An hour at the controls of a sleek model train can be an adventure.
Just ask members of the Edgewood Model Railroad Club, who usually spend several hours each week working on their collections of model railroad trains and display fixtures.
To get a sense of what's involved in collecting model trains, club members invited Harford residents to come aboard at no charge and watch them conduct up to 10 trains over 750 square feet of peaks and valleys at a holiday display. It's set up in the club's building at the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
A trip into the tiny world of the three towns the club has created in the display can be taken on Thursday evenings until Jan. 31, between 7 and 9 p.m., and on the next two Sundays, Dec. 30, and Jan. 6, from 1 to 4 p.m.
The exhibit for this year is dedicated to Bob DeLeeuw, a charter member who died last January.
Close to 300 display visitors have already watched the trains clicking on the track, the Goodyear blimp hovering above the towns and the Burlington Air Express coming in for a landing, guided by red and white posts that flash lights in sequence down an imaginary landing runway.
The display also features a freight train roaring past smoke billowing from a miniature building as firefighters hoist their ladders. The model also glides past a traffic jam of tiny cars, sunbathers at a lake and a 7-Eleven store. At the Old King Coal Co., train hoppers can be loaded with bits of real coal as the moving train flips a lever, releasing coal from a bin above the cars.
Three to six iron-horse lovers are needed to work the nine different control boxes which maneuver trains, load and unload coal, keep a seesaw moving at a schoolyard and activate numerous other mechanical whims the club has set up.
"Sometimes the kids are just an excuse for the adults to get here," said club member Dave Renard. "It's really an adult hobby."
Renard has been a club member for 30 years. An environmental scientist at the proving ground, he proudly wears a red caboose pin on his tie.
Club members have created the display and train operations to HO-scale -- 3.5 millimeters for every foot of a life-size train or building. If the display were life-size, it would involve 23 miles of railroad track.
"The thrill is in model building and operating as closely to the prototype as possible," said Renard. "We go out and observe real rail yards so we can duplicate."
The club has been model railroad collecting and re-creating displays for about 35 years. It began at the proving ground for military and civilian employees.
Today there are 10 club members. Non-military employees can join the club as associate members, said Renard.
The club receives about $500 each year from the Civilian Welfare Fund Council of Aberdeen Proving Ground. The money is used to buy materials to build displays, such as screen wire, plaster and model kits.
All trains used in displays are owned by club members. The club meets on Tuesday and Thursday nights, mostly to work on projects.
Most members have been building their own collections for years. Renard recalls his first Lionel model train, given to him by an uncle when he was 3 years old. By the time he was 11, he was hooked on the hobby, he says.
Today, half of Renard's basement is filled with model trains and towns.
He's tried to re-create a mid-1960s era with his trains and the design of his buildings. He spends six to eight hours a week building his miniature empires.
"The enjoyable part of the hobby is the variety of things you can do," he said. "You have to be a cross between an electrical engineer and a civil engineer."
The hobby requires a combination of artistic and model-building skills, he says.
Lots of reading, research and visiting rail yards occurs before club members start actually building a scene. Renard has taken his family as far as Seattle for model railroad conventions.
Once a scene is designed, club members go to work. They mold screen wire or scrap material to form hills and valleys, then pour plaster over it to create a rocky appearance. The plaster is then painted to reflect landscape colors. Miniature trees, bushes and grass are fashioned from twigs, dyed foam rubber and sawdust. The club has a spray paint room to put on the finishing touches.
"I like to think of it as a three-dimensional art form," said Renard.
If you look closely at the club's display, you'll see reflections of the way they see the world.
For example, a sign posted in a lake reads, "There are no fish in the small pond because pollution from the farm, houses and elementary school on the hill killed them."
The Edgewood Model Railroad Club's holiday display is located in Building No. E4310 on Otto Road at Aberdeen Proving Ground. To get there, take Route 152 into the Edgewood area of the proving ground. Once inside the proving ground, go to the second traffic light and turn right onto Wise Road. Take Wise Road one mile to a four-way traffic stop. Turn left and then look for a stone gymnasium building. Behind the gym are two white buildings. The display is located in the second building.