The economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine

In my last post on Medium, I attempted to invent a new genre — the half finished blog post. Or rather 5 unfinished blog posts. I’m not sure I entirely succeeded.

Since then my second child has arrived and I have not had a chance to finish any of those five thoughts. I have, I am pleased to say, managed to continue actually finishing thoughts over at my BBC blog.

What I have had the time to do, is watch an awful lot of Thomas the Tank Engine with my eldest. Often early (very early) in the morning.

It may just be sleep deprivation, or maybe something deeper, but the more I watch Thomas, the more questions are raised in my mind.

My poor Twitter followers have been forced to put up with this for days now. So, to save them reading any more, I thought I’d set out my own theory here.

There’s been plenty written on the politics of Thomas. What I think is missing (sleep deprivation alert) is a consideration of some of the economic, financial and business questions raised.

Before proceeding, I should be clear that the Thomas I am considering is the modern, CGI edition — in particular seasons 13 and 14 (currently on Netflix in the UK). Not the Ringo Starr voiced Thomas of my own youth. Things have moved on in the fictional (but strangely well developed) island of Sodor. Although much remains constant.

The place to start is with the railway company itself. For many days I couldn’t fathom its ownership structure.

I think it’s pretty clear that it is not a listed entity. The company engages in all manner of pursuits but few of them seem focussed on shareholder value.

If the company is listed, I would argue it suffers from corporate governance problems of the highest order.

There are elements of a stakeholder model at work. Whilst there is little evidence of a works’ council, the interests of the staff do seem to be taken into account at times. Suppliers are clearly valued and there is a certain long termism at work. Profit, in the short term at least, is very much a secondary consideration. Maybe the Rhine flows through Sodor? But this theory is too neat.

It could also be that the firm is state owned. I can’t rule that out but it raises bigger questions as to the nature of the state on Sodor.

It’s perhaps most likely that the company is privately held. Privately held but closely entwined with the political forces of Sodor. Sodor is very much a one company kind of town and it isn’t hard to image how the railway firm would yield immense political power.

If it is privately held, then presumably the owner is the Fat Controller himself, Sir Topham Hatt.

As an aside, I am curious as to that “Sir” — was he knighted as part of an aristocratic embrace of the forces of capitalism on Sodor? Is that Knighthood a way of tying the modern bourgeois into the remnants of a feudal state?

Perhaps, but this I think this is to look down the wrong end of the telescope. Sir Topham’s mother is ‘The Dowager”. I suspect he was never knighted at all but is in fact a hereditary baronet.

This is not an attempt to head off political change by binding in the new industrialists. Sodor is at an early stage of development, the industrialists themselves come from the aristocracy.

There is no evidence of an active credit market on the island. The capital to build this railway came from the old holders of power and wealth.

The current governance of the island is complex. The industrial — and possibly the real political — power is clearly held by Sir Topham. Whose animation, it is worth noting, resembles Bob Hoskins as Khrustchev in Enemy at the Gates (might this be important? Perhaps.)

Then there is the Duke. He is ferried from time to time between his main residence and his summer house. Whilst clearly a figure of symbolic importance it is unclear if he holds any real de facto or de jure power.

The real complication comes in the office of Mayor. I am uncertain what powers he holds and equally in the dark on the manner of his appointment.

The only explanation that really works for me is as follows. Sir Topham, or perhaps his ancestors, were once rich but minor members of Sodor’s gentry. They build the railway and have been expanding it ever since. The Duke may rule in name but not in deed. The Mayor is but a democratic fig leaf that camouflages the real Sodor.

Sir Topham’s industrial and political powers are closely linked. The railway survives by virtue of its monopoly. Any profits are continually reinvested in expanding the track network of what is frankly an already ludicrously over-serviced island.

Real competition would kill the railway. There is of course Bertie the Bus providing one competing service, but some evidence suggests this is but a charade. Whether there is formal collusion or not, Bertie and the railway avoid direct competition.

The situation with the narrow gauge interior line, ran by the Thin Controller, is more clear cut. The two controllers regularly meet. If Sodor had a competition authority (not that Sir Topham would ever allow this) this would be an open and shut case.

The odd thing about Sodor and its railway is the continuing use of steam power. Clearly alternatives are available. There are Diesel engines at work, but they are limited to pulling freight and shunting trucks. They are certainly not allowed anywhere passenger lines. Given the sentience of the engines themselves, this may reflect special privileges for the so-called “steamies” — an extreme form of demarcation that is clearly crying out for structural reform.

The fact that labour and capital (in the form of anthropomorphised engines) are one on Sodor complicates any analysis.

But I think the driver of the use of steam is not to do with a two tier labour market. Rather it is emblematic of the poor state of technological advancement on the island as a whole. In one episode an electric train is introduced, only for his battery to run out as none of the others understand how he works. Sodor is a place that struggles with modernity.

Clearly the adoption of new technologies is not widespread. One can guess at the productivity performance of Sodor and it looks grim

The silver lining is that the Island maintains something approximating full employment. The cloud is that living standards appear to have stagnated since the early 1980s.

Economists do not fully understand the long term drivers of productivity growth. But the lesson of Sodor is this: over investing in a technologically backward, sheltered and protected from competition railway is not the road to prosperity.

And yet despite stagnant living standards the people/engines of Sodor appear content. Indeed it is unclear if they get paid at all — instead they seek meaning and joy in a Stakhanovite desire to be “really useful engines”. The great trick of Sir Topham is to employ engines who essentially evoke the image of the New Soviet man in the service of a proto-capitalist, semi-feudal enterprise.