Just How Do 'Thomas & Friends' Drive Sodor's Economy? On the 70th anniversary of the books that spawned Thomas The Tank Engine, NPR's Elizabeth Blair considers the economic model of Thomas's home island of Sodor, and its elaborate railway system.
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Just How Do 'Thomas & Friends' Drive Sodor's Economy?

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Just How Do 'Thomas & Friends' Drive Sodor's Economy?

Just How Do 'Thomas & Friends' Drive Sodor's Economy?

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to a different economic engine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV THEME SONG, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

BLOCK: I bet kids in the back seat are perking up right now. They know that's the theme to Thomas The Tank Engine. The cheery, blue locomotive and his friends on the island of Sodor are a massive industry - TV, movies, toys, pajamas, toothbrushes - you name it. The books that spawned this industry were first published in England 70 years ago today. While "Thomas" is a huge hit with kids around the world, for some grown-ups, the economy on the island of Sodor is perplexing. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: If you haven't had the pleasure of reading or watching "Thomas" a gazillion times, here's the gist - the colorful trains have human faces and human names, like Percy, James, Gordon and Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

BLAIR: They have a range of personalities, from happy...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: He was feeling very pleased with himself.

BLAIR: ...To boastful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Gordon) I'm fastest and best and I pull the express.

BLAIR: But all the trains want to do a really good job for their boss, Sir Topham Hatt, or the Fat Controller, as he's called. He is all human.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sir Topham Hatt) The island needs its morning toast and Lady Hatt and I need our English muffins.

BLAIR: Sir Topham Hatt wants his engines to be really useful and gets cross when they're not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sir Topham Hatt) You have caused confusion and delay.

BLAIR: Turns out many grown-ups have stopped to think about Sir Topham Hatt and how he runs things on the island of Sodor. Take Duncan Weldon of London, who has a new baby and a toddler at home.

DUNCAN WELDON: I became over-interested in "Thomas The Tank Engine" probably as a result of sleep deprivation.

BLAIR: Weldon is an economics correspondent for the BBC.

WELDON: You see a lot going on with that railway company, but what you don't see is much evidence of a focus on shareholder value.

BLAIR: In Tuscaloosa, Ala., Paul Horwitz was equally intrigued by the economics on Sodor. He started watching "Thomas" when his daughter was 2 and he was at home recovering from surgery.

PAUL HORWITZ: It's possible the reason it was fascinating was the morphine.

BLAIR: Horwitz teaches law at the University of Alabama. He wrote a blog post called "The Law And Economics Of Thomas The Tank Engine." He questioned Sir Topham Hatt's ethics.

HORWITZ: When the trains aren't serving to move his raw materials from one part of the island to the other, then they're showing up to help him with a surprise party or an anniversary or to get him a new hat, or something of the sort.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Sir Topham had arranged with Thomas the Tank Engine to take his wife and grandchildren to the seaside.

BLAIR: Another thing economists have noted - a lack of competition on the island of Sodor. Duncan Weldon says there is Bertie the Bus.

WELDON: Although, Bertie the Bus doesn't appear to be a direct competitor. At times, in fact, it's unclear exactly what Bertie the Bus is doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: There was Bertie tooting triumphantly on his horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Oh, deary me.

BLAIR: What is going on on the island of Sodor?

BRITT ALLCROFT: Well, Elizabeth, I do have the skinny on this, you know?

BLAIR: Britt Allcroft created "Thomas And Friends," the long-running TV show based on the books by Reverend Wilbert Awdry. Here's her theory.

ALLCROFT: Sodor Railways is a cooperative. It is owned by the passengers and the railway staff and, very importantly, all the engines.

BLAIR: Sir Topham Hatt, says Allcroft, is an official appointed by this cooperative. She says he has a contract that's renewed on performance, and that's why he can be so gruff.

ALLCROFT: He needs to keep his job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Nearly ready isn't good enough, said Sir Topham Hatt.

BLAIR: Now, all of this might seem really silly - and it is - but law professor Paul Horwitz says he's observed a cottage industry of Sodorian economic analysts.

HORWITZ: If you're a libertarian, you can write about Sodor as a libertarian paradise and if you hate big industry then you can say down with the capitalist Sir Topham Hatt. And if you just want an economy that's a little more personal in scale then you can talk about that aspect of the show.

BLAIR: Duncan Weldon's article was picked up by The Financial Times and Bloomberg and lit-up his Twitter feed.

WELDON: Nothing I've ever written has had so positive a response as one-and-half-thousand words on the economics of Thomas the Tank Engine.

BLAIR: As Sir Topham Hatt might say...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THOMAS AND FRIENDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sir Topham Hatt) You really are a useful engine.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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