, since Sodor is closer to the mainland than Man.
  • Continuity Snarl: The story of Godred, an arrogant mountain engine who violently derailed and was subsequently cannibalized for parts (based off of the real-world story of Ladas), is a rather confusing affair. The original book, Mountain Engines states that Culdee made the entire story up to scare Sir Handel and Duncan. Yet the various companion books treat the entire incident as a fact, as evidenced by the lack of a No. 1 engine on the CFR. It's further confounded by some of the tie-in magazine stories, which have Godred alive and well, completely recovered from the accident.
  • Cool Train: Need we explain this?
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Oliver in "Toad Stands By".
  • Darker and Edgier: Book 13, Duck and the Diesel Engine, began to introduce the concept of Diesels and their takeover of steam, symbolizing that all was not well on Sodor. Further books such as The Twin Engines and Stepney the Bluebell Engine continued this story by introducing scrapping. Enterprising Engines, considered the darkest of all the stories, brought to light the end of Steam elsewhere but on Sodor. Following books, however, got back to the happy adventures, except for Duke The Lost Engine which has some darker elements thrown in.
  • A Day in the Limelight: All of the main engines got a book to themselves at some point.
  • Depending on the Writer: While the Awdrys generally tried to keep a consistent world and characterisation in the books, there were some differences in storytelling. While Wilbert Awdry's writing tended to be relatively more character driven and focus on parables about the engines' personalities, Christopher Awdry's work tended to be more procedural and focus more primarily on railway code.
  • Defector from Decadence: The nice diesels are often this, but the most notable example is Bear (né D7101) in Enterprising Engines.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Many examples, most famously in "Thomas and Gordon:"
    "He had six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome."
  • Determinator: A popular plot thread. Skarloey in Old Faithful, Rheneas in Gallant Old Engine, Edward in Edward's Exploit, Bertie in Bertie's Chase, Percy in Percy's Promise...
    • Used by the steam engines in arguments with diesels: they may not be efficient or modern, but they get the job done.
  • Doesn't Trust Those Guys: Gordon tells the others in "Domeless Engines" to "never trust domeless engines; they're not respectable." Guess what happens to Gordon.
    • This also happens many a times with the steam engines and diesels after their first encounter with one in Duck and the Diesel Engine
  • Dress Code: Unlike the TV series. The NWR livery is blue, with red lining. Edward, Gordon and Thomas remained this colour, but the other characters were repainted into their trademark unique colours shortly into the series. The Skarloey railway is red (with the exceptions of Rusty, Duke and presumably Fred), and the Culdee Fell engines purple.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: In later editions of The Three Railway Engines, the engine who tries to push Henry out of the tunnel bears a striking likeness to James.
    • The engine was actually intended to be James, but when fans pointed out the Series Continuity Error (James' first day was in "Thomas The Tank Engine" where he was painted black), Awdry retconned the engine into a separate character (given several names by fans, including Eagle, Simon, David, and Winston).
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: In abundance:
    • In the first five books, Thomas was the only engine with a number. This was, according to Wordof God, because his number was the easiest to draw. Everyone else only received a number later on, starting in Henry's book.
    • There was a huge presence of generic engines, particularly in 'The Three Railway Engines' in which the shed is occupied by a large red engine and two blue tender engines. In James the Red Engine, James is heckled by a tank engine for his incident with the bootlace. Although this tank engine is unseen in the original book, he appears in a pop-up book retelling of 'Troublesome Trucks', in which he is portrayed as a green saddle tank and looks similar to Percy.
    • Henry was painted blue at the end of The Three Railway Engines, but following Dalby's constant illustration errors, he was repainted green at the beginning of Troublesome Engines.
    • The North Western Railway's geography was inconsistent at times. In "James and the Top Hat", Edward and James overshoot the platform at a station between Tidmouth and Knapford. This station is never seen or mentioned again. Errors like these actually get explained away in The Island Of Sodor, where they’re put down to simple illustrator errors, often with complaints from “real” Sudrians!
  • Emergency Transformation: After Henry's crash in The Flying Kipper, The Fat Controller uses the oppertunity to not only get the sickly and poor-steaming Henry repaired, but completely overhauled so he's basically a new engine by the time he's back on Sodor.
  • Enemy Mine: The trucks cooperate with Percy when it means shutting up Bulstrode the barge.
    • In a more positive example, writing "Edward, Gordon, and Henry" (the story that establishes said engines as all being on the same railway and gets Henry out of the tunnel) was the condition the publishers set before the Reverend for getting the original book, "The Three Railway Engines" published.
  • Ensemble Cast: The series gave individual novels to many engines and even different railways, and while many appeared more so than others, there was never a definite lead character.
  • Expy Coexistence: The Skarloey Railway and its engines are based on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, and Skarloey and Rheneas frequently talk about their twins on the mainland (ie: the real engines they're based on).
  • Extreme Omni-Goat: In The Three Railway Engines, a goat eats the Fat Controller's hat for its tea.
  • Fantastic Racism: The steam and diesel engines began resembling this, but it died down after some friendly diesels joined the railway. Taken to its extreme in James and the Diesel Engines, in which James is the only engine to still hold a grudge until in the last story "Deep Freeze".
  • Fantasy World Map: The Reverend and his brother spent a good ten years mapping out the Island of Sodor.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • The assorted vehicles can't die unless they're scrapped. They will live as long as their bodies are intact, conscious of the passing of time, even if abandoned in caves. Case in point, Bulstrode the Barge, who was left on a beach to rot after being crushed by a truck accident. Awdry makes light of the fact that he's probably still grumbling now, years and years later.
    • Then there's Stanley, a cocky American train who was punished by having his wheels taken off and being turned into a pumping engine.
  • Feud Episode: The quarrel between Thomas and Percy in the book More About Thomas The Tank Engine. Also Skarloey and Rheneas in their younger years in "Stick-in-the-Mud".
  • The Freelance Shame Squad: The engines are often shown laughing or smirking whenever another has an accident or other humiliating incidents, no matter how dire.
  • The Gadfly: Most of the Fat Controller's engines have gadfly tendencies. Thomas during his Bratty Half-Pint days was particularly so, with a hobby of quietly creeping up on dozing big engines, waking them up suddenly, and then running off laughing. And in general, they all love pushing other engines' buttons and winding them up.
  • Generation Xerox: The Hatt family. The "Fat Controller" is actually three generations of controller with the name "Topham Hatt". The youngest, Stephen, appears in Toby the Tram Engine as that Fat Controller's grandson.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • In "Thomas and the Breakdown Train", the Breakdown Train contains "two queer things his Driver called cranes."
    • The opening message for Toby's debut states that he is a "funny little engine with a queer shape".
    • In "Ballast", Duck passes under a chute, on top of which stand "some queer-looking trucks".
  • Iconic Sequel Character: See Breakout Character. Thomas The Tank Engine didn't appear until the second book of The Railway Series. James, Percy and Toby also appeared in later books.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each of the first 31 installments included the word "engine(s)" in the title. The tradition was finally broken with Toby, Trucks and Trouble, although it does show up again a few times afterwards.
  • I Have Many Names: The Fat Controller in particular has also been called "The Fat Director", "Sir Topham Hatt" and "The Stout Gentleman". Sir Handel and Peter Sam, being called Falcon and Stuart in their Mid Sodor days respectively, also fall into this category.
  • Insidious Rumor Mill: In "Dirty Work" Diesel holds a grudge against Duck, who pulled a prank on him on his first day to cease his bragging. In a more savvy case of this trope, Diesel tells rumors about the other engines to the trucks, claiming Duck had told him. As Diesel anticipated, the trucks have no qualms getting Duck in trouble and torment the other engines with using what Diesel told them. Things seem to go as planned at first, with the other engines shunning Duck as the source of their issues and the Fat Controller sending Duck off the main line to stop the arguing, but the Fat Controller catches onto Diesel's plan and later catches him in the act, this time spreading lies about Henry.
  • Ironic Echo: Awdry apparently loved using this trope. Whenever an engine says something to another and ends up in a predicament, the other engine repeats the phrase back to the originator (ex. Toby telling Daisy about bulls running if you look them in the eye).
    • Gordon thinks Henry whistles too much, and says "It isn't wrong, but we just don't do it". When his own whistle is jammed on, this phrase is repeated.
    • Gordon also says "Never trust domeless engines; they aren't respectable". He then loses his own dome, and of course, someone has to whisper it at the end.
  • Is There a Doctor in the House?: Played straight in "Mrs Kyndley's Christmas". When Thomas' train passes the lonely cottage belonging to the elderly Mrs Kyndley, one rainy day they see what looks like a large red flag hanging from a window. Suspecting that Mrs Kyndley needs help, the guard is told to check if a doctor is on the train. It turns out that Mrs Kyndley hung a red dressing gown there to warn them of a landslide ahead.
  • Jerkass:
    • As their name implies, the troublesome trucks. The ballast trucks are said to be the worst behaved trucks on the line.
    • There's also the diesels who are haughty and prejudiced against steam engines.
    • Even engines like Sir Handel and Duncan can be this at their worst.
  • Jerk Jock: Gordon, James, and Henry have this sort of personality. They are the main line engines, but often bully and heckle the other engines whom they think aren't as good as them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: A number of engines are this. Gordon, Henry, Thomas, and James. Also Duncan after his Character Development. Christopher Awdry wrote one stand-alone story where he brings Diesel back as one of these.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: The troublesome trucks often play tricks on an engine who was being mean or arrogant to others (e.g., James in "Dirty Objects" and Diesel in "Pop Goes The Diesel"). Either way, it doesn't matter which engine they play tricks on as long as they enjoy it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: This occurs almost every single time. Whenever there's an engine who is being either rude, arrogant, or stubborn, they will get themselves into an unfortunate mishap or accident, along with receiving ridicule from the other engines. This often causes the engine to become nicer and wise enough to not make the same mistakes again.
  • Lazy Artist: C. Reginald Dalby. He could have easily gone down to the station near his house to see real engines to base his illustrations on, or he could have looked at photographs, but he didn't. He couldn't be bothered to be keep engines' proportions consistent (resulting in Percy eventually looking like, as Awdry put it, "a green caterpillar with red stripes") or even keep track of how many wheels he drew Henry with. This was the reason for Henry's rebuild — Awdry had to have him rebuilt as a specific real class of locomotive so that he could send Dalby reference photos.
  • Legacy Character: The Fat Controller. Between Books 9 and 11 ("Edward the Blue Engine" and "Percy the Small Engine"), the first one retires and the second, Charles Topham Hatt, becomes Controller. The third Fat Controller, Stephen (who appeared as a child in "Toby the Tram Engine"), takes over in the Time Skip between the last of Wilbert's books and the first of Christopher's books.
  • Long Runner: Book 1 was published in 1945, Book 42 was published in 2011.
  • Lost Food Grievance: Multiple times through-out the series. When the Flying Kipper collision with Henry happens the guard in the other train complains about losing their cocoa in the crash. When Thomas crashes into the station master's house the stationmaster's wife complains about her spoiled breakfast. While at the National Railway Museum at York, Thomas also collides into a sandwich bag accidentally dropped on the tracks and causing it to spray out a can of soda that was inside it.
  • Low Clearance: The arrogant double-decker bus Bulgy gets wedged under a low railway bridge, while trying to take a short cut.
  • MacGyvering: "James and the Bootlace" sees James' Driver and Fireman mending a leak in the brake line with newspapers secured in place with a leather bootlace borrowed from a reluctant passenger.
  • Magic Realism: The only concrete fantasy element is that the engines and other vehicles possess personalities, a close second would be the times the unpredictable real-life mannerisms of a steam engine influence the writing's showcase of their ability to move. Otherwise the events of the series are entirely mundane and realistic, with the plots of each story being based on real-life incidents on Britain's railways drawn from Rev Awdry's large archive and collected anecdotes. Likewise, the island of Sodor is neither magic nor another dimension, but a completely mundane island between Cumbria and Man with a plausible invented history.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: Awdry stated that the North Western Railway had over 80 engines, of whom the reader has only met maybe two dozen.
  • Malicious Slander: Diesel uses this to try and get rid of Duck. Gordon, Henry and James are fooled, but not the Fat Controller, and Diesel ends up exposed and sent packing when he tries to slander Henry.
  • Market-Based Title: The Island of Sodor reference book in its introduction refers to the main Railway Series as The Engine Series for some reason.
  • Men Act, Women Are: A common criticism of the books was that most of the female characters were coaches, while all of the male characters were engines (meaning that the females were incapable of doing anything unless they were being towed along by a male). Awdry senior began rectifying this later in the series with the introduction of Daisy and Mavis, an effort continued by Christopher with Pip and Emma.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter:
    • Humorously in The Island of Sodor source book, a censored expletive laden rant from Sir Topham Hatt is included in the text as he expresses his frustrations with receiving Henry and not the Atlantic locomotive he originally wanted. Albeit censored, it marks one of the few uses of profanity in the entire series.
    • It's a railway after all (one that serves many mines and shipping docks too) there has to be many Sir Swears-a-Lot characters who are being censored for the audience! Peter Sam outright says that Duncan has "strong language" for his past factory; Stepney later says the same for Captain Baxter, who worked in a quarry.
  • Never My Fault: The Engines are being blamed for Human error. A common example includes Thomas being blamed for crashing into the stationmaster's house even though it was a cleaner that carelessly fiddled with his controls. Awdry wrote the stories like this because he was afraid that if the human characters did get blamed for their mistakes, it would make real railway personnel look bad. It gives the uncomfortable implication that the engines are slaves who are scapegoated for the mistakes of the railwaymen simply because the engines can't object under threat of death.
  • Never Say "Die": Averted, big time. Starting as early as Henry The Green Engine, Sir Topham nearly replaced Henry with another engine. More blatant examples come up further in the series. Trevor was saved from scrap by Edward, Donald had to smuggle Douglas from Scotland to save his life, Stepney was rescued along with his other friends, and Oliver, Isabel and Toad were later saved by Douglas, along with three other coaches, Alice, Mirabel and Dulcie, and Victoria was restored from scrapyard condition. Sir Handel and Peter Sam also got a bad image that Duke was scrapped too, (luckily, that wasn't the case, and he was restored as well). Godred and Stanley weren't so lucky however, and Fred was built from two old diesels. And various background characters are scrapped as well.
    • As far as human characters are concerned, the Duke of Sodor (Duke's namesake) is outright stated to have been killed during the war, whilst the Thin Clergyman is stated to have now died in the final book of the series.
  • Never Trust a Title: In 1996, a compilation of the books was released titled Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection. However, it is a bit misleading, as although it does contain the entirety of the original Railway Series books by Wilbert as aforementioned, it does not contain the later Railway Series books by Christopher Awdry, so technically, it is not a complete collection like the title indicates. All the later books (except for Thomas and his Friends, as it wasn’t published at the time) were instead put into a separate compilation book in 2007 in the form of Thomas the Tank Engine: The New Collection.
  • Nice Guy: Some examples include Edward, Toby, and BoCo.
  • Nice, Mean, and In-Between:
    • Thomas, Percy, and Toby. Toby is nice and respectful, Thomas is cheeky and arrogant, (although he became nicer and kind-hearted later on), and Percy mediates between the two where he can be nice, but has moments of being cheeky like Thomas.
    • Gordon, James, and Henry. Henry is nicer and more sympathetic than the other two while James is more vain and arrogant than Gordon, who occasionally shows his soft and humble side more than James does.
    • Before James came along, there was the trio of Edward, Henry, and Gordon from The Three Railway Engines. Edward is nice and friendly, Gordon is pompous and haughty, and Henry is in between where he was remorseful of his selfish behavior of not wanting to come out of the tunnel.
    • On the Mid Sodor Line, Falcon/Sir Handel Duke and Stuart/Peter Sam. Peter Sam is very bubbly, cheerful and near impossible not to get along with. Sir Handel has quite a temper and you have to have a lot of patience to get along with him. Duke however, may be wise and kind, but is also a bit grumpy. Quite the contrast to Skarloey and Rheanes.
  • Noisy Shut-Up: In "James and the Express" from James the Red Engine, an angry mob of passengers is demanding their money back over a cancelled train. The Fat Controller quells the noise by standing on a trolley and blowing the guard's whistle as loudly as he can, before promising them a new train.
  • No Sympathy: This happens quite a lot. Whenever an engine gets in unpleasant situation, this will lead them to get teased or scoffed at. However, this mistreatment of the engine depends on whether the engine receiving this treatment had brought it upon themselves due to their misbehavior, or whether the engine expressing their lack of sympathy to another was being rude for its own sake, in which case something will likely lead them to get A Taste of Their Own Medicine shortly afterwards.
    • Henry received this treatment from the engines following his increasing illness. Other engines usually ignored his moaning until he started affecting their own work schedule (Thomas in particular chewed out Henry for making him late, and only saw his ill bout as an opportunity to pull his train in his place), and even began believing he was faking it to get out of work. Only his crew and Sir Topham Hatt showed concern for his health and took measures to repair him, leading him to get the last laugh on some of the apathetic engines from before when he starts to outclass them.
    • Thomas often displays this treatment towards engines who were late for his passenger trains, much like the example with Henry as mentioned above.
  • No True Scotsman: The Island of Sodor reference book makes it clear that Sudrians are extremely protective of their national identity. Although most are bilingual (and the railway events are always shown speaking English), many Sudrians will claim they can't speak English and slip into Sudrian just to take the piss out of other Brits, especially the English.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The policeman in "Thomas in Trouble", who causes the Fat Controller to mutter that it's no use arguing with policemen. On his meeting with Thomas:
    Policeman: Where is your cow-catcher?
    Thomas: But I don't catch cows, sir.
    Policeman: Don't be funny! (Looks at Thomas's wheels) No side plates, either! Engines going on public roads must have their wheels covered, and a cow-catcher in front. You haven't, so you are Dangerous to the Public.
    Thomas's Driver: Rubbish. We've been along here hundreds of times, and there's never been an accident.
    Policeman: That makes it worse. (Writes "Regular Law-Breaker" in his notebook)
  • Offscreen Karma:
    • In "Old Iron", two boys were fiddling with James' controls. After this, they have been "soundly walloped" by their fathers.
    • Also in "A Close Shave", The Fat Controller informed Duck that he realized Diesel's lies and sent him packing to the other railway.
  • One-Gender Race: All of the coaches and trucks are females and males respectively, with the exception of the Culdee Fell Railway's truck, who is a female.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with the name Bert; there are at least three Berts who appear in the series: a cleaner who has to wash down Gordon in "Leaves", a porter at the station in "Buzz, Buzz", and of course Bert the Small Railway engine.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: Try reading about the history of King Godred or Jarl Sigrid, the church houses on Sodor, the rebellion against the Cromwell's Roundheads, the engineering works to clear the island or the history of local mead labels in The Island of Sodor without forgetting this is still a series about talking trains.
  • Pint-Sized Kid: Rex, Mike and Bert, as minimum-gauge engines with some of the more fiery personalities in the stories. Frank and Jock would later join them.
  • Police Are Useless: A humorous example, but The Island of Sodor book makes it clear the constable who threatened Thomas was extremely heavy handed and hated in Ffarquhar for his zealous enforcement of the law. The local pub "The Toby's Jug" renamed itself to just "The Toby" after the locomotive of the same name startled said constable with his whistle once, and the pub in the engine's honor painted the locomotive onto their signage just to continue taunting the constable about how he was scared by a train! The constable ultimately got his come-uppance when he ticketed a group of cars parked outside a church on Sunday, not realizing that they belonged to the vicar, the local quarry owner, the chief of the local Bench of Magistrates, and his own Sergeant.
    • On route to York to visit the National Railway Museum, Thomas is badly damaged and has to travel the final leg on a flatbed lorry. While parked in York trying to find directions to the museum, Thomas watches as a local cop writes a parking ticket and fines the driver for illegal parking!
    • Averted if one considers the Bad Days for Thomas and His Friends books canon to the RWS. Policeman Len is very on the nose concerning railway safety and is depicted in a much more positive light. For a true canon example, the policeman who stops Sir Handel and George's respective drivers from beating each other up after their accident.
  • Recurring Extra: The Works Diesel, a BR Class 47 who has appeared, unnamed, since Book 28, but is described by the other engines as friendly.
  • Recycled Premise:
    • "Edward and Gordon" is strikingly similar to The Little Engine That Could. Both engines are even blue.
    • Mrs. Kyndley's Christmas is likewise similar to the passage in The Railway Children in which the children save a train from a landslide by waving flags made of red petticoats. Mrs. Kyndley even faints, just like Bobbie did.
  • Refuse to Rescue the Disliked: Engines will hold grudges and refuse to help out those that insulted them, until they're reminded that there's more on the line than their squabbles.
    • In "Rock 'n' Roll" from The Little Old Engine, Rusty is called to help Duncan back on the rails, but refuses to do it because Duncan was rude to him and called him a "smelly old diesel". Skarloey then scolds Rusty for this and reminds him of the passengers, and soon Rusty does so. In the end, Rusty and Duncan became good friends.
    • In "Stick in the Mud" from Very Old Engines, Rheneas is asked to help Skarloey after he was stuck in the mud, but refuses to rescue Skarloey after the latter insulted him. What convinces him to help is that Mr. Bobbie and the quarry men are still in danger.
    • In "Mavis" from Tramway Engines, after the title character gets stuck on the line after ignoring Toby's warnings about the trucks, he refuses to help her. When his driver points out that the trucks are technically his responsibility, however, he "thoughtfully" decides to go after all.
    • In "Drip Tank" from More About Thomas The Tank Engine, Percy refuses to help Thomas out of an accident with his water tank because he called him a "drip", but his driver reminds him of the passengers' safety. He soon comes to Thomas' rescue, thus ending their bitter falling out throughout the whole book.
  • Rightly Self-Righteous: Some of the competent hard-working engines like Duck, Donald, Douglas, and Skarloey can often be smug and heckling to the other arrogant or badly-behaved engines. Usually, any attempts to ignore or belittle them only lead to a karmic accident or humiliation.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The stories were mostly based on real life railway events. This also became the series' undoing in the 90s and 00s, thanks to both Awdrys' insistence on portraying realistic railway operations: with no revenue steam services left in the UK and revenue and heritage railways alike subject to strict safety regulations, they began to run out of stories to adapt.
  • Running Gag: People endangered by the engine's antics will inevitably focus on the silliest possible detriment of the disaster, like the station master's wife being infuriated that she has to remake breakfast rather than Thomas just about destroying their house.
  • Screaming Plane Baby: At the National Railway Museum in York to celebrate his growing popularity from Thomas & Friends, Thomas accidentally runs over a sandwich bag dropped on the tracks. The hiss of steam from applying his brakes, with the soda spray and food debris coming from the popping bag scare the little children present, and one begins to cry to go home. One of the mothers in the crowd begins to verbally lecture Thomas over it!
  • Sequel Hook: The Fat Controller says in Wilbert the Forest Engine that if Wilbert performs well, he knows where to find another engine like him.
  • Shout-Out: The Non-Standard-Gauge railways on Sodor are based on real life ones. The Skarloey railway is based on the Talyllyn railway, the small railway is based on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway and the Culdee Fell is based on the Snowdon mountain railway.
    • Most of the standard gauge engines are based on real-life prototypes. Toby's former branch line, in particular, was based on the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway, where his prototype operated until the 1950s.
    • The title for Thomas And His Friends was most likely a shout out to the television series.
  • Shown Their Work: Both the Reverend and his son are devoted Trainspotters, and it shows.
  • Show Within a Show: The story Museum-Piece makes an offhand mention of Thomas & Friends, establishing that the TV show exists in The Railway Series universe and Thomas's popularity from it is why he is invited to visit the National Railway Museum.
  • Sinister Minister: A humorous one at that from the Island of Sodor reference book, James Catherick who attempts to destroy the Celtic-era stone cross at Crosby due to feeling it is an engraved idol. The Sodor locals steal the cross at night and hide it before Catherick can return with a group of "godly" mercenaries to destroy it. There is much celebration when Catherick is sent packing from town shortly afterwards and the new vicar helps to re-install the stone cross in the church yard. Catherick's body is ultimately returned to and buried at Crosby after his death, ensuring his story remains a local legend.
  • Skewed Priorities: Happens a lot on Sodor.
    • The fireman who got annoyed at Henry for spilling his hot chocolate instead of crashing into the back of the Brake Van and almost killing him.
    • The Painter that got angry at Henry for spilling his paint rather than making him lose his balance on the ladder.
    • The Barber that got angry with Duck for frightening his customers rather than crashing into the Barber shop which may have endangered the lives of said customers.
    • The Signalman that got annoyed with Donald for jamming his points and not endangering his life.
    • The Station Master's wife who chewed out Thomas for ruining her and her family's breakfast instead of crashing into the house and endangering the life of her family.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: A recurring character trait for several engines, but particularly Gordon, James and Sir Handel. Thomas also became one though was eventually toned down a little under Christopher Awdry's pen.
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: Percy The Small Engine, and even more so in Thomas & Friends. While occasionally insightful, Percy is naive and childishly innocent, so often plays the Likeable Moron to several more experienced but arrogant engines such as James or Gordon (Thomas was also his most frequent Smart Jerk until having Took a Level in Kindness, and gaining enough Cloud Cuckoo Lander points to border him as a Likable Moron himself).
  • Space Whale Aesop: Don't be reckless or put yourself into dangerous situations or you might have your body parts used to heal your sick friends.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Due to pressure from publishers to tie in with the TV series, many later books were rotated around Thomas and his branch line.
  • Steam Never Dies: Not on Sodor, at any rate. Due to the degree of operating independence given to the North Western Railway under British Rail the mass-dieselization order did not apply, and since the railway is still turning a decent profit after Privatization the Fat Controller sees no reason to change things — especially given the years of hard work the engines have all put in.
  • Stern Controller: Every controller or manager of the railways are very strict and will severely reprimand their engines if they get into trouble which is mostly caused by their arrogance or carelessness.
  • Stupid Crooks: The thieves from "Stop Thief!".
  • Take That!
    • In one story, Thomas refers to Percy as a "green caterpillar with red stripes". This was the exact wording that the Reverend used when he reacted poorly to earlier illustrations of Percy by Reginald Dalby. Dalby didn't take it too well.
    • The Fat Director, aka the Fat Controller, aka Sir Topham Hatt, was written as an insult to pompous railway directors. Notice how his first appearance has him doing nothing but telling people what to do and/or making them miserable.
    • The Fat Controller's decision to lock Gordon, Henry, and James in their sheds after the three went on strike seems to combine this with Author Tract. Likewise Bulgy the bus and his talk of communist-esque "Revolution" against the railways.
  • Team Dad: Edward is this to Bill and Ben. Duck comments that he is the only engine to keep the mischievous twins in order.
  • Tear-Apart Tug-of-War: In Book #24, Oliver the Western Engine, the climax of the third chapter, "Toad Stands By" has Oliver prepare to take a goods train. S.C. Ruffey, a privately owned ballast wagon who is the leader of the Troublesome Trucks and teased Oliver for his accident in the turntable in the previous chapter, "Resource and Sagacity" is put at the front of the train. S.C. Ruffey orders the Troublesome Trucks to hold Oliver back, but Oliver sands the rails to give him traction. Oliver and the Troublesome Trucks pulling S.C. Ruffey in opposite directions proves to be too much for him to handle, especially given his rotten wood and rusty framework, and as a result, he breaks apart. When Sir Topham Hatt comes to inspect the damage, he decides to scrap S.C. Ruffey.note 
  • Terrible Trio: Gordon, James, and Henry are a lighter example. Though not really villains, they are rather arrogant peers. Duck even advised Donald and Douglas in "The Missing Coach" to watch out for the three engines for they'll start some nonsense.
  • Time Skip: According to the Awdry family, all the books from The Three Railway Engines to Henry the Green Engine are set in the 1920s and 1930s, twenty years before they were published; starting with Toby the Tram Engine, the books are set within about a year of the publication date. This also applies to Really Useful Engines, which takes place eleven years after the original twenty-six stories, as well as the final two books, Thomas and Victoria and Thomas and His Friends, which had much larger gaps in-between each other both in and out of universe.
  • The Cameo:
    • Rev. Wilbert Awdry himself as the "Thin Clergyman," and his friend the Rev. Teddy Boston as the "Fat Clergyman." British royalty such as Queen Elizabeth also appear in the books, with the final speaking role of the series from Prince Charles himself.
    • Regarding locomotives themselves, the appearance of real engines such as City of Truro, Flying Scotsman, Mallard, Green Arrow, Wilbert and the whole Talyllyn Railway can also be considered this.
  • The Need for Mead: Ffarquhar is famous for its local mead brand, and has a popular pub/tavern that the locals attend. After Toby one-upped the local constable the tavern was renamed The Toby in the locomotive's honor and to spite the constable!
  • Trauma Button:
    • Whatever you do, don't mention 'scrap' to Donald and Douglas.
    • Don't mention the possibility of being sold to Sir Handel (Falcon) or Peter Sam (Stuart).
  • Twin Switch: Donald and Douglas in The Missing Coach (and it's implied they did it before those events to get to Sodor to start with) and Bill and Ben in The Diseasel.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: A minor example of the newly-appointed policeman in "Thomas in Trouble" from Toby the Tram Engine, who accuses Thomas of being dangerous to the public.
    Thomas: Peep peep! Good morning sir.
    Policeman: Disgraceful! I didn't sleep a wink last night, it was so quiet, and now engines come whistling suddenly behind me.
    Thomas: I'm sorry, sir, I only said "good morning".
    Policeman: Where is your cow-catcher?
    Policeman: Don't be funny!! No side plates, either. Engines going on public roads must have their wheels covered, and a cow-catcher in front. You haven't, so you are Dangerous to the Public.
    Thomas' driver: Rubbish. We've been along here hundreds of times, and there's never been an accident.
    Policeman: That makes it worse. (Writes "Regular Law-Breaker" in his notebook)
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: A number of engines are arrogant and rude, and prone to getting some sort of Humiliation Conga at the end of each story as a result of their delusions of grandeur. Gordon, James and Sir Handel are arguably the most notable (though occasional redeeming moments keep them in check).
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Many people's reactions to engines causing destruction and havoc are extremely tranquil. Take this underwhelming reaction from a barber after Duck crashes into his shop:
    Barber: It's only an engine.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Just about every incident in the series is based on real life railway incidents.
  • Violent Glaswegian: Donald and Douglas provide a child-friendly version of this one.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: All of the engines are good friends, but have a lot of moments of teasing each other.
    • The trio of Gordon, Henry, and James run into this. Individually, James has this relationship with the other engines as well such as nice-hearted engines like Edward and Toby.
    • Similar to above, it's the trio of Rex, Mike, and Bert.
    • Thomas and Percy have their moments of teasing each other on occasion.
    • Thomas and Gordon have a more interesting arrangement. Neither engine is particularly fond of the other, mostly due to Thomas' teasing, Gordon is in disgrace after sliding off the turntable into a ditch, and when Thomas falls down a mine shaft, he too is in disgrace. However, after Gordon rescues Thomas, the former proposes an alliance and a vow of "United we stand, together we fall". Thomas gladly accepts.
  • Whole Episode Flashback:
    • A few episodes have an engine telling stories of what that happened some years ago. "Skarloey Remembers", "Gallant Old Engine", and "Bad Look Out" are examples.
    • Many of the books' events take place in the year before the year it was published. Even some events of the stories took place 10-20 years before its release (i.e., the events of The Three Railway Engines took place in 1923, 22 years before it's release.)
  • Wretched Hive: Tidmouth prior to the arrival of the railway was a rough and tumble fishing village, and although the city has grown still retains some of its rustic charms. The local fishermen take pride in their trade-secret kippering process, with the kippered fish then exported to the British mainland via rail.
  • Writers Have No Sense Of Scale: Awdry places his fictional railway, on the fictional Isle of Sodor, sandwiched between the Isle of Man, and Barrow-in-Furness on the English mainland. With good reason, he assumed this would give him "flexibility" to have a setting that was not too big or small, just the right size to tell a story revolving around the characters. Problem is, Sodor would be too small to function. It would be a branchline of the network and nothing more. Gordon, Henry or any other express engine, running non-stop could never go fast on such a short length to justify having the fast passenger train - AND they have to make several scheduled stops along the way!
    • The list of locomotives in the Island of Sodor book stating the line had over 80 locomotives at a time also doesn't make sense with the island's small size.

Alternative Title(s): Thomas The Tank Engine, Thomas And Friends, Railway Series