Small Railroads in Trouble

Oh Dear, The Fat Controller is losing money.
From the Telegraph (such a quaint name for a newspaper) HIT loses $500m in pre-school TV market

“The owner of Thomas the Tank Engine, HIT Entertainment, has been forced to write $500m (£325m) off its value, wiping out the entire investment of private equity owners Apax Partners.”

… blaming a competitive pre-school market. I know our household purchases of Thomasana is down this year, mainly because there is nothing left to buy.
Will Warren Buffett be next?

Calvin and Hobbes: Dad Explains Science

Calvin and Hobbes Dad explains science
See first cartoon.

Continue reading

The Really Revolutionary Engine (Thomas from a revolutionary perspective)

From BUYO The Really Revolutionary Engine
Funny, especially for the Thomasistas in the crowd.

NYT biz journo: I was held hostage at “Thomas” toy factory in China

Boing Boing: NYT biz journo: I was held hostage at “Thomas” toy factory in China.
The factory must have been run by Diesel.
See earlier essay on Thomas:
The Transportationist: Thomas, a thinly veiled portrait of rail in England

Thomas, a thinly veiled portrait of rail in England

When I first came to England, I went into the HMV store and my son, trying to find something familiar immediately glommed onto Thomas the Tank Engine (he had a Thomas train in Minnesota, but it really wasn’t a big deal for him then). I bought the DVD which he became obsessed with for a time. Having not seen Thomas in detail before, I was surprised he is thought of as an icon for railfans. Almost every episode has some kind of disaster. I suppose this realistically portrays the state of surface rail in England, but it is hardly a positive spin on things, even if it works out in the end. The 26 episodes on the first season DVD follow, with a brief description of the maladies befalling The Isle of Sodor.
episode issue
1 Thomas and Gordon – Thomas doesn’t get uncoupled soon enough and is pulled by Gordon
2 Edward and Gordon – Edward gets picked to work, but isn’t thanked by Gordon
3 The Sad Story of Henry – Henry refuses to leave tunnel
4 Edward, Gordon and Henry – Gordon blows safety valve, Henry & Thomas save train
5 Thomas’ Train – Thomas leaves train’s coaches behind (as they were not coupled)
6 Thomas and the Trucks – Thomas pulls trucks, trucks willfully push him too fast, bump into each other, and as a consequence overshoots station
7 Thomas and the Breakdown Train – James derailed because trucks push him too fast. Thomas moves broken trucks and rights James. Thomas gets own branch lline
8 James and the Coaches – James steams controllers hat, overshopts stations, bumps coaches, passengers mend the brakepipe with bootlace and newspaper.
9 Troublesome Trucks – James pulls trucks (brakes would stick on or axles run hot) coupling snaps
10 James and the Express – Gordon switched off mainline onto loop, so James pulls
11 Thomas and the Guard – Henry’s system out of order, Thomas leaves guard behind
12 Thomas goes Fishing – Thomas needs water, draws water from river, Thomas gets fish in boiler, blocks pipes
13 Thomas, Terrance, and the Snow – Thomas bangs snowplow attachment, Thomas runs into a snow bank, Terrance the tractor pulls him out.
14 Thomas and Bertie – Thomas and Bertie the Bus get into race. Bertie has better acceleration, but a circuitous route and the railway has Right-of-way, Thomas wins, but racing is officially discouraged.
15 Tenders and Turntables – Turntables spins James around because of wind. Indignation meeting Gordon, James, and Henry
16 Trouble in the Shed – Thomas and Edward pick up slack from still sulking engines. Brings in Percy
17 Percy runs Away – Gordon almost crashes into Percy (Percy was on the wrong track), Percy runs away with no driver to pull brakes, and crashes into an earthbank.
18 Coal – Henry not operating well, bad coal
19 The Flying Kipper – Points frozen, danger sign not set. Crash. Henry derailed and remodeled.
20 Whistles and Sneezes – Gordon’s whistle stuck. Boys on bridge vandalize Henry’s Coaches. Henry “sneezes? ashes at boys.
21 Toby and the Stout Gentleman – Toby, a tram engine, moves trucks from farms to market, business dries up.
22 Thomas in Trouble – Police writes up Thomas for wheel sidings and cowcatchers. James runs into tar trucks.
23 Dirty Objects – James is pushed into tar wagons by his trucks
24 Off the Rails – Gordon’s plan for revenge misfiles and he slides into a ditch
25 Down the Mine – Thomas falls down the mine, is rescued by Gordon
26 Thomas Christmas Party – who knew trains were religious. Was a locomotive risen from the dead 2000 years ago?
The trains clearly have some major sins (the series was written by Reverend Awdry after all, there must be a moral), they seem largely to be a variant of Pride:
* Express is better than Pulling Coaches is better than Pulling Freight is better than Shunting
* Trains get “cheeky? with each other.
* Engines Want shiny coaches, shiny paint.
The system is strangely personified, trucks (freight cars) play tricks, and engines have personalities, yet are subservient to humans, still Drivers and Firemen and Fat Controller must negotiate with engines
Interestingly, the Engines recognizes intelligence is in the tracks (though one says “I seem to know the right line by instinct“)
Apparently later seasons tone down the carnage on the tracks, though it still remains, and Season 5 is quite dark and forboding, an Empire Strikes Back to Season 1’s Star Wars.
More on Thomas here: Thomas and Friends – Season 1 – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Deconstructing Busytown

My first understanding of how places work probably came from the book What Do People Do All Day? by children’s author Richard Scarry. The Busytown in which this book (and others) are set faded from my consciousness until my son was born, and we decided to go shopping for books again. Rereading the book from an adult (and planning and transportation professional’s) point-of-view provides a new perspective on the Scarry memes that have shaped the neural networks of millions of young minds. How many youth are inculcated in the idealized place of Scarry? Estimates suggest that over 300 million copies of Scarry books are out there, no small set of infected brains.


I was raised on the 1968 version, and have acquired the abridged (and apparently censored) 1976 version for my son. A number of people have critiqued Scarry for his implicit sexism, a large number of women work at home or other traditionally female occupations (teacher, nurse). The Scarry world-view is traditional, and I won’t pile on in that regard. But the world is traditional in other ways as well, and that is its view of the city.
Scarry moved to Switzerland in 1968, and Swiss architecture permeates the old town center of What Do People Do All Day. The Town Hall of Busytown on the cover is nothing if not Tudor. There is a small gate through which a small car is driving. Something to note about the vehicles in Busytown is that they are all just the right size for the number of passengers they carry. The Bus on the cover is full, with a hanger-on. The taxi holds one driver in the front and one passenger in the rear. The police officer (Seargant Murphy) is riding a motorcycle. When he has a passenger, the motorcycle always has a sidecar. Similarly, each window in town has someone in it, sometimes more than one person. Of course, this is a busy town, so the activity makes sense. The cover this includes the grocery store, butcher, and baker (no supermarkets in 1968 Busytown), one block in front of Town Hall. One thing to note about the Butcher is that he is a pig, and clearly butchering sausages. Anthropomorphism is a standard feature of children’s books, so that shouldn’t disturb us. The cannibalistic autophagia: a pig serving one of his own (presumably sometimes to other pigs, though on the cover the customer is a mouse), does disturb. It is a common feature of American restaurant signs to feature a smiling animal (e.g. the happy pig chowing down at a rib shack) encouraging you to come in and eat. One is somehow more comforted with ads of cows holding signs saying “Eat mor chikin!? (remarkable more not for the misspelling, but for the fact that cows can write at all with their hooves).
On the cover, the post office is just behind Town Hall, a hotel next to that is shown inside on detailed pages. The police station is located next door to the Town Hall (separated by the town gate and a newsstand), a detective agency on the second floor, and a watch-repairman upstairs from that. If the police don’t give you satisfaction, you can go upstairs and hire your own private investigator. So public buildings seem to share space with private businesses. Just left of the town hall is a residential building (perhaps medically oriented). Left of that (on the back cover, which is continuous with the front), and across the street are the public library and school.
The building to the right of the police station, separated by a small plaza, includes a café, printer, newspaper, and bookstore on the ground floor, a photographer, secretary, and telephone operator on the second floor, and an artist studio, story-writer, and poet above that. A very high density mixed use collection of small businesses all themed around communication.
Page 4 shows another picture of the town center area, though not obviously connected to the first picture. There is a building with a music teacher and dance studio. To the right of that across the street is a building with a bank and drug store on the ground floor, and upstairs includes a dressmaker, beauty parlor, and realtor, and on the top floor, the medical complex including dentist, doctor, and optometrist. Even in Busytown, the medical professionals co-locate. Perhaps they are sharing a receptionist, it is hard to say.
Next door and across an alley is a barber, and upstairs (up a hill, so the second floor has ground access as well) is a hardware store. Home Depot has yet to arrive. The top two floors are residential, the “Ritz Apartments?. Across the street is an automobile showroom, in the style found outside North America where it features only one car in the window and there are other uses in the building. Behind that is the fire station.
We learn on later pages that some businesses appear more than once. Grocer cat seems to have at least two small food stands, the stand on the cover is clearly different than the one on page six. There is also more than one bank, the downtown bank on page four (run by a raccoon) is in a large building, but there is another bank on page seven, with a different (this time pig) banker.
We discover that town includes a tailor and a blacksmith shop (who fixes tractors). There are construction workers in town, who work in the field at construction sites. The infrastructure of the house they are building is surprisingly accurate, including water and sewer, and forced air heating. The electrical is governed by a fuse box, while the telecommunications wires each room with a fixed-line telephone (this was 1968 after all).
We follow a letter from Betsy Bear (in Busytown) to Grandma Bear (in Workville) The postmaster in Busytown sorts letters by hand into cubbyholes sorting them by destination; all letters to Workville are put in a bag and on a plane. Though there are no apparent zip codes, one letter carrier in Workville is named Zip. After some confusion, Zip delivers the letter to Grandma’s house. Grandma is delighted to have received the felicitous missive from her granddaughter. The post office still sells airmail stamps for only 8 (cents?), and postmarks are applied by hand, but the post office today works remarkably like that of 1968.
The firefighting system differs from today through the use of fire-alarm boxes, rather than 911. The advantage of boxes of course is the built in locational information, which was not available until recently with land-line phones, and still is not available on many mobile phones (For that matter, my phone company does not even have effective caller-id, especially after they transfer me seven times). If someone pulls the level of fire-alarm box number 3, that helps send the firefighters on their way. The firefighting equipment is similar to that of today, the trucks are the iconic red, though there is a lot of equipment deployed for a small house fire (at least five vehicles)
The medical system we learn about through Abby’s visit to the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Doctor Lion, who has both a practice and hospital visiting rights, performs the surgery. However Abby’s mom can’t stay, it turns out she is about to give birth to a baby brother for Abby. Mom came to the hospital in an ambulance, the old station-wagon style ambulance. I hope they have good insurance, still they will see bills and statements for months.
The Pig family takes a train trip to visit relatives. The day of the trip Daddy buys tickets at the train station. Note that there are no advanced purchases required, and there must be space on the train. The train looks quite crowded in the picture, so maybe daddy lucked out and got the last available seats. The station has a newsstand, and porters help passengers with their luggage. A vendor sells snacks on the platform. The trip requires a transfer (not only are they taking a train, they are taking two trains). The second train is much more modern, and has a sleeping car, dining car, and mail car, and is powered by a diesel-electric locomotive. The train has a conductor who collects the tickets. The mail is thrown off the train at the local train station without having to stop. There are at-grade crossing, protected by gates, but the gates are not machine controlled. The amount of labor involved in this trip must make it expensive. Eventually the pig family’s overnight trip ends when they arrive at the Wiener Schnitzel station.
… to be continued …
— dml