Details of Thomas' arrival on the North Western Railway in 1915 are more or less undocumented. There is no official explanation to how he arrived on the island. However, the most popular rumour (according to Sodor: Reading Between the Lines) is that he was sent to Sodor due to a war-time mix up. Instead of returning to the south coast of England when the problem was sorted, both his driver and fireman married local girls and decided to stay. Sir Topham Hatt purchased Thomas for a "nominal fee".
Thomas the Tank Engine started his life on the Island of Sodor as a cheeky little engine who shunted coaches for the Main Line engines, such as Henry and Gordon. He liked to play tricks on them, including Gordon, "the biggest and proudest engine of all". He was taught a lesson when Gordon tricked him into being coupled to him during his express run. Tired out, he vowed never to tease Gordon again, realising he did not have to be important. Soon he desired to pull his own passenger train too, much to the bemusement of the other engines. He got his chance when Henry became ill, and no one could pull the passenger train. However, Thomas was so excited that he accidentally left his train and his passengers behind, believing he was pulling it easily. He soon realised his mistake and returned to pull the train. The engines laughed at him, though, and soon Thomas wanted to get out of the shunting yards and see the world. Edward offered him a chance to pull trucks, and Thomas excitedly took the job, not realising how troublesome trucks could be. The trucks pushed him down Gordon's Hill into a siding, where the Fat Controller told him to practice so that one day he would become as good as Edward. Thomas soon proved himself when he rescued James after his accident with the trucks, using the Breakdown Train. As a reward for his quick and heroic action, the Fat Controller promised him his own branch line.
Thrilled, Thomas soon began running his branch line with his two new coaches, Annie and Clarabel, who he grew to love very much. He soon considered his branch line to be the most important part of the entire railway, a fact he would constantly remind the other engines of. However, he continued to make mistakes and dream big, and sometimes this got him into trouble, such as when he was so impatient that he left his guard behind at Elsbridge or when he wanted to fish, not realising the implications of a fish being in his boiler. His greatest mistake was when he got his snowplough broken in the winter and ended up stuck in a snow drift, having to be rescued by Terence, whom he had insulted earlier for not having "real" wheels. He soon proved himself again, though, when he beat Bertie the bus in a great race. He quickly became friends with both Terence and Bertie, despite their differences.
Although Thomas' branch line was indeed the pride of the line, on the main line, things were not going well for the Fat Controller, who was having to deal with Gordon, Henry, and James' sulking, refusing to do Thomas' former work of shunting themselves. After they went on strike, Thomas was brought back to help alongside Edward and their new friend, Percy, who quickly became Thomas' closest friend. Thomas also became friends with Toby after he was asked by the Fat Controller to help their railway avoid a lawsuit from a rude policeman. But Thomas still had some cheekiness in him, returning to teasing Gordon after Gordon slid into a ditch. He soon needed Gordon's help after he blatantly went past a danger sign and fell down a mine. They soon became friends after that and promised never to tease each other again. Thomas and Toby later helped Mrs. Kyndley at her cottage after she was snowed in and helped her celebrate Christmas with a very special Christmas party.
The following year, Thomas shared a shed on his branch line with Percy and Toby. However, he became conceited about his brilliant blue paint and soon paid the price when Percy accidentally caused a coal hopper to pour coal all over him. Thomas was angry at Percy, but the two friends soon made up after Percy had an accident with some coal trucks. Thomas soon met Trevor, a friend of Edward's, who proved his usefulness when he helped Thomas at the newly constructed harbor. Unfortunately, Thomas became ill a few months later and had to be sent to the Works, while Duck looked after his branch line. When Thomas came back, his brakes were stiff, and made it seem as if they were hard on. As a result, one day, when his fireman was ill, a substitute accidentally caused Thomas to run away, and Harold had to help stop him. Later, when the Viaduct needed to be repaired, the main line engines became late to drop off Thomas' passengers and, as a result, made him late for Bertie. Thomas continued to be of great service to Sir Topham Hatt's railway, although he still remained a cheeky little engine.
Thomas later became conceited again when he took his driver's compliment to heart and believed he no longer needed him to work his branch line. This was untrue, but Thomas was too puffed up with himself to not believe it and, one morning, found himself rolling along the line, when a cleaner had accidentally started him up. He soon broke into a stationmaster's house and ruined the family's breakfast. He had to be rescued by Donald and Douglas. As a result, the Fat Controller angrily sent him to the works again. He arrived back a few weeks later just in time to take over for a battered Percy, who just had a predicament with some trucks. The following Christmas, Thomas was eager to sing carols with the other engines, but had to pick up a Christmas tree for the Fat Controller. Unfortunately, on his way back, he was caught in a snow drift and was lost. Donald and Douglas soon rescued him in time to sing carols with all his friends.
Thomas is rather cheeky, but is good at heart and generally behaves well, except when he is getting into mishap. He loves teasing the others and, on occasion, brags about his superiority, but is always brought down to earth in due course. If Thomas has one major character flaw, it is that he is forgetful, and slightly impatient. However, he is also optimistic and idealistic.
Although their friendship has been turbulent at times, Percy is generally portrayed as Thomas' best friend, especially in the television series.
Thomas is based on the Billington E2-Class 0-6-0T locomotives built for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway between 1913 and 1916. He is apparently one of the last batch built as only these engines featured his distinctive extended-side-tanks, projecting forward over the leading wheels and little downsweeps at each end of footplate. The E2s were introduced in 1915 to replace earlier members of the E1 class, which had been scrapped. The last five in the ten strong class had extended side tanks to give a greater water capacity, but all engines had two inside cylinders and driving wheels 4'6" in diameter.
After so many years of service, all of the Billington E2s, both original and modified, spent their last working years at Southampton Docks and they were all scrapped by 1963, the very last pair being Nos 31204 and 31209, the latter being amongst the last batch.
Thomas has a slight modification of having wheel splashers over his front wheels whereas the original E2s did not.
Thomas is painted in the North Western Railway's standard blue livery with red-and-yellow lining and the number "1" painted on his tank sides in yellow with a red border. In the Railway Series, he carries two builder's plates on the sides of his cab.
In the first three seasons of the television series, Thomas also had red lining on the back of his bunker. However, since the second half of the third season, the lining had been excluded for unknown reasons.
Thomas's running-plate was allegedly a source of some contention to the Reverend W. Awdry during the course of the Railway Series. As originally drawn, it had a distinctive dip at the front, but none at the back. The story goes that, to Awdry's eyes, this meant that Thomas' buffers would be at different levels, an operational inaccuracy and impossibility. This seems curious on Awdry's part, as all the artists had drawn Thomas as having an extra-deep rear bufferbeam to compensate, thus putting the front and rear buffers at the same level.
The E2's on which Thomas was based had dipped running-plates at both front and rear and the Hornby Thomas model displays these features, having been retooled from a set of moulds formerly used by Hornby to make E2 models. His television counterpart, however, retains the unique forward-dipped running plate.
Too much Thomas?
While he may seem innocent enough, poor Thomas created a fair bit of trouble for Christopher Awdry and Egmont Books, publishers of the Railway Series, when the latter started asking for more books about the happy little tank engine. Granted, Thomas was the most popular character in the original Railway Series books, but Egmont went too far and thus the problem continues. With the advent of the television series, Egmont started asking for more Thomas and to this day Thomas has eight Railway Series volumes under his undercarriage. Two of the titles actually have very little to do with Thomas - Thomas Comes Home dealt with the adventures of the branch line engines during Thomas' visit to York, while Thomas and the Fat Controller's Engines only featured one story about Thomas, although he did appear in two of the other three stories. As a result of Thomas' fame, classic characters like Oliver and Bear have become largely neglected.
Thomas and the toddler
When the Reverend W. Awdry created Thomas, he existed only as a wooden toy made for his son, Christopher. This engine looked rather different from the character in the books and television series, and was based on a LNER J50 or a Hudswell Clarke with smaller side tanks and splashers. He was painted blue with yellow lining, and carried the letters "NW" on its side tanks. Awdry claimed that this stood for "No Where", but later works would identify the railway Thomas and his friends worked on as the North Western Railway.
Oh, the Payne
For the illustrations of Thomas the Tank Engine, Edmund Ward, then-publisher of the Railway Series, hired illustrator Reginald Payne, who decided to base Thomas on the LB&SCR E2 Class. (Awdry was annoyed that Thomas was obviously not the tank engine he had first drawn, but was satisfied when Payne explained that he was drawn after a real prototype). Unfortunately, Payne did not receive any credit for his work; it is only since the publication of Brian Sibley's The Thomas the Tank Engine Man that he has received recognition.
Thomas on the big screen
In 2000, Thomas made it to cinemas in the box-office flop Thomas and the Magic Railroad, in which he was voiced by Edward Glen. He was the only engine from the television series to play a major role in the story, and even left Sodor briefly.
It has been revealed that there is an upcoming theatrical film to take place in London during World War II.
In April 2013, Josh Klausner stated that he does not know if the movie is still going ahead.
The Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough, England, was the first railway in the world to possess a full-scale replica "Thomas", an industrial tank engine built by Hudswell Clarke so nicknamed for its blue livery and resemblance to the famous tank engine. In 1971 the name was made official by the Reverend W. Awdry. Other tank engines the world over have since been dressed up as Thomas. Some railways have even gone so far as to rebuild locomotives to produce a better replica. Unfortunately this has created a divide between preservationists: some claim it disfigures historic locomotives and trivializes the preservation movement, others say it attracts visitors and can potentially spark an interest in railways amongst young children.
A "real Thomas" (built for The All Aboard Live Tour) was used in a special play staged to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, starring beloved characters from children's literature. In the play, Thomas was used to convey Sophie Dahl, the granddaughter of the late Roald Dahl, to center stage, and was greeted by thunderous applause and cheers from the audience of two thousand children and their parents.
Another "Real Thomas" is used during "A Day Out With Thomas" events where people actually ride in his passenger coaches and get their pictures taken with Sir Topham Hatt. Additional attractions include petting zoos, pony rides, story telling, viewing of "Thomas and Friends" videos, and temporary tattoos.
There are stage performances called Thomas the Tank Engine Live, where people get to see Thomas and his friends perform on stage. Three different plays have been made - "Thomas Saves the Day", "A Circus Comes to Town", and "Thomas and the Hidden Treasure".
Thomas has also been known to be seen in amusement parks. In America, Thomas was usually found in "Six Flags" parks until 2010 when the license was not renewed. In Drusilla's Zoo Park near Alfriston, Sussex, England, a special attraction was opened where Thomas carried passengers through the zoo; it also featured James, Diesel, Cranky, and the Fat Controller. At the United Kingdom's Drayton Manor theme park, a special place called "Thomas Land" is dedicated to fans to ride on multiple rides based on Thomas and Friends. The park opened on March 15th, 2008. One of Thomas' models used in the television series is on display there in the "Discover Thomas and Friends" exhibition. Another park is set to open at the Edaville Railroad in Carver, Massachusetts in the summer of 2015, adopting a phase similar to Drayton Manor.
Thomas Land in Japan was the world's first Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends theme park. It opened in 1998, and located at the Fuji-Q Highland, an amusement park in Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, Japan. Like the UK's Thomas Land, it has multiple rides based on the series. A few of the rides, displays, play house areas, and exhibits try to recreate scenes from the television series. Another one of Thomas' models from the television series is on display there.