Thomas the Tank Engine to pull in thousands of riders this weekend
Kelly Cochrane has a job any 5-year-old would love. She makes the Thomas the Tank Engine trains run on time, just like the fictional train scheduler Sir Topham Hatt in the wildly popular children’s book and television series, “Thomas & Friends.”
Cochrane has been organizing the Duluth version of the “Day Out With Thomas” train rides that bring thousands of people to the Duluth Depot each summer. The first of two weekends of rides begin today.
“I hope to do it for the rest of my life,” an excited Cochrane said this week as she and the Depot team of volunteers and staff prepared for their “Super Bowl” of annual events.
More than 16,000 tickets are expected to be sold across the two weekends, a number that has grown from just under 10,000 four years ago.
“This is a spectacular event,” Cochrane said. She is president of SilhouettEvents and has run the Duluth “Day Out With Thomas” the past four years. She flies in from New Jersey to run the show. She does Thomas rides across the country and said Duluth is her most coveted stop.
“There’s a lot to do here,” she said. “It’s my favorite one.”
With the tourist railroad already in place — and the depot and museum — Duluth is a natural fit for the Thomas brand, Cochrane said.
Ken Buehler, director of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, said Duluth has one of the fastest-growing Thomas events in the country.
“We’re already a destination,” he said. “We’re right downtown. We have parking. It’s really about where we are.”
Cochrane said he has set up Thomas events in the middle of fields, far outside of population centers, the only place where many of the tourism trains can go, she said. In Duluth, riders go through the heart of downtown, by Canal Park and Lake Superior.
The ride is as much about the scenery as it is about Thomas leading the train, Buehler said.
Thomas events in Minnesota originally took place in Minneapolis but the setup at the Depot eventually won out. Of the thousands who take rides, 70 percent are still from the Twin Cities area, Buehler said.
What also makes Duluth unique from other Thomas locations is that a mass of volunteers come out each year to help, Cochrane said.
“I’ve made wonderful friends,” she said. “Everyone is happy, which is rare.”
People from community groups flock to the event, she said, and many of them call her to sign up each year. It makes things easier to know there are 50 volunteers a day to rely on.
“We couldn’t run this event without them,” she said.
Staff at the Depot know the long hours they are facing the next two weekends, Buehler said.
“Thomas is nothing more than code for overtime,” he said.
Cochrane said her own 9-year-old son, who told his mom last year that he has certainly outgrown the Thomas phenomenon, chooses to volunteer. He wants to help raise money to keep the Depot operating.
But it’s all welcome, Buehler said, because a cut of the ticket sales go into operations at the Depot.
“Everything raises money for the train,” Cochrane said.
While the Thomas from the book and early television series did not talk, the latest TV version does. That will be the new twist this year as the engine spouts phrases in English and Spanish. His eyes and lips also move, Cochrane said.
Not that anything new is needed to keep people flocking to the rides.
“It is so many people,” she said. She takes pride in the fact that the trains promptly leave on the hour and the event runs smoothly.
“They run right on time,” Cochrane said. “Just like Sir Topham Hatt.”
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IF YOU GO
Day Out With Thomas is in town for the next two weekends — today, Saturday and Sunday, and Aug. 8-10.
The friendly blue locomotive will lead hourly North Shore Scenic Railroad trains on 25-minute trips from the Depot with Sir Topham Hatt.
The Depot also will be hosting activities including live music for kids, bouncy houses, a magician, storytelling, face painting, gift shop, photo opportunities and other entertainment.
The activities run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Expect to spend two to three hours. Tickets are $19 per person. Children younger than 2 get in free. Reservations are required for this popular event that is expected to draw more than 16,000 people. Tickets are available at the Depot ticket office, at (800) 423-1273 or online at duluthtrains.com.
The Thomas rides are the largest money-making event of the season for the railroad and the Depot.
Thomas the Tank Engine was the creation of the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, in a series of stories he told and then wrote down for his son Christopher in the 1940s. Originally called “The Railway Stories,” the character Thomas went on to star in several television series: the current “Thomas & Friends” and the earlier American version called “Shining Time Station,” which was once hosted by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr as the Station Master. George Carlin replaced Starr on the series and was working on the railroad until 1995. Alec Baldwin told the stories and was Station Master from 1998 to 2003. “Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends” chugged onto television for the first time in October 1984 in Britain, and the series became an instant hit. Within just a few months, 8.5 million people were tuning in to watch. Children and adults were besotted by the little steam engine and adored the beautiful railway models in the series. The next stop for Thomas was America in 1989, when Thomas and his friends went on PBS as “Shining Time Station.” He has now appeared in 130 countries all around the world. In 2000, “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” a feature length film, was released. From Mattel, parent company of the Thomas brand