A small railway that was the inspiration for the Thomas the Tank Engine characteris defying the threat of legal action after encountering a commercial equivalent of the Fat Controller, the autocratic station master in the children's stories.
The Talyllyn Railway in Gwynedd, North Wales, was adored by the Rev Wilbert Awdry, the creator of Thomas, who was one of its first volunteers before writing his stories, basing at least four characters on locomotives there. The 1921 locomotive on which Awdry's Peter Sam train character is based has been running on the line as an attraction under his fictional name for more than 10 years.
The Britt Allcroft company, which bought the Thomas copyright in 1998 for £13.5m, is now demanding the same licence fee for the use of the name that other steam railways pay to run Thomas the Tank Engine events.
But true to the spirit of Thomas, the volunteer-run Talyllyn is refusing to fall into line and on Friday will again roll out Peter Sam - the locomotive it bought for £25 in 1951 - for his public duties.
"[Britt Allcroft] are threatening us with legal action," said the railway's managing director, David Mitchell, yesterday. "But we have taken advice and are told that legally this is our locomotive. It was ours long before Thomas."
A spokesman for Britt Allcroft, who was unable to disclose the licence fee, said: "They are not in posesssion of a licence to hold a Thomas event. They are breaking the licence agreement."
Thomas remains remarkably big business for the Britt Allcroft (Thomas) company, which also owns the copyright on Captain Pugwash and has fiercely defended rights to the brand name. A £9m film starring Alec Baldwin is expected this summer, a theme park is planned for America and Britt Allcroft is securing about 5.5m hits a month on its Thomas website, on which a copyright warning is featured.
For its part, the railway says it has published 350,000 declarations of its intent to ignore copyright warnings in its timetables, which have been distributed throughout the country. They describe the railway as "owner of the locomotive Edward Thomas, written into the Rev W Awdry's stories as Peter Sam".
Four Talyllyn engines appeared on Awdry's fictional Skarloey railway, including one that was later renamed Sir Handel after Awdry's character and launched into service in the late 1980s. "Sir Handel was a grumpy, pompous character and was never too popular but Peter Sam is friendly, which is why we launched him instead," said Mr Mitchell.
Connections with Awdry, who wrote with the aim of encouraging visitors to the railway, remain strong. His son, Chris, is involved in the Peter Sam day on 1 June.
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