Days Out With Thomas

Interview: Farewell, Ben Small!

A great source of fun, entertainment and for railways and rights holders - a great source of revenue!

Days out with Thomas events on Heritage Railways within the UK have been delighting children and the "young at heart" up and down the country for many years, giving them a chance to meet up with their favourite engines from the Island of Sodor for a fun day of Thomas and railway-related activities.  However, the events are not just great sources of entertainment.  The profits of these events are often poured back into Heritage Railways, which use the funds raised to make essential repairs to locomotives and rolling stock to keep their railway running.

See ‘Thomas’ at work on the Nene Valley Railway!

The first railway in the world to have their very own ‘Thomas’ was the Nene Valley Railway in Peterborough.  The engine was given the name because of the distinct blue colour that it shared with it’s famous counterpart from the Railway Series books.  In the 1970s, the Rev. Awdry made the name official by giving his blessing to the Nene Valley to use it.

‘Thomas’ was built by Hudswell Clarke in 1947 as No.1800, the year after the Rev. Awdry’s second book, Thomas the Tank Engine, was published.  The engine worked at British Sugar Corporation’s Peterborough factory pushing wagons of sugar beet up an incline until it was later replaced by Diesels.  It was purchased by the Peterborough Railway Society in 1973 and moved to the Nene Valley Railway.

‘Thomas’ continues to run on the Nene Valley and is a very popular attraction for the railway, however, he is not one of the many official ‘Thomas’ locomotives used for Days Out With Thomas in the UK.  HIT Entertainment challenged the Nene Valley on the name issue, but lost out because the Rev Awdry, as the character’s creator, had given his permission to use the name.

A selection of videos with Peter Sam, Duncan and Sir Handel working on the Talyllyn Railway

The Rev. Awdry was among the first 100 people to join up as a member on the Talyllyn Railway, a tradition that continues through the Awdry family today.  The Reverend was a volunteer guard on the railway, and was asked by founding member, Tom Rolt, if there was any possibility of working the engines of the Talyllyn into the Railway Series.  The society’s treasurer, Pat Garland, had praised the books for the enjoyment they had given his children and himself when writing to the Reverend in the 1950s, and he also quipped upon the arrival of the railway’s new No.4, to be named ‘Edward Thomas’ (after the railway’s former manager) in 1951 that “there is a possibility that a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ might end up on the Talyllyn Railway!!

 

Ironically, the railway has gone on to become one of the railways and groups most closely aligned to the Island of Sodor and the works of the Rev. Awdry, inspiring numerous stories for the Railway Series books written by both the Reverend and his son, Christopher.

By the early 1980s, the Talyllyn Railway was experiencing a slowdown in terms of traffic and visitors.  In a bid to stem the decline, the railway sought ways to appeal to the public and give them more of a reason to visit.  Initial ideas included painting Sir Haydn into Corris Railway livery for the 1982 season, but this was unlikely to make much difference to the line’s fortunes as it would only be a draw to a handful of enthusiasts.  Then, the suggestion was made to dress Sir Haydn up as Sir Handel for the duration of the 1982 season instead.

The idea was met with some apprehension, but was carried through as a means of reviving the railway’s fortunes.  The Rev. Awdry gave his blessing and the wheels were in motion – ‘Sir Haydn’ would be ‘under repair’ for a season with Sir Handel borrowed from the Skarloey Railway to cover his duties in the meantime.

With co-operation from the publishers, Kaye and Ward, the launch date was set for June 3rd 1982.  Journalists of television, radio, newspaper and magazine were invited and upon arrival at Wharf Station were given a handout and a Railway Series book, before the Rev. Awdry, appearing as an official representative of Sir Handel Brown, explained that because Sir Haydn was under repair, the Skarloey Railway had sent their engine to fill in, before unveiling the name – Sir Handel.

The venture was so successful that Sir Handel stayed until the end of the 1984 season, with a sketch of the locomotive being made and achieving wide coverage – in addition, his time on the Talyllyn also became part of the 1985 Railway Series book, Great Little Engines.

In 1988, No.4 Edward Thomas was ‘sent away for repairs’ with ‘Peter Sam’ coming to take his place.  Once again, the Rev. Awdry was in attendance as the representative of Sir Handel Brown, supported by his son, Christopher, and grandson, Richard.  Guests to the handover ceremony on the 14th of May 1988 were brought by ‘Basil the Bus’, with the Tywyn Silver Band in attendance.  The Rev. Awdry wished Peter Samdry rails and good running” and expressed his hope that his time on the railway would “attract a record number of passengers.

Peter Sam spent twelve happy years as the Talyllyn Railway’s ‘Skarloey Engine’.  However, in 1991, as the Friends of Thomas The Tank Engine events became part of the Thomas world, the Talyllyn Railway received a copy of a proposed licence agreement between Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Ltd and themselves.  The railway was uncomfortable with the provisions laid down, which included limiting Peter Sam’s appearances to ‘Special Events’ and having associated decorations removed following the conclusion of these events.  Given the railway’s association with the Rev. Awdry and ownership of the copyright on the engines that inspired the characters, they refused to co-operate.  The Rev. Awdry had also given the railway the right to decorate the locomotives as his characters to begin with.

Negotiations went on for quite some time, and eventually, an agreement was reached with Reed Books (owners of the rights to the Railway Series and Thomas overall at the time) in 1993, which allowed the railway the non-exclusive right to reproduce a face for each engine, based on and derived from the Railway Series illustrations for Peter Sam, Sir Handel, Skarloey, Rheneas and Duncan.  Peter Sam ran regularly on the Talyllyn, with special children’s days centred around him and his friends being held to entertain visitors.

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However, the agreement with Reed Books came to an end when the Britt Allcroft Company acquired the Reed business in 1998, harnessing the rights to Thomas and the Railway Series with them.  The Talyllyn were under the impression that the agreement with Reed Books was for an indefinite period, but instead, they were given notice to withdraw Peter Sam by the end of 1999, however, acting under legal advice, the railway continued to operate Peter Sam in 2000, before handing the baton over to No.6, Douglas to masquerade as ‘Duncan’.

For ‘Duncan’, the railway made some creative concessions to keep the rights holders at bay.  Whilst continuing to operate the locomotive with a face and in his Railway Series livery (as opposed to his yellow-orange TV Series one), Duncan was given a tartan bonnet to wear – something for which there was no precedent in either the books or television series, and his face has been given more of a flesh-tone as opposed to grey so as not to infringe upon the standard look of the engines in Thomas & Friends.  In recent years, the hat has been left off the locomotive, but the flesh tone colour remains on the face.

Throughout the 2000s, No.3, Sir Haydn has been painted in her former Corris Railway red livery, which has allowed the railway to run the two locomotives together for special events such as the Children’s Duncan Day, held regularly on the Talyllyn every spring and summer.  In 2007, ‘Duncan’ and ‘Sir Handel’ took part in a special cavalcade of all the Talyllyn Railway’s rolling stock and locomotives, prior to Duncan being withdrawn for overhaul from 2008 onward. 

Sir Handel took over the duties as the railway’s main character engine in the interm, performing at the ‘Duncan Days’ that ‘Duncan’ couldn’t make. In recent years, he has been joined by Rheneas (albeit without a face), Peter Sam (in Talyllyn green) and Rusty (in Brunswick green).  Sir Handel’s time as the main character engine came to an end in 2012, as he too was withdrawn for overhaul, with Duncan due to return to service and resume his duties.

 

Unlike many other heritage railways, the main ‘character’ engine is kept in their guise all year long, meaning that visitors will have a good chance of seeing the engine operating.

Three generations of the Awdry family have been part of the running of the Talyllyn Railway – with Christopher Awdry serving as Society President for a period of time.

 

The Talyllyn Railway is extremely proud of its connection with the works of the Rev. Awdry and have gone to great lengths to honour him.  In 2005, the railway opened their new Narrow Gauge Railway Museum, which has become home to a replica of the Rev. Awdry’s study, complete with several items which the Rev. Awdry used whilst writing the Railway Series, and with a lot of his books covering railways of all varying types, locations and sizes over a long period of time.

 

In 2011, the Talyllyn Railway held a special event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Rev. Awdry’s birth, with his children, Christopher, Hilary and Veronica as the guests of honour.  You can find out more about that event here.

A selection of videos all about Stepney and the Bluebell Railway

‘Stepney’ from the Bluebell Railway in Sussex became the first ‘real’ engine to become the subject of an Awdry book in 1963.  The Rev. Awdry had been invited to speak at the Railway and became quite enchanted with the little engine, and thought the idea of promoting the development of standard gauge railway preservation through his books would be a splendid idea.  Since then, Stepney’s popularity has soared on the railway, becoming one of the most popular engines in the Bluebell stocklist.  Whilst the railway has not run a Day Out With Thomas event since 2007, they have not forgotten nor discounted the Rev. Awdry’s contribution, and copies of the Railway Series book relating to the character can be found in abundance at Sheffield Park station’s shop.  

The railway also use Stepney’s image and child-friendly representation on promotional merchandising such as special children's lunch-boxes available from the station cafe. The locomotive also acts as the mascot for The Stepney Club, the Bluebell Railway's club for younger members of the society for children aged up to eight years old, with members receiving reduced train fares and special events to attend, as well as membership badges and certificates, quarterly newsletters and a birthday card from Stepney.

 

For anyone interested in joining The Stepney Club - details can be found here on The Stepney Club webpage.

In 2000, the Britt Allcroft Co. wanted to hire Stepney for participation as a ‘Thomas’ locomotive in the Millennium Cavalcade of Steam in August of that year.  The plan was to have the largest collection of fully-operational Thomas & Friends engines ever seen on a standard gauge line, working its own cavalcade, as an opening attraction every morning for the event.  Sadly the event was called off due to the withdrawal of one of the key sponsors.

A selection of videos featuring Wilbert running on the Dean Forest Railway

The Rev. Awdry became the Society President for the Dean Forest Railway in 1983, a role which he saw as being ‘purely decorative’ – but in 1987, the Society honoured him by renaming the 0-6-0 Hunslet ‘Austerity’ saddle-tank engine, No.3806 – GB Keeling, as Wilbert instead.  Wilbert became the subject of a Railway Series book in 1993 when Christopher Awdry took the opportunity to capitalise upon the locomotive’s claim to fame.  Wilbert did not receive the same notoriety that Stepney did - possibly due to his book being in lower circulation and only being available for a short period before being discontinued first time around.

 

After a few years out of service, he has finally returned to working order in recent years and proving to be a really useful engine once again.

A selection of videos showing Thomas and his friends at work on various Heritage Railways up and down the UK!

As the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends grew, a number of heritage railway lines became interested in using the characters for special events.  In 1990, the first Friends of Thomas the Tank Engine events were run across the United Kingdom, with a number of railways signing up for the opportunity.  These events would become crucial fundraising events for railways up and down the country, and an enormous source of fun for children and their families also.  It is where many a young enthusiast was introduced to a proper locomotive for the first time ever.

In the beginning, the railways involved paid a token fee of 1 to obtain a licence to run their event and would dress up engines to look like characters from the Railway Series, with a portly gentleman posing as the Fat Controller supervising the events.  These events were a far cry from the current Thomas events we know today.  There were no 3D fibre-glass faces mounted to the front of the engines, largely they had flat cut-out faces mounted in front of the smokebox, and there was no formal requirement for ‘Thomas’ himself to be there.  However, for a number of events, a special effort would be made to dress an engine up to resemble him or one of his friends.

But despite the enormous benefits that the events brought, critics and purists were often against the idea of using Awdry’s famous engines, with some claiming it ‘demeaned the professional image of the railways’ and ‘disfigured fine pieces of railway engineering’.  These viewpoints continue today, in spite of the cash that Thomas and his friends bring in for Heritage Railways up and down the United Kingdom.  And whilst these statements may be true to some extent, the purists cannot deny that Thomas has done a lot to introduce a new generation to steam and railway heritage.

Outrage was sparked in 1991 when the Britt Allcroft Company revised their terms, increasing the license fee to 100 and pay an additional percentage commission on ‘gate money’.  Responding to the feeling, Britt Allcroft met with the Association of Independent Railways to discuss lower terms, which were found to be unacceptable to the Association of Railway Preservation Societies.  Their Chairman, solicitor, David Morgan, and a fan of the Railway Series books as a child, wrote to the Rev. Awdry in the strongest terms.  In his letter, Mr Morgan told the Rev. Awdry that many of his members were considering ‘banning the Railway Series and associated Thomas books, along with his other Real Railway titles from their Heritage Railway bookshops’ and that ‘Thomas the Tank Engine was fast becoming a dirty word’.

The Rev. Awdry felt harassed and distressed over the issue, which was not of his making and completely outwith his control.  In his response to Mr Morgan, he defended his books and Britt Allcroft’s merchandising line, stating that ‘The sole reason for holding Thomas days is not to do us a favour, but to be a money-spinner for the Preservation Society concerned.  In other words appropriating and using our copyright for their own financial benefit.

 

Thankfully, the matter was resolved by August of 1991 with terms that suited the majority of the Heritage Railways involved and the Britt Allcroft Company.

A special playlist showing videos of Thomas and James at work on the Mid-Hants Railway

One railway in particular has led the way in showing the others how lucrative Days Out With Thomas can be.  In the early 1990s, the Mid-Hants Railway’s ex-Southern Railway N class 2-6-0, No.31874, was awaiting a major overhaul which the railway itself could ill-afford.  One bold individual took it upon himself to propose a radical solution – “Paint it red and make it look like James the Red Engine, the youngsters who queue up to see it might just pay for the overhaul.”

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Naturally, there were dissenters who felt it was a silly notion, but the option would not be ignored.  The overhaul was done at a cost of 25,000 and the debut of James resplendent in scarlet red and gold lining, complete with smiling face and No.5 on the tender, repaid the cost with a vengeance.    The Mid-Hants management were delighted with the results – and his debut weekend of 18th / 19th September 1993 saw every carriage on the railway pressed into service and were sometimes so stuffed full of people it was embarrassing!

But the Mid-Hants crowning achievement has undoubtedly been their representation of Thomas the Tank Engine himself.  The engine started out in life as 0-6-0 ‘Austerity’ Linda, who had masqueraded as Percy in the 1993 event when James was launched.  The railway had hired in a Thomas previously, and were not convinced by the disguise.  The Mid-Hants locomotive department at Ropley set to work rebuilding the locomotive to create the most authentic representation of the famous E2 tank engine in his television series form, complete with sloping front-end buffer-beam to honour a request made by Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Ltd, who were actively involved with the preparations for the rebuild.

Thomas debuted in April 1994 during a 10-day event where 29,000 people came out to see him and James.  The October event of the same year saw 75,000 visitors, and by the end of the year, the Thomas events had netted the Mid-Hants a whopping 250,000!  They celebrated this achievement by allowing Thomas and James to haul their Christmas and New Year holiday trains exclusively throughout the festive period that year.  In 1995, 31874 reverted back to its BR livery for the 10th anniversary of the railway’s reopening between Ropley and Alton, with Maunsell ‘U’ class ‘Mogul’ No. 31625 taking over the role in its place.

 

In 2000, the Mid Hants Railway rebuilt another Austerity class locomotive for their Thomas events – this time to pose as Douglas instead to work alongside Thomas and James.  In the same year, the Mid-Hants Thomas event in Easter took 100,000 in advance ticket sales, culminating in one of the most successful Thomas events ever. 

The Hogwarts Express (hauled by ‘Hogwarts Castle’ aka. Olton Hall) running across the UK Main Line network

Around the time of the 2000 movie, Thomas & The Magic Railroad, publishers, Bloomsbury were promoting the new title in the Harry Potter series of books, The Prisoner of Azkaban, with a four-day Rail Tour hauled by a maroon coloured Bulleid Pacific No. 34027 Taw Valley touring the country with The Hogwarts Express.  A similar concept was mooted for the promotion of the Thomas & The Magic Railroad movie where the Mid-Hants Thomas and James would run special tours to promote the film.

The plan was to have a ‘Thomas Takeover’ at London’s Victoria Station where the Mid-Hants ‘James’ and ‘Thomas’ would be accompanied by BR Standard Class 5 No.73096 as Henry the Green Engine.  This would have involved Henry and James running push-pull services between London Victoria and Clapham, Battersea and Herne Hill (The first two being appropriate given their close proximity to where Thomas has been filmed since 1984 (Series 1 was filmed in a small studio in Battersea, Series 2 onwards at Shepperton Studios – close to Clapham Junction!)

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In a similar move, the Mid-Hants were seen to be entertaining proposals by the South Eastern Railway Heritage Trust, who wanted to use ‘James’ on shuttles between Canterbury West and Margate during a major ‘Thomas Main Line’ event during August 18th to 20th 2000, where James would haul passengers to Margate where ‘Thomas’ would be taking a ‘seaside holiday’.  Sadly, neither event took place – likely due to reasons associated with feasibility.

In 2010, there were plans by HIT Entertainment to run Thomas into St Pancras Station to kick off the celebrations for his 65th Anniversary with a number of invited guests to enjoy the fun.  Sadly, this didn’t take place either due to the fact that St Pancras has a ‘steam-ban’ in place and was an unviable venue.  A number of other publicity ventures were mooted for the 65th Anniversary celebrations, which would have put Thomas more firmly in the public eye throughout 2010, however, none of these managed to get off the ground.

 

However, Thomas did have a big day out in London when the Lllangolen Railway Thomas was transported to represent the character at the premiere of Thomas & The Magic Railroad in Leicester Square, London in July 2000!  Thomas stood outside the Odeon Cinema during the premiere and the photo opposite shows him being pictured with (from left to right) Didi Cohn (Stacy Jones), Britt Allcroft, Mara Wilson (Lily) and Michael E. Rodgers (Mr C. Junior).

See Thomas working at Drusillas Park in our video playlist

In 2001, there was a shake-up with the ‘Thomas Days’ – they were rebranded from ‘Friends of Thomas The Tank Engine’ to ‘Days Out With Thomas’, with the requirement that Thomas must be present at the event and that all engines must resemble those of Thomas characters such as Henry, James, Duck etc.  A range of approved ‘Thomas’ locomotives was drawn up for the railways to hold events also, which put a lot of smaller Heritage Railways off the idea of hosting anymore – unable to afford the rising costs associated with the event.

Around 2007, there was great unrest among the Heritage Railway community and HIT Entertainment as Drusillas Zoo in Sussex opened the first ‘Thomas’ theme park in the UK.  The Drusillas Thomas was a steam-outlined Diesel locomotive complete with Annie and Clarabel, which takes visitors on a short tour of the zoo complex.  HIT were convinced that the new attractions were a ‘new concept and in no way threatening to existing Thomas events.’  However, once again, David Morgan stepped in to defend the Heritage Railway Association’s viewpoint stating that “The new parks create a false impression of what a ‘Thomas’ event is.  There isn’t even an obligation for ‘Thomas’ to be a steam engine... the Drusillas ‘Thomas’ is a diesel mock-up.  And the public are not aware of the subterfuge.  In their minds this IS the same product as a proper ‘Days Out With Thomas’ event at a preserved line.  David Morgan once again threatened a boycott of Thomas events in 2008 in defiance, in order to hit the rights holders a financial blow, but this eventually came to nothing.

But the Drusillas Thomas did a lot of damage in mid-2007 as nearby railways counted the cost of the attraction.  The Spa Valley Railway had a 70% loss in takings, with the Kent and East Sussex Railway carrying 400 less passengers and the Bluebell Railway suffering too.  The Kent and East Sussex claimed that Drusillas’ underhand advertising around the time of the event also played a part, stating that “Whenever we placed an advertisement, Drusillas would appear close to it, advertising its ‘Thomas’ as being ‘in steam 365 days a year’.  It is very difficult for us to compete with that.

Steam Railway Magazine became particularly vocal in their views against HIT Entertainment’s new measures for the Thomas brand, including Drusillas, whose Managing Director at the time, Laurence Smith, wrote an angry response to the editor of the magazine defending their position and ‘providing some home truths’ in Issue 341 (October 5th to November 1st 2007).  Mr Smith outlined that the children who visited his park and the heritage railways to see Thomas were unconcerned as to whether or not the locomotive was steam or diesel powered.  He also claimed that there was no underhandedness in the advertising of their Thomas ride, claiming that he and his company ‘planned their advertising budget in advance’ and ‘were not bothered by what others do or may do.’  He also stated that the ‘steaming into Drusillas’ tagline was merely a play on words, and that Drusillas had ‘never claimed their Thomas to be anything more than a train’.  He ended his letter by absolving himself and Drusillas of responsibility for the Spa Valley Railway’s 70% loss in Thomas takings, claiming that the weather could have impacted upon visitor numbers at the event. 

The Editor, Danny Hopkins, defended his magazine’s position on the subject and dismissed Mr Smith’s claims that the impact on surrounding railways was unlikely to be coincidental or simply weather related.  David Morgan gave his views on the subject also, saying that ‘Mr Smith’s response was somewhat disingenuous’, lambasted his comments on children being unconcerned as to whether the locomotive was steam or diesel, or that they would even be able to tell the difference between the narrow gauge Drusillas Diesel mock-up and a real standard gauge steam locomotive.  He went on to state that he felt that Heritage Railways could not compete on an even playing ground with Drusillas.

See Ivor the Engine, Jimmy the Jinty and others take Thomas’s place for a fun day out on the rails!

However, problems escalated later in 2007 as 9 Heritage Railways lost their Thomas licenses due to poor standards and / or low revenue.  HIT Entertainment had carried out a huge audit of ‘Days Out With Thomas’ events and decided ‘it was time to take on a new strategic direction for the events’, which included persons playing the Fat Controller would have to undergo special training courses to “achieve a higher level of performance” and everyone on the railway working on the event would be subject to a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check as part of the new regulations.  Among the railways that walked away from the events at the beginning of 2008 were the Swanage Railway and the Ravenglass & Eskdale, who had inspired Awdry’s ‘Small Railway’.  The Bluebell Railway opted instead to do a ‘Family Fun Weekend’ and the East Lancs Railway launched their own character and associated event – ‘Jimmy the Jinty’ (pictured) to fill the void left by Thomas.  As well as the event, Jimmy also appeared in a set of books sold by the Railway.

Thomas was fast becoming too difficult for some railways to stage, less enjoyable for staff and more expensive to boot.  The issue of putting staff through training courses and CRB checks would prove costly, and there was now the issue of hiring in a Fat Controller, if the railway didn’t have a HIT-approved one on their own roster.

By mid-2008, other children’s favourites were being drafted into stem the loss of Thomas.  Postman Pat became the replacement at the Ravenglass and Eskdale, thought to be appropriate given Pat’s local links with the county, and he also paid a visit to the Foxfield and Battlefield Railways (Battlefield Railway ran Thomas events until May 2012).  The Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway took the bold step of using Paddington Bear for their event instead and were pleasantly surprised at the impact he had.

Even Ivor the Engine was stepping in to provide an alternative to Thomas.  However, when he visited the Embasy and Bolton Abbey Railway in Yorkshire, it was found that Ivor was attracting more adults than children!  A spokesman for the railway, Stephen Walker, told Steam Railway Magazine that “It brought in far more adults, mainly those in their 40s who remember Ivor from the TV Series.  It definitely goes for a completely different market!”  However, Mr Walker was convinced that there was still room for Thomas alongside his Welsh friend, Ivor, stating that “‘Thomas’ appeals to much younger kids.

See Thomas and his friends celebrate their 65th Anniversary on several Heritage Railways around the UK!

The somewhat terse situation between HIT Entertainment and Heritage Railways involved with Days Out With Thomas seems to have eased somewhat in recent years.  In 2010, to celebrate 65 years of Thomas, 9 Heritage Railways were selected to hold and take part in the special 65th Anniversary events which took place throughout 2010.  The first of these took place on the Battlefield Railway in Leicestershire on the 1st of May 2010, followed by other events at the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway in Scotland,  the Dean Forest Railway in Gloucestershire the Dart Valley Railway in Devon, the Embassy and Bolton Abbey Railway in Yorkshire, the Llangolen Railway in Wales, and ending at the Kent & East Sussex Railway in Kent.

Whilst there has been some negative press coming the way of HIT Entertainment from the Railway media, it has to be remembered that the key objective of these events is to provide children and their families with a fun, enjoyable day out that everyone can enjoy.  The level of work and dedication that needs to go into the events is rewarded with happy faces, good reports and visitors who will return to the railway – hopefully to become volunteers themselves in years to come. With the new-found co-operation and understanding that has taken place over the last few years between HIT Entertainment and Heritage Railways holding Thomas events and choosing to return to the fold following time away from holding them, it looks likely that another generation of enthusiasts will come forward.

In 2012, larger railways like the Severn Valley, Great Central Railway, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Railway, West Somerset Railway and East Lancs have all signed up to do Days Out With Thomas again. 

 

So whilst Paddington Bear, Peppa Pig and Postman Pat filled the void very nicely for some railways – Thomas is still the Heritage sector’s biggest draw for the kids!

See Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt visit their friends in the United States and Canada!

Days Out With Thomas began in the USA in December 1996 with its first event at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  During its first year, five successful Day Out With Thomas events were held. The program has flourished.

In 1998, the Strasburg Railroad rebuilt Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal Railroad #15, an 0-6-0 Porter locomotive to run as a replica of Thomas the Tank Engine.  In a private letter from the railroad's Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer to S. Berliner, III, dated March 13, 2000, the V.P. reportedly stated that “Thomas is indeed made from BEDT #15. While I know this is disturbing to BEDT fans the fact remains that the locomotive is operating and well cared for. Though Thomas is not exactly in line with our mission of recreating early 20th century railroading he serves a more important purpose. He makes steam exciting for the next generation. Hopefully sacrificing the historical integrity of #15 will ensure that steam will be around well into the future.

In 2000, this Thomas replica covered the events for seven railroads in the United States and drew a collective total of 300,000 visitors.  The Strasburg Railroad alone took 100,000 of these visitors at three events, whilst a four-day event at the North Carolina Transportation Museum drew in 40,000.

Impressed by the takings Gullane Entertainment (formerly Britt Allcroft Company) commissioned four new Thomas replicas to be built in 2001 to cover more events in future.  Three of these engines were to be full-size standard-gauge, the fourth, a 3ft gauge narrow-gauge locomotive.  The main drawback of these locomotives was that they would be ‘dummies’ and unable to move under their own power, and would have to be pushed and pulled by other locomotives to make them move.  Since then, the number of USA Thomas locomotives has increased from five to seven with an oil-fired steam locomotive added to the roster of US Thomas locomotives and another narrow-gauge engine to supplement.

Day Out With Thomas Events in the USA have a number of notable differences to the UK versions.  In the UK, ‘Sir Topham Hatt’ will be played by an actor in full costume with their own face visible, in the USA, ‘Sir Topham Hatt’ is a suit entirely in itself with the actor’s face covered. 

 

Other engines involved with the event don’t tend to appear with faces, possibly given that few locomotives in the US resemble any of Thomas’s friends who tend to ‘accompany’ him to railways in the UK, or to emphasise the fact that the event is supposed to be about Thomas and the enjoyment of the children coming to visit him.

The US events also tend to be treated as ‘Tours’ as well, and each year, a different theme will be chosen for the events such as The Celebration Tour (2005) to celebrate 60 years of the brand, The Come Ride The Rails Tour (2006), The All-Aboard Tour (2007), The Great Discovery Tour (2008) the first to tie in with a new feature length special release, The Hero of The Rails Tour (2009), The Celebration Tour (2010) to mark 65 years of the brand, Leader of the Track Tour (2011) and most recently, Mystery on the Rails Tour (2012).

But one notable difference between the UK and US Thomas events is the fact that the US events have their own associated merchandising line, with a range of wooden railway toys, fridge-magnets, umbrellas, T-Shirts, hats, posters and picture frames available with the Days Out With Thomas logo emblazoned on the product.

New DOWT CGI face (USA)

Following its UK revamp from last year, 2014 will see a major addition to future Day Out with Thomas weekends in the US. The “dummy” locos have now been fitted with a replica CGI face that’s animatronic, allowing Thomas for the first time to talk to his visitors both in English and Spanish languages. The exception is the Strasburg Railroad’s own 0-6-0 steam powered replica which will be fitted with a non-animatronic CGI style face identical to those of the British locomotives of the UK events last year.

Day Out With Thomas - A New UK Era

A new face for Thomas at the DOWT events!

In 2012, Day Out with Thomas in the United Kingdom ended it's partnership with event promoter Mega Products in favour of creating a new alliance with Fisher Price. As a result, Day Out with Thomas UK underwent a complete makeover, making it closely resemble the current US licensed event with its own custom-made promotional merchandise, a new website and TV Advert. The biggest change can be seen in Thomas, as all event locomotives in England are now equipped with a replica of  No.1's  new CGI face.

Day Out With Thomas 2012+

The new partnership changes however,have not been pleasant for some heritage railways who one participated in the DOWT events. As with any changing of licensing agreements and rules for hosting, there are now fewer available event locations. There are currently twenty locations around the UK offering DOWT weekend events. This is a significant drop compared to the forty-eight locations in 2006, which were reduced by attrition from 2007 onward. The reasons for this decline is for the most part attributed to the high costs to run and attend the events, coupled with the associated decline in visitor numbers. The only line so far welcoming Thomas back after five years is the North Norfolk Railway.

New Official Day Out With Thomas Website