“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.


Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.