The philosophy of Thomas the Tank Engine

My toddler loves to watch the television show Thomas and Friends based on the The Railway Series books by the Rev. Wilbert Audry. The show tells the story of sentient trains on a mythical island off the British coast called Sodor. Each episode is a morality play where one of the trains causes some problem because of a character flaw like arrogance or vanity that eventually comes to the attention of the avuncular head of the railroad, Sr. Topham Hatt (called The Fat Controller in the UK). He mildly chastises the train, who becomes aware of his foolishness (it’s almost always a he) and remedies the situation.

While I think the show has some educational value for small children, it also brings up some interesting ethical and metaphysical questions that could be very relevant for our near future. For one, although the trains are sentient and seem to have full control over their actions, some of them also have human drivers. What are these drivers doing? Are they simply observers or are they complicit in the ill-judged actions of the trains? Should they be held responsible for the mistakes of the train? Who has true control, the driver or the train? Can one over-ride the other? These questions will be on everyone’s minds when the first self-driving cars hit the mass market in a few years.

An even more relevant ethical dilemma regards the place the trains have in society. Are they employees or indentured servants of the railroad company? Are they free to leave the railroad if they want? Do they own possessions? When the trains break down they are taken to the steam works, which is run by a train named Victor. However, humans effect the repairs. Do they take orders from Victor? Presumably, the humans get paid and are free to change jobs so is this a situation where free beings are supervised by slaves?

The highest praise a train can receive from Sir Topham Hatt is that he or she was “very useful.” This is not something one would say to a human employee in a modern corporation. You might say you were very helpful or that your action was very useful but it sounds dehumanizing to say “you are useful.” Thus, Sir Topham Hatt at least, does not seem to consider the trains to be humans. Perhaps, he considers them to be more like domesticated animals. However, these are animals that clearly have aspirations, goals, and feelings of self-worth. It seems to me that they should be afforded the full rights of any other citizen of Sodor. As machines become more and more integrated into our lives, it may well be useful to probe the philosophical quandaries of Thomas and Friends.






3 thoughts on “The philosophy of Thomas the Tank Engine

  1. since i am really deep (like a deep thinker, or stuck in the mud) i believe in ‘deep ecology’ (arnie naess) so i believe all beings are equal. (schrodinger didnt think electrons or photons had consciousness or choice, but that is just one view). trains are sentient. the humans who run them, like, say, cancer cells in a human body, also are. so, we should respect all life. i used to jump trains down in mexico and from texas to california (in general ok, but u also meet some very dangerous people—i had to jump off a few times, got a bit hurt). in our society, trains primarily serve to take oil from north dakota (and i knew that place since half my family is from there—sortuh chilly in winter, very few trees except along the red river when they moved to fargo (made a movie called that) , but they have green snakes, badlands, etc.) to its resting place along i-95 and the beltway. its quite similar to the migration of caribous, salmon, and eels in rock creek. (know all of those). sure, occasionaly a few of those trains derail in canada, west virginia, minnesota, but so what. i was talking to a guy when i was buying a beer up the street who had a toddler who he loved—his apartment was just above us—we were sitting in the alley, drinking a beer, and then he propositioned me. (some people are desperate). i heard someone got shot and killed the other day their, and i wonder if it was him—some people do not like being solicited.


  2. So you don’t think only trolls are reading… Got me wondering what Asimov would write as a children’s author. Found out about the Norby series by Janet (wife of Isaac): May check that out. Saw “Big Hero 6” with my kids, and it has an interesting robot character who is programmed for what is perceived as compassion. It is particularly interesting how the robot is clearly a machine following a program, as opposed to having a mystical component (which is the usual way robots become deserving of special treatment). Seems like the topic of sentient machines has been treated in children’s lit, but I don’t know the history. Kreso Josic had post about “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick (, and I mentioned “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dewan which raises the idea of machines that procreate. Anyway, I’ll choose Thomas and Friends over Peg and Cat, which should be immediately banned from PBS.


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