Main Line Engines
Reviewed by OrangePastille
As I begin this review, it’s worth pointing out that I had already seen the televised versions of the featured stories prior to reading the book itself. Indeed Wrong Road and Edward’s Exploit were amongst my favourite stories in the entire franchise. However, this did not deter me, if anything I was intrigued to discover these stories as the Reverend had originally intended them to be. Needless to say I was not disappointed.
Before looking at the book in detail, let’s look at the book in a general sense. The tone of the book tends to shift. It begins with the humorous antics of Bill and Ben in The Diseasel, maintaining a sense that humour (often aided by clever puns, "Diseasel", Duck referring to Bill and Ben as "The Bees") during the second and third tales. The mood becomes more downbeat in Edward’s Exploit, this change of tone encapsulated in the line “the weather changed”, but ultimately culminates in a joyous celebration of Edward’s triumph.
The Edwards’ impressionistic illustrations manage to effectively convey a great sense of atmosphere, from the tranquil maritime scene on page 5, to busy rush-hour scenes at the Tidmouth terminus, to the pensive, ‘calm before the storm’ scene outside the sheds that opens Edward’s Exploit. There are a good few coastal images in this book, from Brendam docks to Tidmouth shed, something which I always enjoy.
Old versus New
It’s worth considering this book in the context of time it was written. By the mid-1960s the world was changing, the old was being replaced by the new, both in railway terms and with regard to culture in general. In some ways this book alludes to this, although not as strong a theme as it was to be in the later Enterprising Engines, modernisation is still hinted at it in the form of BoCo. But there is a sense that new is not always bad. BoCo manages to quite peacefully integrate himself into the NWR family without posing a threat to their existence.
On the other hand, there is still much evidence of the old. However, if anything this book demonstrates that there is still a place for the old in a modern world. Despite Gordon’s comments that he should give up and be preserved, Edward struggles on and proves that old does not correlate to weak. It’s notable that the first engine to accept the “modern” BoCo is actually the oldest member of the NWR fleet. The volume ends with Edward and BoCo happily working the Brendam branch together, effectively symbolising that the old can in fact co-exist with the new. And that’s quite a positive message for readers to take home in my opinion.
At times The Railway Series has been criticised on the basis that it supposedly promotes racism through the steam versus diesel conflict. To my mind this has always been an over-generalisation and I would urge such critics to read this book in particular. Let us consider the story Buzz Buzz. Here we have BoCo, a diesel arrive at Tidmouth shed. It’s true that Duck is initially wary of this newcomer, but on getting to know the diesel he realises that BoCo is actually quite an amiable engine, and the two are soon friends. Surely this is a positive message to young readers, teaching them that by putting any prejudices aside and making an effort to get to know someone, we can all be friends, regardless of differences in race. Yes, Duck had some (arguably understandable considering past events) prejudices about diesels, but the important point is that ultimately he does not let them cloud his judgement, gaining a new friend as a result. In a way the Reverend was being realistic here, in the real world racial prejudice does exist, sometimes in otherwise good people (Duck, the Caledonians), but I think what is important here is that it is depicted as something that can be overcome – thus making us all better off for it. Contrast this to James’ attitude. Unlike Duck or the Scots, he has no real prior grievance to justify his attitude towards diesels. Despite Duck’s protests he is quite rude towards BoCo when they first meet. He calls BoCo derogatory names: “buzz-box diesel”. But is this attitude lauded by the author? Far from it, by the tale’s conclusion James’ quasi-racist remarks have come back to (literally) hit him in the face, with him now becoming the butt of “buzz buzz” taunts by the other engines, in typical Awdrian humour.
One of the things I’ll always remember this book for was that, as a kid, it gave me an early understanding of the logic behind railway timetabling. It’s simple really; the faster train must run ahead of the slower train. The Reverend gets this idea across quite effectively in Wrong Road through his simple explanation of the goings on at Tidmouth station every evening. We learn that Gordon’s train leaves at 6.25, with Edward following at 6.30. The author even uses this to set up the events of the rest of this story. There is mention of Gordon having to wait as he has missed his path, all this helps give children a basic knowledge of how the railway works in this regard. Combined with the text, the Edwards’ warm, inviting image of Edward and Gordon waiting in at Tidmouth conveys a sense of the hustle and bustle to be seen at a major station in the evening rush-hour, something which happens across the world to this very day.
It also gave me an early introduction to the concept of route restrictions on the railway, through the references to Gordon and Henry being prohibited from the branches due to their weight. The opening story teaches readers a little about the railways’ role in supporting local industry; we learn that Bill and Ben bring China Clay from the pits to the harbour at Brendam for onward distribution elsewhere via ships or engines on the Main Line. There is even a brief explanation about the commodity itself and its uses, something which young readers might not otherwise be familiar with. It’s worth pointing out that here that before this book we knew little about the traffic flows on the Edward’s branch, so this was quite a welcome development in that regard. The concept of goods being imported is alluded to as well, in Wrong Road we learn that BoCo has brought trucks of coal for the Twins, something that would not be obtainable locally.
Apart from the text, the illustrations have nice little hints of railway detail as well. These range from the brass works-plates depicted on some of the engines, to the lamp/disc head-code arrangements, to the rivets on Bill and Ben’s cylinders.
Strength of Character
Edward has always been an admirable character in the series, a hard worker, caring and wise. In many ways this book is a celebration of Edward. His influence pervades through all the stories, he calmly but firmly mediates of the Twins’ dispute with BoCo in The Diseasel and despite not actually appearing in the story it his friendship with BoCo that persuades Duck to give the diesel a chance in Buzz Buzz. In Wrong Road he does not get argumentative with Gordon when the big engine snobbishly begrudges “Branch Line diesels” being let pull the Express. Instead, he chooses to employ subtle, but witty, sarcasm: “I’m sure BoCo will let you pull his trucks sometimes. That would make it quite fair”. The scene is captured brilliantly in the Edwards’ depiction of a pompous, nose upturned, Gordon alongside a grinning, knowing, Edward. All of this builds up towards what I believe is the character’s finest hour, Edward’s Exploit. I always loved the television version of this story, and the original edition did not disappoint. Despite the big engines’ comments about Edward straining to start his train at the beginning of this tale, he ultimately comes out looking stronger than ever. He sustains perhaps the most severe injury ever depicted in the series, who could forget that image of him grimacing in pain, his running plate, cab and splashers torn by the loose side-rod. The weather conditions only make matters worse. A lesser engine would have given up at this stage, and few would blame them for it. But not Edward. Though crippled, he does not let this overcome him, his body may be damaged but his determination is stronger than ever. With some assistance from his crew, Edward ultimately gets the train on the move again, his crew encouraging him, while passengers cheer him on from the coach droplights. It is telling that when he does get back to the shed that night the normally opinionated Gordon and James choose to remain, in the Reverends’ words, “respectfully silent”. Ultimately I think this story, and Edward himself, has much to offer young readers. There are so many positive messages to be drawn here, old age does not mean weak, always try your best, don’t let events or others get you down, you can achieve anything with enough determination. Edward, we salute you.
Of course Edward is not the only character worthy of comment in this book, what can we say of Bill and Ben? Despite this volume being their only appearance in the Reverend's tales, the impression they make is a lasting one. They have a childlike playfulness to them not seen in the series since the early days of Thomas and Percy. The series itself had gradually become more serious as time progressed, so their appearance is quite welcome in that respect. Yet at the same time, the Reverend was not entirely re-inventing wheel either. While the pair do possess the naïve and mischievous qualities of the earlier engines, they also have a sort of impish demeanour all of their own. The Edwards’ artwork helps convey this aspect of their personality to good effect, think of their faces as they creep up on a startled Gordon on page 39. Look at that grin on the very cover of the book itself, as though they are fully aware of the incongruity of their appearance on the front of a book entitled Main Line Engines. Yet there they can be quite innocent at the same time, such as when they voice their concern that the “diseasel” might “magic (them) away like the trucks”. Again, the artwork helps reinforce this to good effect, just look at Bill’s puzzled expression on page 7. Their childlike naivety adds to the book’s humour too, giving rise to the first story’s pun-rooted title, The Diseasel. Awdry uses this wordplay to good effect; one can’t help but laugh at the line “the dust made him sneezle”.
BoCo’s characterisation is also worthy of discussion. Earlier in this review the idea of “steam vs. diesel” racism was discussed. Indeed, up to now there had been few diesel characters portrayed in a wholly positive light, visiting ones had been arrogant, deluded with notions of superiority, and in one case, downright villainous. Even Daisy was not with her problems, being quite stuck up at first. Only the narrow gauge Rusty was truly virtuous from day one. But all that was to change in this volume, with BoCo’s arrival finally providing an example of a standard gauge diesel that is honest, hardworking, and free of the superiority complex his predecessors had. He is humble and well mannered, asking Duck permission to enter Tidmouth shed, rather than simply assuming that it is his right to do so. He demonstrates his humility by apologising to Bill and Ben over the mix-up with the trucks. It’s notable that he doesn’t retort James’ derogatory comments, instead choosing to ignore them. He is quite a responsible engine too, when offered the chance to haul the Express rather than wallow in the prestige he is more concerned that his trucks won’t be looked after, despite it being a less glamorous job. By doing good work he ultimately becomes a permanent part of the Fat Controller’s fleet, and accepted as one of the “family”. Ultimately it is his good work ethic and helpful personality that BoCo is regarded for, him being a diesel makes no difference by the end of the book. Even characters like Donald and Douglas, whose very lives where once threatened by the onset of diesels, come to accept him.
So to end this review, I think it’s safe to say that this volume has a lot to offer readers. It’s full of positive messages, promoting the idea of determination, while subverting negative concepts such as racism and ageism. It’s educational in other aspects too, teaching readers a bit about the railway without becoming too technical. Backed up some wonderful artwork, this really is a classic volume that I would recommend all “Thomas” fans read if they have not already done so, you won’t be disappointed.