The roots of The Railway Series go back to the early 1940's, when the Rev. W. Awdry made up stories about a sad little blue engine called Edward, in order to entertain his son Christopher who was ill in bed. The stories were first published in 1945, and the book's success meant that a further 25 volumes were published until 1972, each containing four or five chapters in a postcard sized book, with the writing on the left hand page, and beautifully detailed artwork on the right.
After a gap of 11 years, Awdry's son Christopher took up the mantle, and this book was published in 1983 as book 27 in the Railway Series, using the same basic format as before.
The Railway Series books can be split into two types - those which contain one story, split into four or five chapters, and those which contain four or five loosely connected seperate stories. "Really Useful Engines" falls into the latter category - four stories about engines being really useful (being a really useful engine was the goal of all of the engines in Awdry's books, and the theme recurred again and again).
In the first story, Thomas stops some thieves who have stolen the stationmaster's car. In the second, Percy helps the local postman. In the third, Duck helps Henry up a steep hill, and in the fourth, Thomas, Duck and Percy pull the express train when Gordon and Henry are ill.
Awdry has his father's way with storytelling and with attention to detail, but allows sarcasm to creep in in place of his father's cheeky humour. Perhaps also the stories have been written "out of time" - the original books, written in the 50's and 60's, can be read as an observation of the decline of the steam train and the introduction of diesels. This book, written in the 80's but set, probably, in the 50's, seems to be less pointed. Ultimately though, these srories stand or fall on the reaction of their young audience, and in this respect they work well.
My real gripe though, is with this particular edition of the book. Gone is the familiar left hand/right hand format. The detailed pictures are still there, but they have been cut up and bits of them sprinkled throughout the text, so that readers may only focus on individual elements of the pictures without seeing the whole thing. It also seems to have be computer enhanced (presumably so that all of the books, with their various artists, are given a homogenous look). The artwork was such an important factor in the success of the Railway Series that is seems almost blasphemous to vandalise it in this way.
Young readers have been denied the pleasure of pouring over the pictures to see what is going on on the busy little Island of Sodor.