How can I make toy trains more creative?

Last Christmas, my child's wonderfully-generous grandparents introduced him to Thomas. Not yet one year later, his train collection has grown to impressive numbers, spanning three different collections and covering all available floor space. My son still has trouble identifying family members, but can count and name seventy engines. It's not rare for him to fall asleep holding one, and if I accidentally leave one in his room at naptime, I'll come back to find his books a makeshift book ledge train track.

It's thrilling to see a toy that keeps my child's attention for hours on end, day after day. But of late, I've been concerned that the Thomas universe trends toward repeating movie themes instead of creative play. No matter how adorably my son intones Diesel 10's "The Steamworks is ours," when I hear him quoting Day of the Diesels, I think we're missing out on opportunities for creative play.


Cargo cars help kids develop new narratives.

Cargo cars help kids develop new narratives.

Cargo cars make a world of difference, because they allow kids to take characters they love and create new narratives. As parents who have had to drag their screaming children away from bookstore train tables know, many Thomas sets used to contain a set of black cargo cars. These retired items are still available, but expensive. Many of the large wooden railway sets (like the Vicarstown Dieselworks my son is so fond of) include a cargo car as well as an engine, so they can be a good value. If you don't need any more tracks, cargo cars are harder to find in toy stores. But there are plenty of cargo cars for the online hunter to find. I've rounded up some of the best options below. 

Plain Cargo Cars

The best plain cargo cars are these bright-colored circus cars, with removable wooden animals. Because of the size of the wooden animals they're made to carry, these cargo cars are a little deeper than others in the Wooden Railway universe, expanding the options for household items your child's trains can cart around. 

Engine and Detachable Cargo Combos

If you want to build your child's engine collection while adding cargo, there are a few good options. If you're missing Thomas' best friend, Percy's Musical Ride might be the best option, though keep in mind that this Percy features bunting not on the classic version.

A generally reasonably-priced option is Oliver's Fossil Freight, which includes both an engine and a cargo car. 

The benefit of these engines is they come with detachable cargo. Other engines in the Wooden Railway universe (like Birthday Thomas), come with single-purpose cargo cars. If your overall goal is expanding the imaginative capacity of your railroad, these may not be the best engines to purchase.

Themed Cargo Car Sets

If you're maxed out on engines but want more cargo space, consider one a two-piece car set like Crawly Critters or Dino Fossil Discovery, both of which include a non-detachable boxcar and a two-piece cargo car. If you have a color-obsessed child, the themed cargo sets can get you a range of colors not found elsewhere in the Wooden Railway universe.

Other Brands' Cargo Cars

It helps to remember that you are not limited to one brand when looking for cargo. Brio makes a variety of cargo cars, among them the lumber loading wagon, hay wagon, and car transporter, all with magnetic detachable cargo. 

Ikea's fantastically-priced wooden train sets are sort-of compatible with the other major brands, but the pieces are difficult to put together. The same "sort-of" compatibility holds true for IKEA's cargo cars. The one included with the LILLABO set will not hold much more than a crayon, so it is not the best option for expanding cargo space.

It's tempting to toss every new cargo set into your shopping cart, but let's not forget the marketing genius of this TV/toymaker collaboration, which has brought us, among other things, the Scrap Monster. There is no better symbol of their cornering of the toy market than a $15 heap of welded-together trash. 

Before you go buying every cargo car set on the Island of Sodor, keep your purpose in mind. If you want to expand the creative play for your child's engines, even just a few cargo cars, combined with all the other odds and ends in your house, can help you create hundreds of new stories.