The average age of the model train enthusiast is about 50 -- which for some might lead to suspicions of arrested development, but that's all right with the typical modeler.

"Us adults have every right inthe world to play with toys," declares Columbia resident Howard Zane, 53, a retired industrial designer. "We pay all the bills and the (children) have all the fun, so it's time for us to have some fun, too."

He emphasizes his point with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "Cherish the things of youth, it's a damn shame to waste them on children."

Toward that end, Zane and a fellow enthusiast, computer programmer Ken Young, 46, have created the Ellicott City Scale Model Railroad Association.

"It consists of Ken and myself," said Zane, "about 10 really good friends and volunteers. The idea of the group is to promote model railroading."

The association presents "The Great Scale Model Train Railroad Collectors Meet" about eight times a year inthe Baltimore area, Pennsylvania and New York State.

The next meeting takes place June 22-23 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. More than 400 tables of scale model trains, equipment and related items will be for sale or trade. Also on display will be operatingtrain layouts, train movies and other related items.

Their last show, earlier this spring at the same location, had 670 tables of model train items, viewed or talked over by nearly 4,000 people. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 adults nationally are model train buffs.

Young, like Zane, is a longtime model train enthusiast, having been involved since the age of 6. What attracted him to trains was "the power of these things. They're huge machines in motion. It's just beautiful."

Unfortunately, his setup is no where near as complete, since he still has to devote some time to his day job.

Nevertheless, "you can get started in model trains pretty easily," he said. "All you need is a flat surface, and $50 can get you some tracks, an engine andsome cars, and you're in business. After that, it all depends on what you put into it."

Zane has loved trains since he was 3. One of his most cherished memories "was when I was a kid, my father -- he wasa dentist -- had a patient who used to drive a steam engine on the Erie Railroad, and I used to ride with him for a couple of years. It was like riding a behemoth, a fire-breathing monster, going down the road at 60 miles an hour with the incessant clanging, and the bells ringing, the roar of the fire and the smell of burnt oil and the smoke.That was sheer poetry."

In addition, Zane said, "the most beautiful thing is when form follows function, and a steam locomotive is just pure function."

So to describe his hobby of some 50 years as just "playing with model trains" is somehow inadequate.

It's more appropriate, using Zane's own phrase, to call it "four-dimensional art,"a reference, Zane explained, to the fact that his art has movement in it.

"There's no limit to what you can do." he said. "We can develop things to the point where the cars run back and forth on the roads, or you can have people moving about on conveyor belts with magnets. It just depends on how much time you have, and on how crazy you really are."

When not busy with other devotees of this particular tabletop reality, Zane is the proud owner, operator, CEO and overall creator of the mythical Piermont Division of the C & O Railroad.

Creating the line took him more than 15,000 hours, stretched over eight years and almost completely fills his basement -- which stretches a little more than 26 feet in length and width. But in a sense, Zane sayshe has been creating the Piermont Division virtually all of his adult life, "probably about 30 years."

"All the rolling stock is handmade, mostly by me. Some of the stuff I've acquired in shows, but mostof it I built. I started the layout in 1983, but I had a lot of parts for it."

Set in the West Virginia mountains during the 1950s, Zane's creation shows meticulous attention to technical and artistic detail that is the hallmark of a superb craftsman or artist.

More than 2,000 pieces of "rolling stock," including engines, freight cars, cabooses and passenger cars inhabit his railways. Built from metal, plywood and polystyrene, Zane described the railroad's creation as theperfect antidote to stress.

He chose the mountains for his setting because "I fell in love with West Virginia, and the railroads that operated in West Virginia, even though I'd never seen them. I grew upin Jersey, where I saw the Erie railroad and the Pennsylvania, and so forth. But (when I finally got to) West Virginia, I just fell in love the tracks and the railroad and the mountains and so forth, so that's why everything is set in West Virginia."

Many of the buildingsrepresent a memory of Zane's, based upon his life or his interest intrains as it developed from childhood. And when he talks about his little basement world, or about trains in general, Zane's deep enjoyment and sense of fun is apparent.

Zane declined to put a dollar value on his railroad, preferring to emphasize the enjoyment and peace of mind that it brings. But it is protected by a security system.

Eventually, Zane says, he plans to build an annex to his house in order to build yet another model railroad network -- not that his currentproject is coming to an end.

Happily, Zane says his railroad will"never be completed. There's about another five years of work. Even then I'll still find things to do.

The Great Scale Train Show, which visits the Maryland State Fairgrounds four times a year in Timonium, returns June 22-23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Refreshments are available and parking is free. Admission is $5, under 12 admitted for $1, and you can return Sunday for free.

Information: 730-1036 or 997-2166.

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