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Organizer of the Great Scale Model Train Show, Howard Zane knows his stuff

Howard Zane's passion for model railroading is obvious. The walls of his Columbia home are lined with glass cases filled with row upon row of model engines. Shelves are stacked with boxes of train kits. An office has been converted to the workshop where he creates not just the trains, but the buildings, scenery and electronics.

But the real treat is in the basement, where Zane, 74, has been meticulously crafting a nearly 3,000-square-foot HO-scale layout since 1983. When he finishes one section, he revamps another, so "most of the original is gone," he said.

Zane regularly opens his home to the public, inviting visitors to walk along the tracks he created, listening to the whoo and chug of the trains as they glide past the buildings, cars, rivers, trees and people of his miniature world.

And, four times a year, for 30 years now, he has organized the Great Scale Model Train Show and Railroad Marketplace. The next one is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday (Feb. 4-5) at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

The show typically attracts between 4,000 and 5,000 model train fans, who admire model-train layouts, browse vendor tables, ask model railroad questions and learn about the hobby through clinics on such topics as building realistic trees and learning the inner workings of signal electronics.

"Howard just done a remarkable job keeping the hobby going and promoting the hobby," said Tommy Gilbert of Tommy Gilbert's Hobby Shop, in Gettysburg, Pa., which will sell merchandise from eight tables at the show. "He's been not only good for my business, but good for the whole hobby."

Zane knows it's an uphill battle. Model railroading, which appeals mostly to retired men, has been losing popularity.

"Young people are not into it because they don't see trains," he said.

His children, Jonathan, 44, an architect living in New York City, and Amy Kline, 47, a psychologist in Sanford, N.C., are not interested in model trains, he said. "They appreciate it, but it's not their thing."

Zane, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., said he's been interested in model trains since he was about 3. Two relatives were stream-train engineers, and his father, Bernie Zane, was a dentist who loved model railroading.

"I was fascinated," he said.

Zane received a degree in fine arts from Parsons, the renowned design school in New York City, and did graduate work at the University of London and the Sorbonne University in Paris, he said. He also served in the Army.

Zane purchased his Thunder Hill Road home in 1969, when Columbia had about 1,500 residents. Over the years, he has been an industrial designer, owner of the Columbia Hobby and Craft World hobby shop in Columbia, and owner of the Cecil County Airport, where he ran a charter business and flight school.

Zane retired in 1987, giving him more time to build his model railroad layout virtually from scratch.

"The only things I did not build were the people and the locomotives," he said.

When he put an addition on his house in 2002, he also expanded the basement, to create nearly 3,000 square feet of model railroad space. The rambling track, built on banks affixed to the walls, takes trains over rivers, through cities and alongside mountains, all in HO scale, the most popular size, which means each shrub, billboard and person is one-eighty-seventh full-size.

While some model railroaders meticulously recreate actual scenes, Zane lets his imagination guide him, though the entire layout is based on Appalachia in the 1940s and 1950s.

Tiny, humorous vignettes can be found around most corners. In one bend of the river, a gaggle of male railroad workers stops to watch several women skinny-dip. Billboards advertiseCoca-Cola, Baby Ruth, Insular cigars and Tucker, "the car of the future."

"It's just something to behold," said Gilbert. "It's like walking into a different world. It's a real fantastic railroad layout to see, with all the detail and all the people. Howard's done a tremendous amount of work on it."

Also planning to attend the show in Timonium is Bill Carl, past president of the Four County Society of Model Engineers, for hobbyists in Carroll, Howard, Frederick and Montgomery counties. Carl, who lives in Carroll County, said he learned about the club "at Howard's train show" and was president for 12 years.

His club builds modular layouts, all based on a single place and date: Hagerstown, Aug. 3, 1954. "We like to show off our skills as far as reproducing exact scenery and details," he said. "When all our modules are put together it looks like one person built it."

The club has 42 members, including "three wives," he said, and its philosophy is, "If you're willing to learn, we're willing to teach."

Carl said he's known Zane since 1987, when he went to the show to sell a Z-scale layout he had built.

"The next thing you know, I'm at his house almost every Wednesday night, helping with his layout," he said.

Zane also receives assignments to create model railroads for private individuals around the country. In fact, he's currently working on such a project, piecing together a red-sided building in his crowded workshop, which is lined with shelves of paint and materials. Boxes along one wall are labeled with items including "cobblestones" and "widow's walk railing."

"It's a wonderful hobby," said Zane, who has documented his model railroading experiences in a heavy, photo-filled coffee table book, "Howard Zane: My Life with Model Trains," self-published in 2006.

In it he writes: "I'd be the first to admit I've gone a bit overboard with my model train activities. It's not necessary to go to such extremes to develop an interest in the hobby! All you need is a liking and fascination for railroading, historical or contemporary."

The Great Scale Model Train Show and Railroad Marketplace will be held Feb. 4-5 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Saturday's admission is good for both days. Tickets Saturday are $9 for individuals, $18 for families, 15 and under free. Sunday admission is $8 for individuals, $15 for families, 15 and under free. For more information, go to http://www.gsmts.com/index.htm.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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