When we took our son on his first steam train ride when he was a few months old – to visit the Grand Canyon National Park – we had no idea what we were starting. Naturally, Thomas the Tank Engine was the true gateway to his addiction. For those who don’t know yet, there are many trains on the Island of Sodor and still more that come visit. So many trains. And nothing Thomas the Tank Engine is cheap.
If your child is Thomas-obsessed, it may be making you slightly insane. I know there were times I couldn’t take the thought of one more play-through of those one-hour videos. Happily, Thomas re-energized the entire toy train industry and there are tons of other choices. Most critically for your sanity, I Love Toy Trains is a DVD series featuring electric toy trains.
Also, you need to buy this book to understand how Thomas and friends work. Right now. Go on – the link will open in another window and you can come back. It is a British release by the same company (Haynes) that makes books on how cars operate so owners can fix, or at least diagnose, their own vehicles. This book explains all the parts on Thomas and the other engines and explains how they work. Fabulous, fantastic, brilliant – there is no word that is over-the-top enough to explain how much better this book can make your life if your toddler wants you to explain how all the trains work, especially since it has pictures designed for kids. So, seriously, just buy it right now.
This is where most start. It’s pretty simple, really. The trains, the track, the buildings – everything is made out of wood with some plastic accessories and decorations. No one officially says this, but the “wooden track” is, for all intents and purposes, its own gauge. That means the track is a standard size and the trains are. (In the case of wooden trains, that really means they will all run on the same track, not that they are to the same scale.) Whether you buy expensive track like official Thomas track or Brio track, or something far cheaper that comes in an unbranded box, every single piece I’ve seen still fits together and lets the trains run on it.
There are quality differences, naturally, between the most and least expensive, but the only track I feel strongly about is the Ikea track. Buy a set. Seriously. The Ikea pieces have a plastic bit on the male end that can be popped out to make it female. It only takes one layout where you end up with either two male or two female pieces that link up perfectly, except that you can’t actually link them, to see why these are a must-buy set. I love them.
The little train was also a favorite to carry around and use when we inevitably found wooden train tables to play on in public spaces. Since they were from home, they weren’t covered in germs from other kids, didn’t need to be shared, we never had to worry that there weren’t enough trains at the table to play with, and there were no issues of being parted from the train when we left the table. I recommend carrying a cheap train for this purpose in case it gets lost or “borrowed”, but you know your little one. If they must have Thomas/Emily/Spencer, then that is what you must carry with you.
Where do we find most of these toy train tables, other than toy stores?
So many train museums. Some of them also have caboose hotels nearby. If you are planning a trip, those can be fun places to stay. If you pick the right caboose/train car, you and your spouse might even get a little privacy while the kids sleep in another part of the car, like the cupola. (The cupola is the high up part with windows.)
If your little one loves trains, be prepared to spend hours just looking at the choo choos. You will almost certainly be forced to learn a lot about them just to keep up with your little train-lover. Two great museums are the B&O Train Museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian, and Steamtown, which is actually part of the National Park Service.
I haven’t checked to see if every state has a train museum, but many do. California (Sacramento Train Museum), Virginia (Virginia Museum of Transportation), and Pennsylvania (Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) all have enormous, well-done train museums. Like car museums, the focus in train museums is on the actual vehicles. You can expect rows of trains displayed on track, one after the other, with walking paths or concrete pads a few feet to a few yards wide between them. There are some dioramas about the history, but most of the train museums we’ve seen focus heavily on the actual machines. Museums mark which ones can be climbed on and in, and where to do the climbing, but most
Some trains will be restored and in pristine condition, others will be…a bit rougher. At one museum, most of the equipment looked like it was from a post-apocalyptic set. It’s a newer, smaller, museum that hasn’t had the funds or manpower to fix anything up yet.
The crown jewel for the B&O Museum in Baltimore is the roundhouse where the oldest and most fragile rolling stock is on display. In 2003, the roundhouse roof collapsed and smashed some of that fragile rolling stock sheltered under it. They have rebuilt most, if not all, of the damaged items as well upgrading and repairing the roof. It is by far my favorite train museum. The roundhouse is stunning and the variety of locomotives never ceases to amaze me. If you or yours love trains and you are nearby, it’s worth a visit. (It’s not far from the I95, if you are traveling north/south on the East Coast.)
Many train museums, large and small, operate real trains that you can take a short excursion (trip) on. They are short, fun rides for kids and totally worth it. On some lines, like the Strasburg RR near Lancaster, PA, the options include eating in the dining car. Most museums that operate excursion lines also seem to have the “A Day Out With Thomas” event at least once a year where they bring in a Thomas the Tank Engine locomotive and delighted children get to ride behind Thomas. Naturally, there is a cornucopia of Thomas items available to buy.
Whether it’s Thomas and friends or something else, trains are a great hobby and a wonderful introduction to all kinds of science, history, engineering, math, and so much more. Whatever you love, there’s probably a way to tie it into trains. Have fun with it!