n 2010 and 2011, SiF ran a poll to find out what the Top 25 episodes
of the Thomas & Friends TV Series were, compiling the two best episodes from each series and pitting them against each
other. Here, we decided to look at what people thought were the best Railway Series Books of all time, with members of Sodor Island Forums providing us with testimonials which we
published on the SiF Blog. The results were genuinely interesting and in some
cases, quite surprising, with one particular book claiming a landslide victory, with another receiving absolutely no votes
whatsoever. Throughout the course of my post-poll report, I’ll be trying
to make some sense of why people voted in the way they did, looking at the historical reasoning, the stories themselves, settings,
characters and events throughout.
The first eight books are often the ones which are referenced the most by critics and journalists when remembering
the works of the Reverend Awdry. The stories within them were written, as Christopher
Awdry suggested in 1995, “for a younger audience”. Twenty-eight of
these stories went on to become all the more iconic, forming the basis of the first series of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends in 1984. However, would it be
fair to assume that they are his finest work? Certainly, they are by far his
best remembered works and provided a number of years where Sodor was seen as an idyll.
The only book from this era that reached the Top 10 of our poll was Thomas
The Tank Engine, gaining scoring 5% of the overall vote, (22 votes), becoming
the second highest entry in the process. The overall moral of Thomas The Tank Engine is simple, but effective, and I feel personally that each generation of children can take
a lot from it. The message in the book is timeless, and therefore resonates forever.
However, it could be argued that
the power of the book’s ‘nostalgia value’ could have pushed it’s positioning in the poll up. Thomas is by far the most ‘light-hearted’ volume of the entire Top 5,
and as Simon has argued, a lot of fans are likely to have been exposed to the Thomas The Tank Engine stories quite
early on – either through the television adaptation, or the traditional Railway Series book.
The one book from this era which came close to entering the Top 10, but never made it was Henry the Green Engine, which stood with 2% (11 votes). In terms
of structure, the two are not entirely different. Whilst Thomas is desperate
to break out from his station yard and see the world, Henry is desperate to be as useful as the other engines, and finally
gets his wish when he crashes with the Flying Kipper. Both have positive messages
of hope, and remind us all that ‘good things come to those who wait’.
The second story of the book, The Flying Kipper, was voted the most popular episode of the Thomas The Tank Engine
& Friends TV Series ever in 2010.
But whilst the first eleven books are defined by the gem-like Dalby illustrations as books for younger children,
they displayed Awdry’s ability to take real-world situations and apply them to the fictional world of Sodor at this
early stage in the proceedings. Troublesome
Engines, whilst only receiving 3 votes overall, is an important part in the development of the Railway Series. It’s the first time that Awdry uses the four stories within his books to tell a larger story. It is the first time that we see the engines actively unify to defy the Fat Controller’s
orders and stand against him to get what they want. In my own opinion, it’s
one of the strongest storylines within the Railway Series, and I am surprised that it did not hold as much meaning to other
The other Dalby-illustrated volumes could be defined as somewhat ‘safe’ in their storytelling. When the engines fall out of line, they are punished, redeem themselves and are then
“welcomed back into the family” again. There is no real
threat there. The storytelling and illustrations reflect the fact that this land
of ‘toy trains’ is a happy place to be, and whilst based on real life events, the Island of Sodor
seems very self-contained and immune from issues which could affect a railway in the real world. Yet,
despite this happy atmosphere, the stories have the lowest representation of any ‘era’ of the Railway
Series within the Top 20 volumes, with only three volumes, (Thomas The Tank Engine
– No.2 / Henry The Green Engine – No.12 / The Three Railway Engines – No.15).
But come The John Kenney era, the artwork begins to add life and realism to the situation. The first book he illustrated our No.14, The Eight Famous Engines, (which attracted 10 votes (2%) in our poll),
was the first time that the engines of the Fat Controller’s Railway had experienced ‘the real world’ through
Gordon’s trip to London, and the Eight Famous Engines’ trip to the Big City – where they left the Other
Railway Engines in charge. Awdry completely approved of the style that Kenney painted in, feeling that the engines he
created looked and felt more like the prototypes he had wished for Dalby to represent.
However, it is not until the real world begins to creep into Sodor, that Awdry begins to highlight the harsh
realities that would form the latter half of his work. Books such as our No.5, Duck and The Diesel Engine, (which
attracted 18 votes and 4%) and our No.7, The
Twin Engines, (which attracted 16votes and 3%) showcase the rise of Dieselisation
within the British Railway network, which has a resounding impact on the steam engines on the Island. Diesel vies to take Duck’s place as the yard shunter at Tidmouth, whilst Douglas attempts to run
from Scotland to avoid being scrapped by the engines who are displacing himself and Donald from their positions of goods duty.
In spite of this, Awdry makes a conscious attempt to smooth the situation with the introduction of Diesel characters
with genuinely redeeming features, such as Daisy and BoCo. Branch Line Engines became our No.11 with 12 votes (2%), and presents
a counter to the previous moments of peril in the Kenney era. Whilst we could
argue that this came earlier with our No.13 – The Little Old Engine, (which
attracted 11 votes and 2%) it must be borne in mind that Rusty’s position
on the Skarloey Railway was to make life easier for the steam locomotives, as opposed to the Modernisation Plan of British
Railways, which was intended to phase out steam locomotion in favour of Dieselisation.
Daisy, was somewhat different from the first Diesel to be introduced to the series – whilst she embodied the
same ideals of self-importance, this was as far as the character went. She was
not interested in ousting the steam engines she worked with, and was able to learn from her mistakes in the end and enabled
herself to work alongside the steam engines.
BoCo went some way to encouraging faith in Diesel characters as well in our No.4, Main Line Engines , (which
attracted 19 votes and 4%), even going as far as to win over the once-scorned Duck.
But Main Line Engines also served as a timely reminder that despite age, steam engines still had life within
them. Whether this was a subliminal message intended for the men at British Railways
or not, Edward’s Exploit seems to hold a deeper meaning than what comes across
on paper. Gordon, Henry and James’ lack of faith in Edward could be translated
somewhat as the lack of faith that British Railways officials had with their steam locomotive traction in the 1960s. The determination and self-belief displayed in bringing the train home again could
have been a message to British Railways, stating that the engines continued to be the workhorses that their replacements could
It must be said that Peter & Gunvor Edwards were very adept at capturing the type of place Sodor had become
by the 1960s. Their style of artwork took the best elements of both previous
artists (Dalby’s use of colour and Kenney’s realistic approach) and
combined it with their own unique, more abstract style of illustration. Their
ability to create wild landscapes such as those on Culdee Fell, and capture the darkness, despair and fear within Barrow Yard,
which formed the basis of the ‘Escape’ illustrations.
They also had the opportunity to showcase a unique piece of the Sodor framework, illustrating
the Mountain Railway, which features in our poll at No.6. The stories and settings within Mountain Engines was never followed-up
or referenced again within the Railway Series books, unlike the Skarloey Railway or Arlesdale Railway stories, but they maintained
their edge. The morals were clear too – sometimes there are no second chances,
but when there are, determination and good deeds will be rewarded.
The most favoured book in our poll, Enterprising Engines, which won
by a landslide of 91 votes (22%) seems to have been the pinnacle of Awdry’s work.
It’s tinged with all the themes that Awdry used to make up the individual Railway Series books, and we’re
taken on a roller-coaster of emotions and feelings. We have Gordon’s sadness
at the loss of his brothers and the abolition of steam on the Other Railway; comedy with Duck’s tenders and Spamcan’s
failure; tension with Douglas’s rescue of Oliver and finally, restoration of hope with Flying Scotsman’s presence
and Oliver being welcomed to the railway.
The follow-up to this, Duke The Lost Engine, which sits
third in our poll (which attracted 21 votes and 21%) embodies the same message – albeit shrunk down to the narrow gauge network. After 20 years locked away in a shed and seemingly forgotten, Duke is rescued and brought back to working
order, all because people and his friends care about him.
Very rarely are either books above ever referenced when journalists or critics in the popular media look to
the works of the Rev. Awdry. Yet they all shine as the example of his finest
work, and leaves a mark with everyone who reads it and absorbs it’s message that no matter how difficult things become,
hope is always there. With eight out of the 20 books voted for belonging to the
Edwards-era of illustration, and the darker end of Awdry’s work, it is something of a mystery as to why they are not
lauded in the same way that his earlier works. Whilst the earlier works may give
an insight into the author’s initial framework, the latter half, which acts as a social commentary of the time, is somewhat
ignored in the process. And in turn, sees a significant part of British, and
indeed, world social history ignored.
With the Christopher Awdry era, we seem to return to the idyllic and ideal world of Sodor once again. Clive Spong became the man who would illustrate the most Railway Series books with 15 to his credit, drawing
upon Dalby’s eye-catching colour and Kenney’s bold approach. However,
only four of Christopher’s books appear in our Top 20, by comparison with
sixteen of his father’s. It must be noted however, that three of these
sit within the Top 10, at positions 8, 9 and 10 respectively. However, Christopher’s
work is unique within the poll – with one of his books, Thomas Comes Home,
scoring absolutely no votes whatsoever, and making it, by default the least popular book of the series.
His most popular title however appears to be the latest title, released in 2011 for the Rev. Awdry’s centenary,
our No.8 – Thomas and his Friends. This could be down to the fact that the book has been in wider circulation than the
other Chris Awdry titles at present, that it is still fresh in memory among those who have read it by comparison with some
of his works from the 1990s, or the fact that it charts development on Sodor once again with the introduction of Pip and Emma
as residents of Sodor to run the High Speed Train service to London. But it also
has the heightened element of sentiment within it as well, given that it marks the 100th birthday of the man who
made it all possible, and for that, it deserves a place in the Top 10.
But there’s also something of a pattern here as well.
The other two Chris Awdry books to feature in the Top 10, Thomas & The Great
Railway Show and Wilbert the Forest Engine both incorporate the use of real
life steam locomotives from real railways on the Mainland. However, this could
be a simple coincidence within the voting patterns, as both books embody different scenarios and settings to carry their storylines
It’s difficult to define why people voted the way they did for these books. I had hoped that the Railway Series Book Reviews would have
some sway of influence over the voting patterns – but despite their popularity, they did not appear to have bothered
the poll voters in any shape or form.
However, the insight provided through the reviews showed that each individual is different, as is their
reasoning for favouring one book over another.
The majority of voters found the later books by the Rev. Awdry to be the most appealing, particularly those
illustrated by Peter and Gunvor Edwards. However, to break it down further and
apply it to settings, around eight or nine of the books across the board take place on the Main Line. To apply it to the basis of a singular character’s popularity, seven of them include Thomas
in some way, shape or form. Nine or ten of them have stories which continue on
from each other, or contribute to the basis of one large, over-arching storyline.
Taking all of this into account, it’s difficult to sum up a reason as to why these books have won the
hearts of the majority of voters, other than the fact that they have been expertly crafted to make them strong and appealing
to the readership. In some cases the stories act as an interpretation of historical
events of the time; in others, they promote strong moral values; some stories just make us ‘feel’ emotions –
hope, tension, happiness, contentment, empathy, sympathy; whilst for many of us, they’re the living embodiment of childhood,
bringing back fond memories for several generations of children fortunate enough to grow up with and read the stories.