It started with a first birthday gift.
Two of my students got my son a Thomas the Tank Engine train for his first birthday. He liked, but didn’t love it, at first. He played with it on occasion for the first few weeks. The next month, he played with it a lot, then the month after he forgot it existed. This cycle continued for a few months…
Until one day, that train became everything. And it somehow started multiplying.
Now I have a 3-year-old who not only knows the names of trains that only appeared in one episode back in 1991 but has the habit of correcting anyone who dares get a name incorrect. (The confidence is precocious now, though I have to get it in line because it might not be when he’s 8.) We have 38 trains, all shapes and sizes, all colors and paint variations, and enough miles of wooden track to make our local transit authority jealous.
Of all the things my preschooler could be obsessed with, Thomas and Friends is pretty tame. It isn’t anything particularly violent. Laying out the wooden track encourages creativity. It’s something he can play independently or with others. It’s not a flash in the pan — in fact, some of my son’s Thomas books were passed down from his uncles on both sides of the family, who are now 32 and 25.
If you are new to these toys and this world, here are some tips my obsessive-research side has compiled over the course of my son’s total Thomas fandom:
Thomas on TV
There have been multiple versions of Thomas stories on American TV. The original, which many of you might have grown up with, was on a PBS show called Shining Time Station. You’ll remember it because the original conductor was Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. He was soon succeeded in the role by George Carlin (yes, the comedian) and then Alec Baldwin (yes, him). The show eventually lost the human storyline that was sandwiched between the Thomas stories and just became Thomas and Friends.
The show was eventually acquired by Nickelodeon and is now animated, instead of telling a story with model trains like the original. The current iteration is subtitled Big World! Big Adventures! and has storylines inspired by the United Nations global development goals (encouraging understanding and environmental responsibility).
Likewise, just as there are multiple versions on TV, there are also multiple kinds of Thomas trains. The most well-known are Wooden Railway trains, which are your traditional wooden models. These were loved but would develop trademark wear on the paint after a few months of play. A few years back, the line was redesigned and renamed Wood. This line limited the paintwork in spots where the traditional Wooden Railway models would wear the quickest.
However, collectors and fans were angered by the change, claiming the new models looked defective thanks to the paint changes. The toys’ manufacturer, Mattel, ended up making changes to the entire line last year that returns the trains to their original full paint coverage.
There are also minis (they come in mystery bags or multi-packs) and Trackmasters (larger, battery-operated models.) If you buy trains on Amazon, you might come across the Adventures line, which are metal versions of the Wooden Railway trains.
Remember the adult fans I mentioned above? They can be a blessing to parents, especially if you’re a cable cord-cutter.
Thomas and Friends can be difficult to find on streaming services unless you want to purchase individual episodes on YouTube or Amazon, making it cheaper to go to your local thrift shop or eBay and buy the older DVDs. But when our DVD player broke, we were really in a bind.
Older Thomas fans to the rescue! Many have uploaded their old VHS tapes or DVDs to YouTube, and still others (mostly from the UK) have been able to put more recent individual episodes online. Others make their own videos using their model collections, recreating the original stories and creating some of their own. There are also fans who upload videos of their massive train collections, which is great if you have a child wanting to learn the names of every single engine (like my own.)
As with all things on YouTube, watch and evaluate Thomas offerings before letting your children watch unsupervised. A few channels I let my son watch are Thomas Wooden Railway (his collection videos are amazing), Kids Toys Play’s Thomas series (created by a dad who throws in harmless jokes for the parents that will fly over kids’ heads), and Thomas and Friends UK, which is the official Thomas and Friends channel for the UK. It has more full episodes for free than its American counterpart. (Just a warning: Your child might pick up a British accent, like mine has.)