3yo plays with a Thomas the Tank Engine while his 1yo sister looks on closely

Goodbye, Thomas: Train Geeks Growing Up

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3yo plays with a Thomas the Tank Engine while his 1yo sister looks on closely
His first Trackmaster set, on his third birthday.

It seems like all preschoolers are a little bit train geek. There’s something about big, powerful vehicles that appeals to a very small child’s psyche, to a desire to be big and powerful too. Books about big vehicles for the toddler/preschool set are must-buys for me as a children’s librarian: I know they will be checked out and cherished until they fall apart.

But occasionally a kid like my son comes along who takes that obsession just a little bit further, and you know you have a true train geek on your hands. As a toddler, he would cry if you dared cross a train track without warning him first so he could get a really good look at it as we passed. As a preschooler, he would teach me facts about trains I’d never bothered to learn myself. No matter how fun the rest of the trip might be, a ride on a trolley or subway automatically became the highlight of any vacation. As little as two years ago, we went camping near a fairly busy railroad, and whenever a train whistle blew (once every other hour or so), he would shout “BEST! TRIP! EVER!” He didn’t even have to see the train.

Why are you even asking me if he liked Thomas and Friends?

He had a traditional wooden railway set, with a big sturdy table his grandparents found at a garage sale. He also started collecting the Thomas Trackmaster sets, which became a particular obsession. One large train set takes up a lot of space—two large collections took over the house. And I will argue that stepping on an overturned Trackmaster piece actually hurts more than stepping on a LEGO. But it couldn’t go on forever, right? Thomas is for preschoolers.

No, he was in second grade before we convinced him it was time to pass the wooden railway on to a current Thomas fan, and for a few months afterwards, he would hold a picture of himself playing with it and sigh, “This is all I have now!” Which wasn’t true, we assured him, because he still had a huge tub of Trackmaster sets, which were much cooler and with which he could design all kinds of crazy roller coasters, and more.

The word "Dad" spelled out with Trackmaster tracks
Father’s Day greeting, age 8

But in the past few years, his passion has transferred to video games and more big-kid-focused building sets, and that massive tub of Trackmaster tracks and trains simply sat in his room taking up a large chunk of space. He’s a gamer geek, and a LEGO geek, before he’d consider himself a train geek nowadays. Besides, he’s ten years old, not five. But whenever we suggested that now might be a good time to pass that collection down, he protested, “But there are still sets I never got! I want to try the new redesigned Trackmaster system!”

Yeah, he may have outgrown Thomas, but he hasn’t outgrown trains. After all, his favorite things to build with Minecraft or Super Mario Maker or LEGO are… things with tracks.

Luckily, they make train sets for bigger kids too. He got the LEGO Holiday Train for Christmas last year and literally jumped for joy (if you’ve never seen someone literally and unironically jump for joy, you might not believe me, but he did).

9yo boy in pajamas jumping up and down with his new Lego Holiday Train box in front of him
Literally jumping for joy: photographic evidence

Then there are actual electric train sets, which he had helped his grandfathers set up on occasion and he’s now started asking for. Well, naturally! That’s what grown-up train geeks do—collect model trains with labels like “HO” and “N” instead of “Fisher-Price.” My parents have a rich friend who has probably given my son an unrealistic expectation of what grown-up train geeks can do since he actually had an entire room specially designed in his house just to showcase his very large model railroad collection. He loves when my son comes to visit because only a fellow train geek can truly appreciate the detail he puts into the set. And he does.

My son is certainly not getting his own train room, but he doesn’t even have space for a small electric kit with the box of Trackmaster tracks he never plays with anymore dominating his bedroom. Only after I pointed this out did he say, “I see what you mean. Maybe we can give away the Trackmaster set. But only if I get a real model train set instead!”

Now that the kids are back out of the house during the day, I’ve taken the opportunity to *ahem* clean their rooms. I want my son to have a say in who or where his Trackmaster collection should go to, but I figured that gathering all the pieces, repacking the tub so it fits, and taking the tub to the basement at least cleared space in his room and got the hand-me-down process moving. Packing up that set hit me with an unexpected wave of nostalgia. I’d always just tolerated Thomas for the boy’s sake—the focus on being “really useful” or you go to the junkyard always creeped me out, even if it’s true for trains (but they’re anthropomorphic trains, it’s different!). But now these weirdly smiling engines just reminded me of the tiny boy who used to tuck them in at night, and I got teary.

Goodbye, Thomas. May you make another little train geek jump with joy.

PS: He read this and said, “Nice, but you are SO WRONG about one thing: Thomas is NOT just for preschoolers!” Hanging on there a little harder than I thought!

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6 thoughts on “Goodbye, Thomas: Train Geeks Growing Up

  1. Two things:

    1.) Your Thomas fan can grow up to be like my husband, who does model railroading. https://geekdad.com/2011/06/ode-to-a-great-geek-dad-and-his-geek-hobby/

    2.) Your fan might also be fascinated with the animatronics behind the “moving face” Thomases that travel the country. https://geekdad.com/2014/06/day-out-with-thomas-2014/

    My sons, in their preschool years, had the Duplo Thomas set, the Trackmaster set, and the Wooden Railway. We are down to only the wooden railway, because of the huge financial investment.

    Wonderful post!

  2. My and my brothers’ kids still ask Grandpa to set up the Thomas set he bought when his oldest grandkid was born.
    Three out of four are teenagers now, but they still love to watch it go.
    Great post.

  3. This could have been written about my son. We kept 2 of his Thomas trains (Birthday one with his name on it and the first one he ever got). The rest were handed down to younger cousins and then he taught them how to set-up the wooden tracks. We had several electric versions and the lego set. We even went on the Mt. Hood Railroad for his 2nd birthday with both sets of grandparents. It was trains everything, there was even a show on-demand that showed all kinds of steamers and we would it daily for months. Now he is a gamer, youtuber, K’nex builder, rollercoaster tycon player. It is always sad when they transition to the next love.

  4. Even grown-ups still like Thomas. 🙂 There’s an HO scale version of Thomas and many of his friends from Bachmann that I’ve seen on model railroad club layouts, plus G scale for those who like to run Thomas in outdoor gardens. Admittedly, many adults run them to get young kids to enjoy trains more at open houses, but it’s fun for everyone!

    1. Oh, just to his little cousin. That way if he (the cousin) is not as in love with them as my kid is, he can get them back. And if he DOES fall as in love with them, they can work out who gets what as they grow up– it’s a big enough collection to share!

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