Train Accidents in Thomas the Tank Engine that Was Based on Real-Life Accidents

Does the name ring a bell? Many of you may already be familiar with Thomas the Tank Engine, a British children's TV show developed by Britt Allcroft named after its titular protagonist, Thomas, an anthropomorphized fictional tank locomotive. It was adapted from The Railway Series, a book series first published in 1945 by The Rev. Wilbert Awdry and later continued by his son, Christopher Awdry. The TV series premiered in October 1984 with former Beatles vocalist and drummer Ringo Starr as narrator. Though the show was popular for its use of models and real-life props, the later seasons that were produced from 2009 to 2021 used CGI. The series ended in 2020, with season 24 being its last, aired on May 2, 2020. Though Thomas is the most popular character as its protagonist, the series also revolves around other characters, all living in the fictional Island of Sodor, such as Edward the Blue Engine, James the Red Engine, Gordon the Big Engine, Henry the Green Engine, Percy the Small Engine, and so many more.

One of the many things that may come to mind upon hearing the show’s name is all of its train accident portrayals, which often became plot points in many episodes. Most of the time, it’s treated as a climax, which is the result of the characters’ personalities or action flaws, meant to teach them a lesson and, thus, the audience, too. They’re also often used as obstacles that the characters must overcome in order to reach their goal. However, did you know that some accidents portrayed were based on train accidents that happened in real life? Here, I’ll be covering some of Thomas the Tank Engine’s most famous crashes that were most likely inspired by real-life accidents. Nevertheless, It’s worth noting that most of these accidents aren’t completely accurate to real-life occurrences, and some amount of creative liberties were taken in portraying them, either dramatized or toned down for the sake of its target audience, which was children. But without further ado, let’s get to it.

  • The Flying Kipper, Season 1, Ep 10 — Abbots Ripton Rail Accident, 1876

When asking a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine regarding a memorable crash in the series, The Flying Kipper crash may or may not be the one that comes to mind as one of the most popular crashes in the entire series; as it was the first serious crash on screen. In The Flying Kipper episode, one of its characters, Henry the Green Engine, is in the middle of doing one of his main jobs: pulling the Flying Kipper, the nickname given by railway workers to the high-speed goods train that runs from Tidmouth to Manchester. The accident takes place very early in the morning during a cold, snowy winter, causing the signals to freeze and be unable to set to “danger”. Assuming that the line ahead is clear, Henry’s crew increases his speed, unaware that the tracks have been frozen, causing Henry to collide head-on with a brake van. Luckily, none of Henry’s crews were injured. However, as a result of the crash, Henry was then sent to Crewe to be completely rebuilt into a new model.

This accident was most likely based on an incident that happened at Abbots Ripton in Huntingdonshire on the Great Northern Railway main line. The circumstances of both events are similar; however, the real-life accident was far more serious and dire as it was a double collision instead of a single one. During a blizzard, the Special Scotch Express was involved in a collision with a coal train. Then, an express heading in the opposite way collided with the debris. While there were no casualties in Thomas the Tank Engine’s adaptation, the real-life incident resulted in many fatalities due to a passenger train being involved.

  • A Better View for Gordon, Season 5, Ep 10 — Montparnasse Derailment, 1895

We’re covering another popular accident here, which is actually quite straightforward compared to The Flying Kipper. Being an express engine built specifically for pulling passenger trains, Gordon was approaching a station at quite a high speed. However, due to some unknown complications, his crew was unable to pull his brakes from being jammed. Though his driver tried to reduce the steam, Gordon still didn’t have enough time to slow down before he crashed through the walls of the station, greatly damaging his buffers and front undercarriage, along with injuring his crew, including Sir Topham Hatt (The Fat Controller), the controller of the North Western Railway, who were unable to jump out of the cab in time.

The accident greatly resembles the infamous derailment that happened at Gare Montparnasse, Paris, on 22 October 1895. The Granville-Paris Express was a few minutes late to its schedule, and with the driver trying to make up for lost time, it ended up approaching the station too fast, and the air brake was ineffective. The train ran through its buffer stop, crashing through the walls of the station, and fell to the roads of Place de Rennes below. Six people were injured in the accident, and while the passengers of the train itself survived, a woman in the streets below was killed, crushed by the locomotive.

Fun fact: the documented photograph of this incident was used as the cover art for an album by Mr. Big called “Lean on It.”

  • Down the Mine, Season 1, Ep 25 — The Lindal Railway Incident, 1892

Now, we’re covering an accident that involves the star of the show himself, Thomas, and it happens not because of any out-of-control situation like frozen rails or jammed brakes. Instead, it happens because of Thomas himself being his usual stubborn and naughty self. One day, while setting on a job in the mines to fetch some trucks, he notices a board telling engines not to pass through a set of rails above an underground tunnel area, whose roofs are strong enough to hold the weight of trucks but not engines. Thomas being his usual mischievous self, sets on a plan to pass through the board. He bumps a set of trucks hard enough to knock his driver off of his footplate and passes through the board. He sets on unsafe rails, which collapse beneath him, leaving him stuck in a small chasm. The episode ends with Gordon coming to his rescue, laughing at his face at the lesson he received.

The actual accident happened near Lindal-in-Furness on September 22, 1892. A D1 class locomotive shunting at sidings fell down into a hole that suddenly opened beneath it. While Thomas ends up getting saved by Gordon in the show, the locomotive was never recovered in the actual incident, and now, 131 years later, it still lies there, deep beneath the railways with its depth unknown. 

  • Percy’s Promise, Season 2, Ep 3 — Hunstanton Flood, 1953

This is one of the cases where an accident is treated as a conflict that the character must overcome in order to reach their goal. In this episode, Percy promises Thomas to help him take a group of children home from the beach in his place, despite warnings of an upcoming storm and his discomfort with rain. The heavy rain results in the water level in the river rising rapidly while Percy struggles to see through the storm; worse, the tracks ahead have been flooded without his knowledge, and Percy ends up in the middle of the flood, unable to move further with water constantly flooding into his cab and dampening his fire. Though he had to spend some time half-submerged in the waters, his crew managed to get his fire running again through some trial and error gathering dry firewood. Through sheer effort, Percy manages to build steam and brave through the flood at the end.

Around late January to February 1953, a great tidal wave caused by a heavy storm swept through England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and northwest Belgium. The surge was so great that sea defenses were overwhelmed, and it resulted in major flooding. This event later became known as the North Sea Flood of 1953 or the Norfolk Flood. On January 31, 1953, the Hunstanton line, Norfolk, was engulfed in flood, and a locomotive that happened to be passing through it was stranded in the waters at five feet depth on the way to Heacham. With its fire extinguished and brakes having been damaged by the flood, the train stood there for six hours while water kept rising to seat level. The crew was eventually able to make temporary repairs using floorboards from the tender to start fire, and the engine managed to build enough steam to drag itself back to Hunstanton.

  • Off the Rails, Season 1, Ep 24  — A Wrong Turn at Lynn, 1952

Just like what happened to Thomas in Down the Mine, Gordon’s accident in this episode is also the result of his own misbehavior and is treated as a consequence/punishment for his own actions in order to teach him a lesson. Gordon, mainly characterized for being an arrogant, prideful, and pompous character, refuses to pull trucks, claiming that it’s a job that’s “beneath him” as always and would rather do his usual job of pulling passenger trains. He gets so cross about it that when he’s mounted onto a turntable to be turned, he attempts to jam the turntable as it’s turning by moving forward. However, he instead was unable to stop himself from moving forward and ended up slipping off the turntable onto some unused rails and plunging into a nearby mushy ditch. His crew, refusing to help, leaves him in the ditch for some time as a way to teach him a lesson, much to Gordon’s own mortification and dismay.

“Engine runs off turn-table,” reported a newspaper cutting from Lynn News & Advertiser sent to W. Awdry, the author of The Railway Series. The description is as follows:

Engine No 43132 takes the wrong turn at Lynn

The 43132, a 90-ton 4MT engine (a 2-6-0 Ivatt LMS "Mogul" from 1947) used for passenger and goods work, should have taken the 12.30 train from South Lynn to Yarmouth on Saturday. Driver B. Fisher and Fireman D. Hudson were operating the turntable and had the engine halfway around the turn when it began to move forward off the turntable and down a 7ft embankment, its nose becoming embedded in a ditch.

  • The Adventure Begins Movie — Readville Derailment, 1923

For the last accident I’ll be covering, I decided to pick one crash from the CGI era of Thomas the Tank Engine, specifically one from one of its movies, The Adventure Begins, which recounts Thomas’ first few days working in the North Western Railway after he was first brought to the Island of Sodor, adapted straight from the second book in The Railway Series, Thomas the Tank Engine. This accident is caused by James, who was still fitted with wooden brake blocks instead of proper brakes at that time, being pushed around by the Troublesome Trucks, and though he tried to stop, it only caused his wooden brakes to catch fire and he ends up as a runaway train (the term refers to trains running on the main line at an unsafe speed and unable to stop, usually due to some complications with brakes or other problems). Thomas tries to catch up to him but to no avail. A rather sharp turn causes James to lose balance due to the high speed, and he derails, sending him crashing onto the sidelines and suffering severe damage to his body as a result.

The accident could likely be based on the Readville Derailment incident in 1923 that occurred in Boston, where the tender engine of a locomotive came off the rails. However, James’ accident is an extremely common one in railway practice, and there are many similar ones. W. Awdry, the author of The Railway Series, however, did state that when writing that particular story, he was inspired by stories he’d often hear from railwaymen at Birmingham about engines being fitted with wooden brake blocks, which are prone to catching fire when applied while going downhill.

    Now, to wrap this up, I should mention that as you’ve just read, a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine’s portrayal of all these accidents isn’t a hundred percent accurate to its real-life occurrences. As stated in the beginning, creative liberties were taken in portraying these events, and most of them were either dramatized or toned down for the sake of their viewers, which mostly consisted of children. At the end of the day, Thomas the Tank Engine aimed to teach valuable life lessons to children using the fascinating world of railway engines and the nature surrounding it, and these stories were mainly written as entertainment rather than accurately depicting real-life incidents. And if you ask me, they’ve done a wonderful job at it.

Writer: Manohara Diwasasri

Editor: Septian Paradesa