- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

Few railroad conductors 100 years ago would have described their long hours, cramped quarters and low-paying work as romantic, but the thought of piloting a steam engine brings a twinkle to the eye of model railroaders today.

About 30 of them gathered over the weekend at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Va., to sell memorabilia and set up more than 100 feet of tracks, small-scale towns and bridges.

"I've been into trains ever since I can remember," said Ted Schneider, 59, an Alexandria resident. "I was sickly as a child and spent a lot of time in a hospital that was right next to the Pennsylvania Railroad."

"I bided my time in the hospital watching the trains go by," he said.

Those long hours watching the rails sparked his interest, and although he could not land a railroad job because of his bad hearing, Mr. Schneider has kept trains in his life by building models.

The free event at the Lyceum was run by members of the Potomac division of the National Model Railroad Association, the largest model railroading organization in the country.

Roughly 300,000 people around the country are avid train hobbyists, according to the association, with the average age rising as baby boomers rediscover their childhood passion for train sets.

Real life train work was not as glamorous as it appears on the model track, they admit.

The engineer, who stayed in the locomotive at the front of the train, faced serious injury or death should the train hit something. And life in the caboose was tough for the conductor and flag man, whose job was to signal to other trains.

"It could get pretty rough riding back there," Mr. Schneider said. "There was a metal bar in the ceiling they had to hold onto to keep their balance."

Long hours, frequent accidents and days spent away from family and friends made train work a hard profession.

The lure of the tracks was still strong, though, said 38-year rail veteran Joseph L. Palmateer. He repaired and serviced rail cars, and that started him building model railroads.

"When you work on trains that long, you keep it in your system," Mr. Palmateer, of Alexandria, said.

A number of children were introduced to the wonder of railroading yesterday. Ed Morrison, an Alexandria resident, brought his 4-year-old daughter Eleanor.

"It's kind of a healthy thing for kids to get into," Mr. Morrison said. "It's a good old-fashioned recreational activity that's hands on, and there's a lot of history involved in it, too."

A few feet away, 3-year-old Ian Lloyd wore a B&O; railroad outfit complete with suspenders, black stripes and a conductor's hat as he intently watched trains circle the track at the display.

"He loves them," said his father, Bernie Lloyd. "His major focus right now is trains. I don't know where he got it from. We don't have an electric train set yet, but I can see it in my future."

Bruce Strickland, 46, spent about 2 and 1/2 hours with fellow hobbyists Saturday setting up the elaborate track that ran through tunnels, over bridges and through landscapes filled with miniature people, stores and homes.

Model trains come in several sizes, and the ones running yesterday were on the HO scale, which means what would be a 50-foot-long boxcar in real life shrinks down to a mere 7 inches.

Mr. Strickland has bought his share of trains over the years. He currently owns about 100 rail cars, 70 locomotives and a few passenger cars.

"We love to run the trains, and if people want to watch, that's fine, too," said Mr. Strickland, a Manassas, Va., resident, as he ran his own locomotive around the track via a hand-held remote control.

"Someone once said model railroading isn't a hobby it's a way of life," he said.

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