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James was designed by George Hughes and built by Horwich Works in 1912/13. He was designed as an experiment of the Class 28 locomotives, with a front pony truck installed at the front and 5'6” sized driving wheels instead of the class' usual 5'1”; these were added in an attempt to cure the “nose-diving” the class experienced when travelling at high speed. The experiment did not entirely produce the results hoped for, and in 1924/25, James was sold to the North Western Railway. However, when he first arrived on the Island of Sodor, James was damaged in a crash after his trucks pushed him down the line and his wooden brake blocks caught on fire. After being recovered from the wreck, James was sent to Crovan's Gate Works, where he was repaired, repainted into a new red livery and gained proper brakes; he presumably gained his Fowler tender around this time too.
When James returned from the Works, he became vain and troublesome; while double-heading a passenger train with Edward, he accidentally showered water over the Fat Controller's new top hat, almost forgot to stop at the station and disturbed an elderly lady with his hiccups. After being threatened by the Fat Controller with a coat of blue paint, James became grumpy and began bumping the coaches around aggressively, though this backfired on him when one of the brake-pipes began leaking and needed to be mended with a bootlace and some newspapers. Following this incident, James was shut up in the shed until he could learn his lesson. When he was finally let out by the Fat Controller, James was assigned to pulling a goods train to Killdane. Although he had some trouble when some of the trucks broke away, James managed to keep the train under control and deliver it to the station, and was allowed to keep his red paint after the Fat Controller had seen everything.
Even though he had proven to be useful, James was still teased by Gordon and Henry, who mocked him for his past mistakes. However, after Gordon got lost and wound up at Tidmouth, James was allowed to take the express in his place. He did so successfully, and he and Gordon became firm friends.
When Thomas left Tidmouth to run the Ffarquhar Branch Line, James, Gordon and Henry became irritated, as they now had to fetch their own trains. After an incident on the turntable that left him humiliated, James, along with Gordon and Henry, decided to go on strike, refusing to leave the shed and behaving badly when they had to work. The Fat Controller eventually shut them up in the shed and made Thomas and Edward pull their trains, though he allowed them to come out when they were sorry.
When Diesel arrived on trial, James gained the nickname "Rusty Red Scrap-Iron". Believing that Duck was behind the insults, James, along with Gordon and Henry, turned against him. However, when Diesel was exposed and Duck was proven innocent, James and the other engines were sorry and welcomed him back. James later recalled the events of Diesel's visit to Duncan, though he greatly exaggerated certain parts of the tale, making it seem as though he was the one who sent him packing.
James continued to treat diesel engines with hostility, long after the other steam engines had already accepted them. Although he liked BoCo and Bear, James was openly nasty to other diesels, believing them to be inferior. However, when his injector froze one wintry day and he had to be rescued by the Works Diesel, James decided to give up his prejudiced views, as the diesel had been friendly to him.
In 2011, James was chosen by the Fat Controller to go to the Mainland to collect a bust of the Thin Clergyman and deliver it to Tidmouth. James did so, but on the way back the entrance to Henry's Tunnel collapsed. Thankfully, James had gone through the tunnel before it collapsed and made it to Tidmouth with the bust. He attended its unveiling alongside the other engines.
James arrived on the North Western Railway sometime before Thomas' arrival, and was originally painted black and wore wooden brake blocks, which were prone to burning up and emitting smoke when stopping. He originally owned Annie and Clarabel and believed that he would be given his own branch line, although the other engines doubted this.
When Thomas came to Sodor, James teased him on several occasions for making mistakes, often joining in with Gordon to make fun of him. However, one day, James ran out of control with a goods train and was unable to stop due to his brake blocks being on fire. Thomas chased after the train and tried to slow it down, but James flew off a bend and crashed in a field, the crash badly damaging him. Thomas rushed back to Knapford and retrieved Jerome and Judy, who helped to clear away the wreckage and placed James back on the rails. James was sent to the Steamworks to be mended, where he received his new red livery. Upon returning from the Steamworks, James found out that Annie and Clarabel now belonged to Thomas, who had been given the responsibility of running the Ffarquhar Branch Line.
James is very proud of his splendid red paintwork. He dislikes pulling trucks and believes that he should only pull coaches. He thinks himself superior to the others and can be shallow, boastful, overconfident, naughty, and vain, particularly to those who appear old-fashioned, weak, slow, or dirty. This has caused him to have somewhat of a rivalry with Edward, Percy, Toby and Duck. However, on a number of occasions, he has found himself in need of help from those whom he has insulted and is, in the end, apologetic. Even before he was repainted red he was rather boastful.
James was the last of the steam engines to retain a prejudice against diesels. However, after stalling on a cold day, he was rescued by the Works Diesel and James had to admit that nothing was wrong with diesels. This appears to be one of the few lessons that has stuck.
Since the seventeenth season, James has also been portrayed as a prankster, often tricking or scaring the other engines for fun, or to get out of jobs he dislikes doing. Following a particularly mean-spirited prank he played on Percy in Tale of the Brave, this gimmick seems to have died down.
Despite everything else, James has shown a caring side, is normally hard-working and like every other engine, wants to be responsible, reliable and really useful on Sir Topham Hatt's railway.
James is based on the L&YR Class 28, a class of 0-6-0 mixed-traffic tender locomotive designed by George Hughes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and built by Horwich Works between 1909 and 1912. It was a rebuild of Aspinall's Class 27, with the addition of a Belpaire firebox, a Schmidt/"twin-plug" superheater, and the extension of the footplate and front sandboxes.
According to The Island of Sodor: Its People, History and Railways, James is an experimental member of the Class 28s; he is fitted with a front pony truck (thus making him a 2-6-0 instead of an 0-6-0), 5'6" driving wheels instead of the class' original 5'1" ones and a Fowler tender. His front sandboxes also appear to be mounted underneath his footplate rather than his splashers.
James is painted in NWR red with black lining and gold boiler bands. His dome is brass and his number is painted on the sides of his tender in yellow with black lining. In the Railway Series, James' black lining became blue after Main Line Engines. His roof colour was also inconsistently illustrated as either black or red; since Clive Spong became illustrator, James has been consistently illustrated with a red cab roof.
James has also been seen in several other liveries aside from his red one:
- In the Railway Series, James would have originally been painted in L&YR passenger black, but any white has never been depicted making his appearance akin to their goods livery instead. In the television series, James was originally depicted as having always been red, even when he was a new engine, (except for his appearance in his black livery in The Adventure Begins. He also had red lining on the back of his tender, which was removed after his repaint).
- In The Green Controller, James was mistakenly painted in yellow and black stripes on Percy's orders. He was quickly repainted back into his original livery when the problem was noticed.
- In Tickled Pink, James was painted in a pink undercoat before his standard red coat could be applied. Although he was said to be in an undercoat, James still retained his lining, number and black wheels and smokebox.
- In The Great Race, James was painted in golden floral patterns for the Great Railway Show. He was repainted back into his original livery when he returned to Sodor.
- In An Engine of Many Colours, after hearing Kevin mention the Steamworks did not have any red paint, James dreams he was painted in many different colours including blue, green and silver. But by the end of the episode, he is repainted in his normal red livery.