Young children may have already enjoyed playing with the wooden train sets, but as they grow they come to expect a little more than a wooden block with wheels. The Thomas and Friends Trackmaster and/or Tomica trainsets bridge the gap between the wooden my first train sets and the full grown Hornby electronic train sets. Thomas and Friends Take-N-Play (formally known as Thomas and Friends Take Along) is another alternative which is explained further in a separate review.
The train sets covered by this review are the battery operated train sets covering those branded with Thomas The Tank Engine (Thomas and Friends) and the unbranded Tomica Hypercity (Tomica World train sets). The train sets have plastic tracks (different types which can only be joined using special adapters) but the trains and carriages are interchangeable.
The photo below shows the Tomy Trackmaster track, with engines from both Tomy and Fisherprice running on the same track.
History of the Thomas and Friends train sets
Confusingly there are three different train sets that are in some ways compatible with each other. So here’s a little of the background which may help to explain the reason for this and which are compatible with each other.
Thomas and Friends – Motor Road and Rail
The first of these Thomas branded train sets (which is no longer made) is Thomas and Friends Motor Road and Rail. This was made by Tomy and had a blue track. It was based on the Tomy Tomica train track with Thomas the Tank Engine branded trains and stations etc.
In addition to the train track some sets also included a grey car track that provided a circuit for battery powered cars (mainly Bertie) to go around similar to the trains.
Thomas and Friends – Trackmaster
The newer generation of the Thomas the Tank Engine branded train sets is the Trackmaster range. This was originally manufactured by Tomy. The engines and carriages appear to be identical to the Motor Road and Rail versions, but with the new branding on the packaging, but the track changed to a brown coloured track. Whilst the track is the same gauge the connector is different and needs a special adapter to be able to connect with the blue Road and Rail / Tomica track.
The TrackMaster brand is now branded as FisherPrice Thomas and Friends TrackMaster. The track is the same as the brown Trackmaster track used by Tomy, but the trains (in particular the carriages) appear to be of a poorer quality than those previously made by Tomy, although they are also releasing some products with new features such as light and sound.
Note that Fisher-price is a division of Mattel so in some cases (eg. Tesco Direct) these are listed as Mattel TrackMaster rather than Fisher-price, but these are the same.
Tomy Tomica Hypercity / Tomica World
The blue track used in the Motor Road and Rail sets is now available under the Tomy Tomica brand, but is no longer sold with any Thomas the Tank Engine branding. This is available as Tomy Hypercity which is all based on more realistic modern electric trains, compared to the predominately steam (and Diesel) trains with faces from the popular book and TV series associated with the Thomas themed trains.
The Tomy sets have a car track, but this is for push along cars rather than any kind of battery powered cars as was previously created under the motor road and rail sets.
If the change in tracks, names and manufacturers has confused you (and who can blame you) here is a quick summary:
The brown track is branded as Trackmaster and provided with the Thomas and Friends train sets.
The blue track from motor road and rail and Tomica train sets are identical.
The blue and brown track can only be connected together using special adapters provided with some train sets or available through seperately.
Trains, engines and carriages
The engines and carriages for Trackmaster, Motor-road-and-rail and Tomy Tomica are interchangeable. They can be connected together (eg. Trackmaster engine with Tomica carriage) and can run on either the blue or brown tracks.
Cars, roads and motor track
The road and cars in the Tomica set can be used alongside any of the sets, but only works with the Tomica level crossing (if that is desired). They are just standard push-along cars so can be used alongside similar Matchbox cars etc.
The cars in the motor road and rail are for use with the grey motor road and rail track. My suggestion would be to avoid the gray car based track as it takes up a lot of space due to it’s limited configuration and is difficult to fit around the train track. There were car “turntables” available, which should have reduced the amount of space required, but in practice I found them to stick and didn’t work automatically most of the time. The grey track is also no longer available.
Trackmaster remote control trains
One of the things with these sets and in particular Trackmaster (Tomica has some more interactive options) is that once it’s running it’s pretty much a hands off toy. Other than changing the point settings the trains just run around in a circle. This is more of an issue for younger children who may want to push the trains along rather than just watch them go past.
There are now some remote control Trackmaster trains, such as theRemote control Thomas trainse. These are available as just the engine (which can go on Trackmaster / Tomy tracks) or as full sets with Trackmaster track.
The remote control is very easy to use and allows the trains to go forward, reverse and have two sound effect buttons. These are particularly good for adding some more hands on control.
The Fisher Price Trackmaster is for ages 3+, whereas the Tomy Tomica Hypercity sets have an age range of 4 to 7. In reality most of the parts have the same level of difficulty so you should be able to get away with 3 to 7 for most of these (although older children may prefer the more realistic Tomica).
I don’t think either sets are suitable for children below age 3. Many toys are labelled ages 3 and up as it is normally the minimum age where toys are rated due to choking hazards, but with these train sets it’s also about the interactivity; children under the age of 3 are unlikely to be satisfied in watching a train go round and are likely to want to push the trains (see comparison with Thomas Take-N-Play below). Some of the Tomica features/accessories may also be better for children over 4 years old.
Comparison with other Thomas Take-N-Play
The alternative to both of these is the Thomas Take-n-play sets (formally known as Thomas Take-A-Long). The Take-n-play is smaller and so is easier to fit into a small room. They are also portable although it’s rare that we’ve actually taken them somewhere with us. In comparison the Trackmaster / Tomica sets are large and so need a large room to get a decent size layout, although on the plus side it’s possible to create tiered tracks with one track running above the other.
The take-n-play are not motorised and so need to be pushed around the track. For younger children this is perhaps better as the can play more than with the Trackmaster / Tomica, but the Trackmaster / Tomy Tomica is more like “a real train set” so may appeal to older children.
Either of these are sure to be a hit with young train fans. The good news is that because the trains / engines can run on either track and can be connected together then they can be swapped between the different types of tracks.
The tracks are not compatible so you may want to try and get only a single type of tack, although you can get adapters or run the different types alongside if you do get the different tracks.
I think the Tomy Tomica track is better from the point of view of available accessories as children get older, but the Thomas the Tank Engine branding of the Fisher Price sets is likely to be popular with young children.