Branch Line Engines
Reviewed by HenryTheGreen
Growing up with the Thomas TV series, the only exposure I had to the Railway Series was a box set of the first four volumes and an odd copy of Gordon the Big Engine. Looking on the back cover of the latter my five-year old self would be fascinated by the other titles listed, as they seemed so vague. Who were the Troublesome Engines or the Mountain Engines? And who was Stepney the “Bluebell" Engine?
But I eventually acquired a copy The Complete Collection, the omnibus edition of the Reverend Awdry’s works and quickly learned how the books and TV show tied together. One of my favourite volumes of the Railway Series quickly became Branch Line Engines of 1961. In addition to opening and closing with two of my favourite Awdry tales, this one to me is almost the quintessential Railways Series book, a set of four very entertaining stories connected with an interesting arc.
We start with Thomas Comes to Breakfast. Following the now-established premise that engines don’t always understand human colloquialisms, Thomas takes his driver at his word when the he says Thomas could manage the branch line without him.
There has been debate over who is to blame for what follows, Thomas himself or the ‘careless cleaner’ who meddled with his controls. I maintain that certainly the cleaner is guilty of dereliction of duty. However, if we accept the idea of a steam engine as being alive and having a certain degree of control over the elements that give them motion, then it was Thomas who exploited the situation due to his own conceit and is therefore at fault.
Regardless of who was responsible, the resulting accident where Thomas nearly ploughs over a family eating breakfast is an underrated piece of British comedy. The silent near-nonchalance with which the stationmaster goes out to shut Thomas’ regulator, while his wife is more concerned with a ruined meal and Thomas trying not to do even more damage by sneezing calls to mind something out of a “Carry On” film.
Of course the Fat Controller comes in to bring us back to reality. While there is the humorous juxtaposition of an English gentleman berating a steam engine wearing a bush and a window frame, Thomas’ little adventure has put his branch line at a disadvantage. One that will have to be solved by of all things, a diesel railcar!
The next story introduces us to that diesel railcar, Daisy. When the Fat Controller brings this latest interloper from the mainland, Toby and Percy are initially leery as one gets the idea they’ve heard what happened two books ago in Duck and the Diesel Engine. Percy even flat out asks when Daisy is going to leave!
However, Daisy poses a different sort of problem than Diesel did. She is basically a coach, albeit a motorized one, and the engines have traditionally respected coaches. So Toby and Percy do their best to keep her happy. But since she is a diesel engine, Daisy has the same character flaw as Diesel in presuming her innate superiority. Hence Daisy wants to stay in the carriage shed, but she’s dismissive of her precursors Annie, Clarabel and Henrietta.
Matters get worse the following day when Daisy, having just proclaimed herself the latest thing to the passengers, decides that she isn’t going to do the additional work of pulling the morning milk van. Here she’s reminiscent of a spoiled teenager of the postwar years, wanting all of the attention but none of the additional responsibilities. She whines until she gets her way, then chuckles smugly about it.
More of this side of Daisy’s personality comes out in the next story, Bull’s Eyes. Daisy rejects established facts about why Toby has sideplates as mere cowardice and goes off assured of her own abilities. Since obstacles on her journey are dealt with for her (the level crossing has gates, the horse has a farmer to halt it) Daisy has no reason to think anything different.
This leads to a humorous reckoning when Daisy comes face to face with Champion the bull. For the first time Daisy is faced with a problem she can’t talk her way out of and is forced to let Toby, with his old-fashioned ways, show her how it’s done.
As we begin the final story, Percy’s Predicament, Daisy is nowhere to be seen. Instead it’s Percy who is our focus, eager for a change after having to pick up after Daisy. So desperate is Percy for a change he jumps at the chance to take Toby’s trucks from the quarry.
Ironically Percy now displays some of the overconfidence he chastised Thomas for in the first story when, despite acknowledging the steepness of an unfamiliar line, he declares ‘trucks don’t dare play tricks on me now.’ This leads him to be a bit too blunt with them, with the inevitable effect of making the trucks want revenge. And that’s what the trucks get when they combine their weight with the steep line and send Percy out of control.
I’m going to digress here to speak about John Kenney’s illustrations. He is my favorite of the RWS illustrators and this book contains some of his finest work. There’s the look on Thomas’ face when he realizes there are no buffers on his siding, followed by his looking into the Stationmaster’s dining room. There’s also Daisy confronting Champion, her Guard impatiently swatting at the beast with his cap.
However, Percy’s Predicament contains what I consider his best piece of artwork, that of a runaway Percy tearing through the crossing. The elements in this one picture; the boy standing with his bicycle, the rooster fleeing the scene, Percy’s driver leaning out of the cab yelling to the crossing guard who’s frantically waving his red flag, and finally the look of panic on Percy’s face as he realizes he’s in way over his head combine to make an unforgettable image.
When Percy is finally stopped by an ill-placed brake van, he ends up in as much a humorous position as Thomas, perched atop a truck that somehow holds his weight. But while Percy has done the branch line another blow by putting himself out of commission, his accident has forced Daisy’s hand and the Fat Controller confronts her about her laziness and fibs about ‘fitter’s orders.’
But Daisy, after Toby selflessly helped her out with Champion (hence the Fat Controller’s knowing reference to bulls when he lauds Toby’s knowledge), has changed her tune and accepted that while she may be ‘highly sprung and right up to date’ there are still things she needs to learn.
Which of course sets the stage for our epilogue where Thomas returns, Annie and Clarabel get a reward of a run for putting up with Daisy and Percy takes Thomas’ place at the works.
Branch Line Engines occupies an interesting place in the progression of the Railway Series. While Awdry was already moving away from the series light-hearted beginnings with entries like Duck and the Diesel Engines and The Twin Engines with their undertones of modernization and scrapping, here he takes a step back. For the first time since 1957, we returned to the more friendly world of the Ffarquhar branch where life, as the Reverend put it in his foreword, is never dull! And while this visit sees modernity creeping in, it is still a fun visit and unlike the incorrigible Diesel, this time the newcomer is successfully assimilated into the Sodor family.
While it may be a paraphrase from the TV series adaptation of Percy's Predicament, I think the ending narration from the episode provides the best way to close out this look at my favourite entry in the Railway Series: “All are now friends, and Toby has taught Daisy a great deal. She shooed a cow off the line the other day all by herself! That shows you, doesn’t it?”