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All aboard for Thomas the Tank Engine

Full steam ahead at Drayton Manor Theme Park

The first dedicated Thomas the Tank Engine railway line in Europe opened in England’s West Midlands in 2008. The attraction, the biggest of its kind outside Japan, includes working engines, static displays and locations from the famous books and TV series. Latest News -- SANTA PARKS HIMSELF AT DRAYTON MANOR THIS CHRISTMAS Drayton Manor Theme Park has signed a contract with the real Santa* to appear at Drayton Manor Theme Park throughout the Christmas season. The park is re-opening Thomas Land™ attraction on Saturday 22nd November until 4th January 2009. Drayton Manor is recreating a winter wonderland where snow will be falling every other hour. Santa is bringing real reindeer. And he stars in the live show Santa’s Magical Adventure, which follows a young girl who has written a very long Christmas list for Santa, but she is taken on a journey to discover the real meaning of Christmas.

I am standing on Knapford Station, alongside the world’s most disobedient railway engine. Mischief is all around.
Thomas the Tank Engine is just as narrator Ringo Starr describes him in the very first TV series, a ‘cheeky little engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and short stumpy dome.’

All the unruly support players are in place. The Troublesome Trucks look set to to continue their bumping, hellraising progress, right across the Island of Sodor.

Bertie Bus seems determined to recreate his famous high-speed race with Thomas. Terence the Tractor is poised to run amok.

Behind me stand a line of engines, James, Gordon and Henry. They have each been in hot water for various acts of mutiny, such as blowing soot on small boys, getting bricked up in tunnels because they refuse to work, and rattling their coaches so much that an innocent passenger, Jeremiah Joblin, has to give up his bootlaces in order to fix the leak.

And there’s Bulstrode, the barge who was sunk by crazed trucks that ran off the end of his quay and landed in his hold. Who knows what revenge he is plotting?

And there’s no Fat Controller today. He’s away, probably measuring for his top hat. But nervous passengers have nothing to fear. Disobedience is the one detail not included in this otherwise scrupulously-recreated railway, Thomas Land, at Drayton Manor theme park in Staffordshire.

Today order and decorum is being maintained by Colin Bryan, the theme park’s managing director. He wears the grown ups’version of the expression small boys have when they learn they’ve just won a toy shop.

We climb into the signal box above Knapford Station, from where Thomas and Percy will pull passengers in Annie and Clarabel along 600 yards of track. He tells me about the day all his birthdays came at once, and Drayton Manor landed Britain’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse. And to impart Thomas’s big secret.

Colin and his family have run the theme park, around the former home of Victorian Robert Peel near Tamworth, in Staffordshire, since 1949, – their established rides have names such as Shockwave, Storm Force 10 and Maelstrom -and every year they look to add a new ride or attraction.

So when a lady from Hit Entertainment, who hold the rights to attractions such as Bob the Builder and Thomas, approached them one day in 2006 and offered them a new character for their fairground, they took all of three seconds to say yes to one of the world’s most recognizable children’s characters. That number 1 on Thomas’s side simply states the obvious. There never was such a big little engine.

You may have seen some cheery-faced incarnation of Thomas already, at various preserved railways up and down the country. He was present at over 100 events last year, pulling trains in his smart blue livery. But that’s just a celebrity passing through. Drayton Manor were being offered the little blue engine as a permanent attraction.

Open since March, Thomas land is the biggest collection of rides and attractions based on characters from the stories outside Japan, where the original Thomas land was set up in 1998. Thomas is coming home.
All true devotees of the Railway Series books will know how it all began, with the Rev. W. Awdry narrating the stories of Gordon, Henry and Edward to his young son Christopher, in bed with the measles. They were the subject of the first book, The Three Railway Engines, published in 1945.

Thomas’s turn came in the second book, Thomas the Tank Engine, in 1946. Awdry created him as a small tank engine shunting coaches at a big station for the bigger express train engines. He proves he can be a really useful engine, and the Fat Controller gives his own branch line, with Annie and Clarabel, as his coaches.

Thomas’s breakthrough to global stardom came in 1984, when ex-Beatle Ringo uttered the immortal Thomas was a ‘cheeky little engine……… line in the first of the animated TV series. The early episodes are collectors’pieces: Ringo was replaced by similar sounding Liverpudlian Michael Angelis after a short spell.

It was up to Colin and his team to decide what rides they put in, based on characters from the stories, in their recreation of the Island of Sodor railway, subject to approval by Hit Entertainment. In the end they spent £5.4 million, over twice the original budget. We started at £2.4m, but we kept adding things as we became more excited, said Colin.

So as well as Thomas, they crammed in Jeremy the Jet’s Flying Academy, Diesel’s Locomotion Mayhem (figure of eight, with spinning motion), Rockin’Bulstrode, the Troublesome Trucks Runaway Coaster, Harold’s Heli Tours, Cranky’s Drop Tower, and Terence’s Driving School. Bertie Bus has the appropriate description Crazy. And while there isn’t room to give Gordon, Henry Edward a full workout on the tracks, the famous engines pose as static exhibits in their own engine shed.

But back to Thomas’s secret. As every trainspotter knows, the Rev. Awdrey based him on the E2 Class 0-6-0T locomotive, built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway around 1913. This Thomas, however, is technically a sham. Despite his shiny blue magnificence, he isn’t a steam engine.

This version is actually a very efficient German diesel engine, with an
adjustable seat to make the lucky driver every bit as comfortable as he would be in charge of the Berlin to Hamburg express, as he trundles along the track from Knapford Station to Farmer McColl’s Farm, and Tidmouth Hault station (change for Mrs Kindley’s kitchen.)

To make amends, they painted authentic looking soot marks on the canopy at Knapford station, over the railway lines, as if they were made by steam trains over the years.

Colin apologised for having to buy all the locos and other vehicles used on the rides from abroad. But we had to have the best, and that’s where they make these things now, in Sweden, Italy and Germany.

There are advantages. Take Harold’s Heli Tours, for instance. The ‘copters are made to Disney standard, by an Italian company. Standards on normal rides are this level, Colin said, pointing to my head. Disney standards are right up there, he added, pointing to the skies. This means they should not break down. And, like all the rides in Thomas Land, they will be strong enough to allow parents and guardians to ride with their children.

The locos may be foreign, but Colin is very pleased with the way local
specialist builders and craftsmen recreated Thomas’s world, with details such as a working turntable, a dockyard scene and a functional signal box. Colin showed me some original-looking Sodor brickwork at the station, which plasterers recreated by carving a clever rubberised cement before it dries. They even painted ready-made rust spots onto the diesels.

There remains the vexed matter of the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt). Hiring Fat Controllers is fraught with political correctness. Nowadays you can’t only recruit fat people: you must interview more slender candidates as well. ‘We got round it by having a `fat suit’made, said Colin, to make whoever we hire look the part.’

There is a long queue of applicants for the job. Sir Topham will sit in a high
signal box, overlooking Knapford station. Children will be able to visit and see
how the complicated railway on the Island of Sodor, believed to lie east of the
Isle of Man, is operated. Sir Topham, along with Mrs Kindley, the policeman
and other human characters from the stories, will be drawn from the ranks of
the West Midlands resting actors.

The attraction will be open from March to December. Now they’re even talking
about tearing up the timetable and doing away with the wrong sort of
admission times. ‘If our customers say they want us to stay open until 7.30
pm, why not? We are in the service economy now. These people pay our
wages.’

Drayton Manor know all about operating successful theme park rides, and they
regard capturing Thomas Land is the biggest thing they’ve done. Colin said
that trade competition are very jealous when they discovered what was
planned, after top-secret preparations over the past few months

‘This is one of the most famous British children’s stories. We’re tickled pink to
be running Thomas.’


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