What Should You Know About Thomas & Friends Railway Products

Jul 12, 2005 (Updated Nov 23, 2006)

The Bottom Line Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System provides excellent imaginary play, and it's developmental, but I caution all shoppers that the new guarantee last 90-days. That's it!

What is Thomas the Tank Engine? Thomas is the central character in the hit children’s program Thomas & Friends. The series is shot in real-time live-action, and is based on the railway series of books written by Reverend Wilbert Awdry. Thomas is a fussy little engine who often sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. This puts him at odds with his friends; despite this, he usually learns lessons of kindness, and good manners along the way.

The Thomas collection includes, but is not limited to books, videos, DVD’s, bedding, clothing, dinnerware, party supplies, games, and toys. This editorial will summarize the railway products, and with any luck, it will attempt to inform potential consumers as well. To begin, there are 3 separate railway systems: Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System, Take Along Thomas & Friends, and Tomy Tomica City/Tomica World Play Railway.

Tomy Tomica City/Tomica World Play Railway

The Tomica line is made of heavy-duty plastic, and features battery-operated trains. The track is blue, and connects with hook and eye couplings. It’s reasonably priced from $30.00 to $70.00 for complete sets. There are additional track pieces for expansion, and accessory items as well. The following items are sold separately: 4 bridges, 3 tunnels, a Roundhouse, a Toll Booth, a Country Station, a Traffic Light, a Turntable, and 23 different vehicles. Some of the sets contain battery-operated sections that trigger sounds, and spoken phrases. This track system is compatible with other Tomy train sets, but is not compatible with Take Along Thomas & Friends, or the Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System. The Tomica brand is recommended for children 3-years and up.

Our Experience:
The Big Loader by Tomy/Tomica was my son’s first system. The set consists of a battery-powered car that collects a load of coal, then dumps it, then scoops it up, and then dumps it back in the hopper. It repeats the same action over, and over again. It was fairly easy to assemble, but extremely sensitive to tweaks, and bumps. All you do is put the thing together, and watch it go. There isn’t any contact with the toy, short of the set-up, which was too complicated for my boy. William wanted to get his hands on the truck, and push it himself. He was constantly taking the track apart, and fiddling with the controls. In addition, the coal pieces are tiny. They are slightly larger than a pea, which concerned me if ingested. The car broke shortly after set-up, and the whole thing was discarded. Regrettably, no review was written. I do not recommend this toy. It’s a look, but don’t touch plaything, which is unrealistic in my view.

Take Along Thomas & Friends by Learning Curve

Take Along Thomas & Friends is made of plastic, and features die-cast vehicles with plastic wheels. The track is gray, and connects with male and female ends. It’s an all-in-one concept. The playsets consists of a building, a circular-ish track, and an engine. Fold it up, store the parts within, and the handle makes it easy to transport. The track includes a spur, so additional track and playscenes can be added. The newest sets have battery-operated sound effects, and workings. These sets are inexpensive and range in price from $17.00 to $60.00. The vehicles include “Smart Magnets” that connect either way. Some of the vehicles have interactive elements such as a door that opens and closes, or a button that ejects a barrel. The line has expanded in the last few years, and currently includes more than 40 engines, and roadway vehicles. Take Along Thomas & Friends is not compatible with Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System. This brand is recommended for children 3-years and up.

Our Experience:
The Take-Along Sodor Engine Works was my son’s second system. As a stand-alone toy, there’s little to do, but go round, and round the small track. For a plastic playset, it’s sturdy, and the price is right; yet, there’s not much to entertain a preschooler. The Take-Along sets are expandable, which in my view increases the play value of the line.

Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System by Learning Curve

Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System is an open-ended line of products with unlimited possibilities. The system can grow with your child over time, or for marked savings, large sets are available too. The collection is advertised as an all-wood line, and the track, the engines, and the vehicles are made of wood; however, the new items are made of plastic. The wood pieces resist dents, and are sanded smooth, so there are no rough edges, or splintering problems. This collection is a costly line of products. It ranges in price from $40.00 for a figure-8 set to $700.00 for a deluxe set. There is a multitude of add-ons available: 11-bridges, 5-tunnels, 4-buildings, 9-accessory packs, and an astounding amount of destinations. There’s something like 30 all together.

The track connects easily via male and female ends. Decorative burnouts, and “knurled traction rails” are featured on the new track. The burnouts are supposed to resemble railroad ties, and the traction rails improve the performance of the battery-powered engines. On the reverse side of the track are roadway designs. Thomas & Friends is no longer just a railway system. It’s recently transformed into a roadway system will special roadway destinations, and vehicles. One could literally own an entire railway set without a single engine, or railway track. The track is sold separately, or in track packs. There are loads of options for builders to expand the track with flexible curve pieces, multiple levels, and bumpy tracks to name a few.

The real-wood engines, and vehicles have heavy-duty magnets, plastic wheels, and hand painted features. Some have sound effects, and moving parts with interactive elements. The battery-operated engines are made of cast-metal with 4-wheel drive motors. They go forward, and backwards, but can chug along without power as well. Currently, there are 90-plus child-powered engines, and roadway vehicles in the line.

Our Experience:
The NEW Mountain Tunnel Set is my son’s current system. He received it over 18-months ago, and still plays with it nearly every day. I have minor complaints about the set, yet I'm pleased overall. I wouldn't consider it today though. I recently learned that Learning Curve has been purchased by RC2 Corporation. The new company has withdrawn their promise to loyal customers all over the world, and they have abolished the unconditional guarantee for life. I feel fortunate, as I happened to select a set with very little plastic parts. There’s little that could go wrong with my son’s set, because it’s almost completely made of wood. At one time, all the items in this line were wood. Some of the bridges had plastic railings, or a destination might have a plastic window, or knob, but by and large, it was wood. Today, the base is wood, and the rest is plastic. I’ve issued concerns about the plastic parts, yet I've continued to support the company due to the lifetime warranty. I figured if they had the audacity to sell a plastic crane for $70.00, then I’d risk it. After all, they were willing to guarantee it for life. Already I’ve had several issues with plastic parts breaking, and RC2 Corporation won’t replace them, or even repair them for a fee. I’ve invested a considerable amount of money into my son’s train set. The unconditional warranty played a HUGE role in my decision making process, so I’ve opted to support the competition. The last I looked Brio and Maxim still offer lifetime guarantees.

What Do I Recommend

Firstly, there are several things to consider when making a railway purchase:
1. Age of the child(ren)
2. Available space
3. Train table, playboard, or playmat
4. Price

All of the Thomas systems are recommended for children 3 and up. That said, I think a 2-year old could manage a simple figure-8 set in the wooden line, and certainly some of the basic Take-Along playscenes. If your child is older, and you can afford more than $40.00, then you might consider a larger set with lots of track. Individual track pieces are expensive, and you’ll need more track as your child ages, but it's the bridges, tunnels, and destinations that add more imaginary play, and developmental learning. If you choose to go with the Take-Along line, select several playsets with extra track, and engines. That’s sure to amuse a preschooler for hours on end.

How much space do you have? Complete train sets take up a good deal of space when assembled. In addition, it takes time to set them up. I opted for a train table with bins. With a table, you don’t have to set it up daily, or worry about stepping on small wooden pieces. In addition, the bins stows the train set, as well as other toys. On average, train tables measure 4’ x 3’. If you know a handyperson, you may persuade them to make a train table for you. This way you can customize it for your needs, and available space.

If you’re looking at train tables, keep in mind that they don’t automatically include playboards. A playboard provides the backdrop for play, and is the actual table part of the train table. It’s made of hardboard, and fits snuggly in the table frame. Even if you’ve ruled out a train table, you might consider purchasing a playboard. A playboard, as opposed to playmats provide a solid surface in which to play. Playmats are reasonably priced, but bunch up on carpet. I found my son’s Battat train table with bins at TJ Maxx. It was a screaming deal at $69.99.

Bottom Line

If I were considering a railway system today, I would look into the Take Along Thomas & Friends line, or a wooden system by Brio, and Maxim. One could spend something like $150.00 for a very impressive Take-Along grouping, which would amount to several playsets, and a slue of engines. Plastic is apt to break somewhere along the way, so you spend $20.00 on another throwaway set. The plastic sets aren’t as developmental as wood ensembles, because they’re limited in what they can do. Open them up, snap them together, and begin play. With wood train sets, you are only limited by your imagination. Therefore, do you want to do what I did? Shell out $500.00 on Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System, which has lots of plastic parts that will eventually break, and no warranty? Or do you want to consider the Maxim line of products, which offers a lifetime guarantee, and quality toys for a fraction of the price. The collection isn’t nearly as diverse as Thomas & Friends, but there’s certainly enough in the collection to put a super set together. Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway System provides excellent imaginary play, and it's developmental, but I caution all shoppers that the new guarantee last 90-days. That's it! Boo hoo RC2 Corporation. Thomas used to be my friend!

RC2 Corporation
1111 W 22nd Street, Ste 320
Oak Brook, Illinois 60523

Thomas & Friends Reviews:
Coal Loader
Grain Loader
Barrel Loader
Mountain Tunnel
Wellsworth Station
Abbey Repair Shop
Cargo Transfer Station
DELUXE Cranky the Crane
NEW Mountain Tunnel Set
Mr. Jolly's Chocolate Factory
Take-Along Soder Engine Works

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