Thomas was late for the station. He was very cross with the new tilting trains, which had held him up because they could not tilt properly, and now he was running along the track, trying to make up for lost time. “Oh come along We’re rather late. Oh, come along! We’re rather late,” he sang to Annie and Clarabel, his two coaches. But Thomas could not seem to go faster than 100 miles per hour, no matter how hard he puffed.
“Why am I unable to exceed these silly speed restrictions?” whistled Thomas impatiently. Annie and Clarabel laughed, because the high-speed line had recently been upgraded to include Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which intervenes automatically to ensure naughty engines comply with set speed limits. “Bother! Something must be wrong with my firebox,” said Thomas. By the time he got to the station, the Slim Controller was already waiting for him.
“Thomas, you are 47 minutes late, well within our performance targets for this month,” said the Slim Controller, who was looking very young and fit for a man his age. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said Thomas. He noticed that the platform was crowded with schoolchildren, many of whom were shaking and crying.
“These children need to go to the seaside for the day,” said the Slim Controller, “but they are afraid to ride on a train, because they think it might crash. I need you to show them how safe rail travel can be.”
Suddenly, much to Thomas’s surprise, competent rail workers in high-visibility clothing began to uncouple Annie and Clarabel.
“Help, Thomas! Help!” shouted Clarabel.
“Where are we going?” cried Annie.
“I’m afraid that Annie and Clarabel are Mark I rolling stock,” said the Slim Controller, “creaky old slam-door coaches from the 1960s. We’ll be replacing them with newer stock immediately.”
Thomas was sad to see Annie and Clarabel being towed away, but he was soon smiling again when he saw his two shiny new carriages, Helga and Sophie.
“We come from Sweden,” they sang in lovely soft voices, as the competent railway workers finally managed to get the doors to open. As the frightened children were forced on to Thomas’s two new coaches, he got a very naughty idea.
“I’ll show them just how much FUN trains can be!” he peeped.
“Be a good little engine, Thomas,” said the Slim Controller. “Remember that my pay incentives are directly linked to your performance.” As he pulled out of the station, Thomas soon forgot the Slim Controller’s warning. Instead of going directly to the seaside, Thomas headed for a main line which he knew had yet to be upgraded with ATP. Thank goodness the government had reneged on its safety commitments! Then, just as he approached the junction his brakes squealed, and poor Thomas found himself standing still on the line. “Whatever now?” he moaned.
“You passed a signal, Thomas!” sang Helga. “You passed a signal at danger!”
“Those signals are only for lazy trains who need a rest,” said Thomas. "My driver passes them all the time.”
“It’s not up to your driver, any more, Thomas,” said Sophie. “The new Automatic Warning System applies your brakes whenever you pass a signal at danger, unless your driver cancels the warning within two seconds.”
“Well why didn’t he, then?” demanded Thomas. “There’s no one here but us!”
“Sorry,” said Thomas’s driver. “I’m really stoned.” Slowly the train began to reverse up the tracks.
“Not to worry mate,” peeped Thomas with a cheeky wink, “your secret’s safe with me.”
“Nothing personal,” said the driver, “but it really freaks me out when you talk.”
Now Thomas and Helga and Sophie were heading for the seaside once again. However Thomas was planning more tricks to frighten his passengers. Perhaps he would derail into a field with an angry bull in it! That would teach those children not to ride on trains! Thomas looked for some faulty points, or a nice pile of wet leaves, but there were none to be found. He hoped he might spot some vandals damaging the track, but all along the way on both sides appropriate fencing had been installed to inhibit access. “It is estimated that 55% of all train incidents are due to vandalism!” sang Sophie.
“Huh,” said the driver.
At the next station some policemen came and escorted Thomas’s driver off the train. “We are taking you for drug testing,” said one of them. “Allegations have been made under the new Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System – the whistleblower’s charter, if you like.”
“The system is open to all Railway Group members, as well as other participating companies,” sang Helga and Sophie.
“Bye-bye! Good luck. Bye-bye! Good luck,” puffed Thomas.
“Does anyone hear them besides me?” asked the driver.
Eventually a new driver was found for Thomas, one who had tested negative for cannabis, positive for literacy and hadn’t been poached by Virgin Trains. Soon Thomas and Helga and Sophie were under way again. Now the children were smiling as Thomas adhered strictly to prevailing speed restrictions all the way to the seaside. In the village he met Bertie Bus driving down the stretch of road which runs alongside the railway.
“Hullo, Thomas!” said Bertie. “Care to race?”"
“I can’t,” moaned Thomas. “The track won’t let me! It’s called safety.”
“Why, rail travel is already much safer than going by bus,” said Bertie, slamming into a bridge abutment, killing four.
“Really?” said Thomas. He began to think that safety wasn’t so bad after all. When he finally pulled into the station, the Slim Controller was there waiting for him.
“How did you get here so fast?” asked Thomas.
“I flew on EasyJet,” said the Slim Controller. “It’s very convenient, and I wanted to be here in order to give you this award for Effective Risk Management. Thomas, you really are a safe little engine.” The children cheered as they disembarked.
“Thank you,” said Thomas proudly. “It remains my number-one priority.”
With apologies to the Rev Wilbert Audry
This page published 26th January 2006 © J S Rastall