- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Chris France's neighbor looked out the window of her Beltsville home recently and saw something in Mr. France's yard that startled her.
"She thought it was an animal at first," Mr. France remembers. "But then she saw it going around in circles. That's when she really got worried."
The neighbor came over and found not an animal in distress, as she had thought, but a model train rolling along on a carefully assembled track.
From the earliest days of model railroading, when the Lionel Manufacturing Co. billed its trains as "the perfect instrument of father-son relationship," the hobby has been more than just moving trains around a few sections of track. For some it becomes an obsession; for all, it represents a dream. As the nation's real passenger trains chug into history, the model rail fans flourish and grow.
Mr. France, for example, has been laying track for his garden railway for the past couple of years. His garden railroad, or G-scale, trains are larger than the usual O-scale models with which most people are familiar, although they can run on the same size track. A passenger car, for instance, is about 33 inches long (including couplers), 6 inches tall and 4 inches wide. Made of high quality plastic, they can run in all weather. Mr. France even runs his in the snow, directing the trains by a hand-held remote control device.
"I just have an indescribable fascination with trains," says Mr. France, 28, who by day is a contract administrator and student-transportation coordinator for the O'Brien Bus Service. On weekends, he is one of the three engineers who run the big diesels at the B&O; Railroad Museum in Baltimore.
In his time off, he runs his garden railroad. The large garden railway trains, with tough plastic exteriors and bright colors, have attracted a lot of attention, particularly in the last five years or so.
"My family always knows what to get me for Christmas or birthdays," Mr. France says with a grin, cradling his prized New Haven Railroad engine. "I'm easy to shop for."
Mr. France was first exposed to trains at the age of 18 months, when his grandfather took him aboard the Valley Railroad in Essex, Conn. Soon afterward, the boy got his first set of model trains, an HO scale set made by Marx. By the time he was 16, he had built his first layout in his parents' back yard.
"Making a garden layout is just like a real railroad," says Mr. France. "You have to excavate and improvise. Trains don't like grades, either model or real."
Since that first encounter, Mr. France's neighbor and her husband frequently stop by to see how the excavations are progressing.
"It's a big stress reliever," says Mr. France. "Her husband has gotten really interested in the whole project."

Lionel was not the first company to manufacture toy trains, but for many years, it was the best.
"Every boy wanted a Lionel train," says Brian "Boxcar" Reilly, a train dealer and repairman from Falls Church. "Lionel was the top of the heap."
The company was founded in 1900 by Joshua Lionel Cohen, a child of Russian Jews, who changed his last name to Cowen at a time when anti-Semitism could cause many a business deal to fail. An inventor who grew up in Harlem a stone's throw from the old New York and Harlem, and New York and New Haven lines, Mr. Cowen knew how to build high-quality, eye-catching trains. He also knew how to market them.
For years, model trains and Lionel were nearly synonymous. By the 1960s, however, Lionel had fallen upon hard times. The ensuing years brought changes in ownership and company structure, bankruptcy, and poorer quality.
Despite competition from newer companies such as K-Line, and Columbia, Md.'s, Williams Electric Trains and Mike's Train House, Lionel, under the auspices of a group of investors that includes rocker Neil Young, is making a commitment to quality that echoes the company's glory years.
"It was and is a quality product," Mr. Reilly says. "So many families still get parts from me for trains made in 1925. Those trains are still running."
Today's model trains are high tech, equipped with computer chips that provide realistic sounds along with the ride. Approach a crossing and you'll hear more than just that lonesome whistle blow, you'll hear the voices of the conductor and engineer, or even the disembodied voices of the passengers. The trains are often controlled remotely, using technology developed in part by Mr. Young to enable his sons, who have cerebral palsy, to operate their beloved trains on their own.

"Pray for me my husband collects trains," reads one bumper sticker seen frequently at train shows.
"Things can get a little intense," Mr. Reilly says. "You start bringing home a couple of trains, and before you know it, they have babies."
Start exploring the world of model railroading, and you'll soon see that there are several categories of train enthusiasts. The collectors amass trains and display them on shelves. The operators spend most of their spare time constructing elaborate, ever-changing layouts for their purchases. The problem for both is that the trains tend to multiply faster than the collector can build shelves or the operator can build an addition to his house.
Enthusiasts try to narrow their options with certain self-imposed limitations. One collector, for example, might collect only pre-World War II Lionel trains. Another may confine himself to American Flyer, Ives or any one of a number of other companies. Still other collectors concentrate on paper: documents, catalogs, and other ephemera related to model trains.
Then there are the gauges the measure of the distance between the rails. Prewar Lionel trains are usually standard-gauge trains, with a measure of 2⅛ inches between the rails. O-gauge trains, which increased in popularity after World War II, are smaller, better suited to smaller living spaces. HO trains are half the width of O gauge, and there are a succession of smaller gauges, including S, Z and N, all with standardized widths and track requirements.
Hobbyists tend to embrace the gauge that allows them the most flexibility with the other kinds of things they want to do or the amount of space they have. People who favor small gauges such as N or Z, for example, often like to build elaborate settings for their layouts.
"It's really a way to relax," says Mark Bandy, an architect from Ellicott City, Md., who is a member of the Baltimore N-Trak (BANTRAK) train club. Club members build individual modules to a standard. Then they can hook the modules together for a detailed layout.
Mr. Bandy went to Timonium, Md., as part of the Bantrak team to construct one of three layouts featured at a recent Greenberg's train show.
Now in their 26th year, the Greenberg's train shows travel up and down the East Coast. Looking for parts for your prewar Lionel engine? You can probably find them here. Want to check out one of the new model-manufacturing companies? You'll find dealers selling Williams, K-Line, and Mike's Train House models. Then there are the peripherals: the compasses and binnacles that Lionel manufactured during the war years, and Plasticville the model towns and people designed to accompany a train layout. Some eschew the trains and just collect the plastic.

If you've just scrounged around in your basement and come up with an old set of trains you forgot you had, master appraiser Sam Geiser can tell you what they are worth.
"Shows like these are good places to find out about trains," says Mr. Geiser, a master appraiser who is president of the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis division of the Train Collectors of America, one of the many organizations that cater to train enthusiasts. "Not everyone from the general public is interested in joining a group."
An easy camaraderie prevails among the dealers and customers at the Greenberg's show that's often lacking in similar events such as baseball-card shows or rare-books sales. It may be because the urge to chat about old model trains is greater than the urge to undersell or oversell. .
"I've been a train enthusiast for 25 years," says Jack Wyatt, the show manager. "My wife is always concerned that I'm going to spend more on trains than I make managing the show."
Throughout much of their history, model trains were marketed directly to boys. It wasn't until the late 1950s that Lionel tried to reach out to girls, with a "Lady Lionel" model with a pink engine and cars in shades of buttercup, lilac and robin's-egg blue.
There's one at the Greenberg show, an incomplete set, with a price tag of $1,075.
"They were a bust in the 1950s," says Mr. Reilly flatly. "Of course, now, those trains are so scarce they're worth a near fortune."
These days, though, many women seem as interested in model trains as the men are.
"My wife Janet knows as much about trains as I do," says Charles Phillips, a train lover from Steeltown, Pa., who sells Williams trains out of his Harrisburg shop. "People stop by just to talk to her, because she knows a lot and she has a pretty big collection of trains herself."
One of the best collections of early model trains can be found at Bill Printz's Lionel Buy and Sell store in Kensington. He keeps them on display rows upon rows of trains dating back to the first decade of the 20th century. He even has a few Voltamp trains, made in Baltimore.
Mr. Printz has several examples of the Blue Comet, a pre-World War II train that Cowen modeled after the one he took from New York to Atlantic City, N.J. Pulled by a matching blue steam engine, it is one of the more elaborate of the early Lionels, second only to the Transcontinental Limited in style. In the 1930s, the entire Blue Comet an engine with three passenger cars, cost $75. Mr. Printz is selling the three passenger cars for $2,995.
"Look, the top comes off," says Mr. Printz, demonstrating. "The doors inside open. You can even lift the toilet seat."
For train buffs, there really is something about a train, any train, that's magical.

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