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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden TrainsTM and Garden Train StoreTM

Thomas the Tank EngineŽ and James the Red EngineŽ are copyrighted images and registered trademarks of Britt Allcroft (Thomas) Limited

The Thomas Chronicles

Book 1: Planning An Island of Sodor Demonstration Railroad Project

The first Isle of Sodor Railway Engine I bought, a James that needed a good cleaning but should run okay. Click for bigger imageIn early 2007, I was asked to demonstrate Garden Railroad construction for an arboretum near Cleveland, Ohio. The sponsor wanted something that would attract families with children, so after some discussion, the demo railroad was destined to have at least some "Thomas the Tank" content. One problem was that I hadn't seen any Thomas videos or read any Thomas books for years, and This Thomas has never been used outside as far as I can tell; he was almost in new condition and required only a tiny bit of wheel cleaning. Click for bigger photograph.the other was that I didn't have any Thomas the Tank equipment that could run outside. Another problem, though less critical, is that Lionel discontinued the Large Scale Thomas equipment in the 1990s, so anyone who gets REAL excited about what I'm doing with Thomas will ALSO have to scrounge for equipment like I did. But I was hoping to get folks excited about Garden Railroading in general, so I forged on.

This Thomas is a little faded, but he runs well and I have glued him back together. I'll use him for a backup now that I have one that is in better condition. Click for a bigger imageOver eBay, I found, ordered, and payed a little too much for one James, one Thomas in great condition, one Thomas with a little damage for backup, one pair of Annie and Clarabel coaches, and one Troublesome Truck. I serviced the locomotives and put them up. I also examined the Troublesome Truck. It's NOT based on European prototype, but rather American prototype. In fact the AristoCraft 4-wheel gondolas I already owned are nearly the same width and height, so they look fine behind it. Annie and Clarabel have some scratches on the side but it shouldn't be noticeable when they're running. Click for a bigger picture.So if I determine that one "Troublesome Truck" is not enough, I MAY just get out the gray primer. . . .

To reconstruct the Isle of Sodor itself, I checked several videos out of the library, and watched them, looking for landscaping details and building styles.

This Pola kit looks an awful lot like the control tower that the trains pass when leaving the big station. Click for bigger image.I discovered to my surprise that most of the buildings are based on Pola and Piko kits that were made to go with LGB trains, so that they actually look more German than English. I put a bid on a couple of the original buildings on eBay, but didn't win them so we'll see. I also fast-forwarded through "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" DVD looking for anything remotely useful, but was disappointed in the lack of scenery shown. Still, the "solar" windmill that WalMart is selling in its lawn & garden department will probably make a decent stand-in for the windmill that Alec Baldwin stands in front of for a quarter of the movie. Now for the viaduct, which is next to the windmill in the earl videos. Carved and painted styrofoam comes to mind.

This Piko kit looks a lot like the engine house that Thomas and his friends sleep in every night, although there are several other kits that may have been used. Click for bigger pictureBack to the buildings, I've already spent more money accumulating Thomas trains than I should have for this project, so I may figure other ways to give the effect of Thomas' surroundings, versus accumulating buildings I can't use for anything else. . . Besides the whole thing has to be portable, since I'm bringing the whole railroad to the greater Cleveland area, not once, but twice.

Other logistic issues, not related to the Thomas subject matter, will include bringing enough track, lumber, power supplies, trees, groundcovers, tools, and other materials to build two railroads twice on two different weekends. The arboretum agreed to pick up the bill for these supplies, but the logistic issues remained. This Solar Windmill at WalMart looks close enough to the Isle of Sodor windmill to work. Click for bigger photo

Overall, though I thought it would be worthwhile to record our discoveries and experiences, in case any readers are ever interested in similar projects. I also asked several friends for help and advice, and will include their comments as appropriate. The first helpful message came from Bruce Jahn, whose club sets up "modular railways" at train shows and other events.

Bruce Jahn writes

. . . I feel obliged to extend some "lessons learned" from the BAGRS ShortLine module group...we run Thomas a lot.

Lionel didn't do us any favors when they failed to plate Thomas' wheels. Hence the wheels "goop" up really quick. In fact we have two sets so one engine used to always be "in the shop" with wheel cleaning duty. To eliminate this boring duty, we've replaced the wheels on Annie and Clarabell with LGB bearing'd wheel sets with power pick up linked to Thomas and removed the wipers on Thomas' wheels. With this arrangement, the trailing cars pick up the power and Thomas' wheels only drive the consist saving the operators lots of frustration and sad children.

A couple other thoughts (lessons learned):

  • There are after market faces available showing Thomas with various facial expressions; ie sadness, frightened, dismay etc. If you really want to see children cry, install one of these faces.
  • Never, I mean NEVER, place Clarabell in front of Annie (that same crying children thing).
  • Thomas runs much faster than almost every other train on the market, so you either need to have 'him' on a track by himself or install a diode or two to slow him down.
  • Get rid of those undependable hook and loop couplers...we've replaced them with simple Marx style flat hooks.

Other Notes:

  1. After about 130 shows, those eyes still continue to swing back and forth.
  2. We've never lube'd those exposed drive gears and have never had a problem. Last word of knowledge on this subject...running a module display for the public and not including Thomas would be like selling a car to a friend and keeping one of the wheels.

Preliminary schedule of programs:

Finally, in case you wondered, here are the dates we plan to be presenting our demonstrations near Cleveland. If you would like to be put on the mailing list so you see announcements related to this, please sign up now.

Saturday, July 14 and Saturday, August 18, 2007
Building a Simple Ground-Level Railroad1:00pm - 2:15pm
Conifers and Other Plants for Garden Railroads2:30pm - 3:15pm
Buildings and Bridges for Garden Railroads3:15pm - 4pm

Sunday, July 15 and Sunday, August 19, 2007
Building a Simple Raised Garden Railroad1:00pm - 2:15pm
Groundcovers and Other Plants for Garden Railroads2:30pm - 3:15pm
Landscaping and Ponds for Garden Railroads3:15pm - 4:00pm

We will have some GREAT announcements this year, as we're expanding in several directions due to new interests in various parts of the hobbies. And if there's something related to garden railroading or big trains that we haven't dealt with that is important to you, please, contact us and we'll try to get it in the queue if it isn't there already.

To see the Thomas Chronicles Part Two, click here.

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