“Labour and capital are one on Sodor”: on the economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine

Thomas and friend.

When my second child arrived, I didn’t have time to do much writing. What I did have time to do, though, 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.

There’s been plenty written on the politics of these stories. 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. This is 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 built 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, run 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 near 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 are, in the form of anthropomorphised engines, 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.

Duncan Weldon is an economist, currently head of research at the Resolution Group.

This article originally appeared on Medium in 2015, and appears here with permission.


The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)

In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.