Prototype face design by the Number Three Locomotive Trust. From a photo by Tony Hisgett, reproduced under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0.

The latest new build steam locomotive to enter construction has been revealed to be a full-size recreation of the character of Henry the Green Engine from the popular ‘Thomas’ books. In an exciting and ground-breaking development, the locomotive is planned to feature a full animatronic face and sound system, to enable it to ‘speak’ to enthusiasts.

Existing new build projects aim to produce new examples of classes of steam locomotive that were never preserved, sometimes from scratch and sometimes using original parts. This is the first time that the movement will go beyond the aim of recreating the past, and instead bring a work of fiction to life.

Project Director Tom Bywater said: “It’s clear that the popular appeal of steam remains undimmed, but also that new generations will experience it as either history or entertainment, rather than remembering it in operation. So we believe this will be the perfect way to introduce future enthusiasts to the wonders of steam.”

The Number Three Locomotive Trust (taking its name from Henry’s number on the North Western Railway) has published plans confirming that Henry will be built to the original Gresley-style shape with which he was first depicted in the books prior to his rebuild at Crewe, after which he bore a much closer resemblance to a Stanier 4-6-0. In practice, this will mean combining the boiler and firebox of V2 design with the simpler two cylinders and 4-6-0 wheel arrangement of a Thompson B1.

Heritage locos wearing ‘Thomas’ faces have been the closest we’ve come to recreating these famous stories in real life – but that could be about to change. Adapted from a photo by David Dixon under Creative Commons licence BY-SA 2.0 and available for reuse under the same.

A further innovative aspect of the project will be the heat shielding necessary to protect the electronics of the face and sound system from the heat of the smokebox. Project Engineer Colin Gripper is quoted in the press release as saying that design work is already well advanced on this, and the group is confident that it can be achieved successfully.

The animatronics will be powered and operated from the locomotive’s support coach, from which its operator will work in a specially adapted compartment housing controls for the face, a microphone for capturing speech, and feeds from cameras mounted discreetly on the front of the engine, allowing the operator to see and respond to the locomotive’s surroundings. In due course, the Trust plans to recruit someone with a background in children’s entertainment and/or comedy, who will be able to provide witty interaction with young rail fans on platforms or the lineside in real time. This will of course be family-friendly, although the group also floats the possibility of running the locomotive in evening events where the comedian, and therefore Henry, will be allowed to ‘work blue’.

This sight may soon be recreated ‘for real’! Adapted from a photo by David Dixon under Creative Commons licence BY-SA 2.0 and available for reuse under the same.

Crowdfunding for the project is already underway, and a completion date of 2024 has been set, subject to funding. Although the locomotive will run in Henry’s iconic green livery, a brief period in blue is also being considered, to satisfy those who wish to see him as depicted in the early books.

Colin Gripper concluded: “Henry was the obvious choice for the first full-size animatronic steam engine. For one thing, he will be a good size for working on both the main line and the larger preserved lines. But the news that he is to be written out of the TV series in favour of a new ‘female’ character, in a blatant sop to political correctness, adds an extra importance to presenting these characters as they were traditionally intended.”

New Build Steam will report further developments as part of our regular news round-ups.

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