The hobby, the fine art, and the big business of model railroading

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-From train sets under the Christmas tree in the Fifties, to million dollar layouts-

Maryland hobbyist, artist and entrepreneur

is also passionate preservationist.

Columbia, Md. - July 26, 2000 - From the moment the nation’s first passenger train pulled away from Baltimore’s Mount Clare station in 1830, the public has been fascinated by American railroading. Continually since then, the romance and nostalgia of trains and railroad themes infuse our popular culture, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and toys.

In the late 1950s, there was a train set under almost every Christmas tree. Remember actor Richard Dreyfuss’ frenetic and messy dedication to building a mountain in the middle of his room-size train layout in the movie Close Encounters? The 1990s brought the wildly popular Thomas the Tank Engine series of feature movies and videos, toys, and books that has captured the imagination of children. There’s even a new Thomas and the Magic Railraod movie release in theatres this month.             

The hobby of scale model railroading beguiles all ages and backgrounds. Enthusiasts run the gamut of those who take up the pursuit at retirement, to new dads who now have a “reason” to play with trains. Suburbanites lay real track in backyards - so-called “garden railroading.” There’s even a Boy Scout merit badge for railroading. Almost half of hobbyists are professionals by day, such as physicians, lawyers, accountants, and engineers. Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, and Baltimore’s own Channel 13 news anchor, the late Al Sanders, were serious hobbyists. (Sinatra’s layout was designed by an Ellicott City, Md. hobbyist, who is still active in the hobby.)

Perhaps no one passionately embraces railroading in their daily life more than Howard Zane, a 30-year resident of Columbia, Maryland. Mr. Zane is the quintessential master scale model railroader, and Renaissance man. He is an artist, illustrator, architectural designer, sculptor, musician, and a prolific architect and builder of stick-built, historically authentic buildings and dioramas for scale model railroads. Mr. Zane’s formal training was in industrial design. He has a degree in fine arts from NYU, is a graduate of Parsons School of Design, and studied at the University of London and the Sorbonne in Paris.

For hobbyists like Zane, scale model railroading is an all-consuming way of life. And, it’s big business. Hobbyists indulge themselves with collections and layouts that can run into millions of dollars. Indeed, the 2,400 square foot in-home HO-scale railroad that Mr. Zane has designed and constructed - and which continues to evolve - in the basement of his home is a testament to the “scale” of his love for all things railroad and his relentless pursuit of historical accuracy in model railroading. His layout fills every nook and cranny of the entire basement. In recent years, “phase two” doubled the layout and even predicated an addition to his home.

Zane’s in-home railroad has been a continual work in progress since he began building it in 1983. Set in a painstakingly crafted landscape, the detail is excruciatingly accurate, right down to signs on buildings, curtains, windowshades and fire escapes, trash in the streets, and lit street lamps.

Fifteen thousand trees, streams, waterfalls, and thousands of buildings, painted figures, autos and trucks, and animals populate the 15 miles of track. Zane explains that the many aspects of building and operating scale model railroads offer the exercise of many skills, including electronics, visual arts, horticulture, carpentry, modeling, historical research, storytelling, and computer technology.

Zane is zealously committed to the integrity and preservation of the hobby and what is considered to be the fine art of model railroading. In January 2001, he will speak at the opening of the first art museum in the U.S. dedicated to model railroading as a fine art and to the history of presidential travel by train. Former President Bush and Florida Governor Jeb Bush will also address the event that will take place at the museum opening in Hollywood, Florida.

Since 1982, Zane has produced the largest juried exhibition in the U.S. dedicated to the hobby of building and operating scale model railroads. “The Great Scale Model Train Show” is presented at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium four times a year and is produced by Zane and his organization, the Ellicott City Scale Model Railroad Association. Zane produces another Show – the “Brass Rail Expo: The Fine Art of Scale Model Railroading ‘001” – that is presented annually in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

High-tech has brought new dimensions to model railroading. Via web cams, hobbyists can operate each other’s layouts. Some purists even operate their railroads according to actual historical railroad timetables. To the chagrin of some, there’s even virtual railroading on the Internet. Software programs enable users to build, operate, and maintain railroads in a virtual environment – with amazing accuracy and detail, albeit without the satisfaction of working hands-on in what Zane and his partners have dubbed “actual reality.”

The next Great Scale Model Train Show is coming to Baltimore on October 7-8 2000 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Much more information about Howard Zane, “The Great Scale Model Train Show,” and scale model railroading is available on the Internet at,,

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Carolyn Stinson, Stinson Marketing Arts



Howard Zane

The Ellicott City Scale Model Railroad Association


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