Has Thomas The Tank Engine met his match (of the day)?

BBC launches a lookalike rival to every toddler's favourite little blue train, using the voice of Gary Lineker

Peep, peep! Look out Thomas, there's a troublesome rival on the tracks. After 60 years of the little blue engine's supremacy on the rails, a new character is hoping to shunt him out of the affections of fans.

Underground Ernie is to be launched by the BBC early next year on CBeebies, its digital channel for toddlers. Ernie, a Tube supervisor, is joined by a fleet of trains, each named after a line on the London Underground - Bakerloo, Circle, Jubilee, Victoria and Hammersmith & City.

With an uncanny similarity to Thomas and his pals, each of the trains has a face, although these are computer-generated animations, unlike the Fat Controller's engines on the island of Sodor which are model trains.

And like Thomas the Tank Engine, which was originally voiced by Ringo Starr (and later by Michael Angelis), Ernie's show will have big names behind it. Match of the Day host Gary Lineker will provide the voice of the main character and is understood to be in line for a share of the profits.

Thomas merchandise has been one of the biggest spin-off hits for children's TV since the series was launched in the 1980s. A Thomas board game is expected to be one of this year's biggest sellers.

Lineker, aformer England football captain, said: "I'd never done that sort of voiceover work before and it was a fantastic experience. I just can't wait for the train set."

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