Thomas trains are made in China, as are virtually all of the toys that have been recalled for lead in the last several years (and there have been quite a few, as can be seen from the CPSC recall list
Our family already avoids buying toys from China for human rights reasons, but even if we didn't, we'd be very concerned about their poor track record for quality and safety. For instance, we were given a Radio Flyer Walker Wagon (a "Classic All-American Toy," now made in China
), which was later recalled because the "clicker" was a choking hazard -- and
we had repeated problems with the nuts working loose on the handle and wheels. I've never heard of anything like that happening when the wagons were made in the USA. Not to mention that, with all the counterfeiting that goes on in the Chinese business world (e.g. see the recent NY Times article, When Fakery Turns Fatal
), it seems as if even the best-intentioned companies can't be sure that their materials are what they're supposed to be.
Back to the subject of trains... as LynnS6 said, Brio is completely separate from Learning Curve, the company that makes Thomas trains. However, Brio's trains are also made in China. They used to be made in Sweden, and were designed in a very simple style, without a lot of bells and whistles. When they moved production to China, they started making their trains fancier -- I guess to compete with Thomas. Personally, I like the old style better, as it seems more geared toward creativity and "open-ended" play.
TC Timber trains -- the original wooden trains -- were invented in the USA in the 1930's, and were made in upstate New York for many years. Their trains are now made in Germany, by HABA. HABA has a long history of making high-quality, safe toys, so these are the trains we'd choose if we were shopping for a complete set. They're compatible with the other systems, with the usual caveats about bridge height, etc. (FYI, Maukilo.com
has a 40% off sale on TC Timber at the moment.)
There are also some small "made in USA" companies that have a limited, but high-quality, selection of trains and accessories. Again, I'd be inclined to trust them over anything made in China. In some cases, you can even visit the factory.
After looking at all this stuff, I'm tempted to shell out for the TC Timber spiral track, and one of the Whittle Shortline replica trains, for DS's 2nd birthday. I have to admit, this would be more for me than for him... we have plenty of train stuff already, and he'd be happy to get a bunch of old shoe boxes and some crayons. But I'm sure he wouldn't object.