One of the nicest traditions in a season given over to tradition starts tomorrow at the Riviera Beach Fire Co.
The company's 10th annual holiday train layout, in the basement of the volunteer fire department on Fort Smallwood Road, is now open to the public.
"We just like for people to come down and enjoy what we've been doing all year," said Ted Heinbuch, a professional Anne Arundel Countyfirefighter for the past 19 years and one of the people who built the layout.
He estimated that about 7,000 to 8,000 visitors saw the display last year, a peak year for attendance
The project began in1981 with an initial investment of about $500. It occupied one section of the basement, about 10-by-24 feet in an L-shaped track, runningabout 96 engines and cars.
Since then it has grown into a more sophisticated layout that covers the walls and runs almost all the way around the room, at an estimated cost of more than $10,000.
"It's never finished," Heinbuch said. "There's always something to do. In another two or three years, we hope to set up another layout in the middle of the room, so that people will have trains running on either side of them."
The display, which the firefighters jokingly call the Riviera Beach Railroad, or the Pasadena branch of the CSX, was patterned after some of the country that the CSX Transportation system, also known as the B & O Railroad, travels through in Maryland and farther south.
One of the attractions of this year's display is a firestation with a fire truck that runs its own preset street course. Another is the train engine that comes equipped with a closed-circuit minivideo camera projecting a black-and-white "engineer's-eye view" ofthe table-top track on a nearby television.
"We're coming to a point now where if we wanted to, we could operate the switches and havethe trains going different routes. It's more realistic and more fun that way," said Heinbuch.
He explained the railroad started as a "Christmas garden, with trains running, villages and towns. Over the years, it developed into a train layout. The buildings are built to scale, and the trains run in a predetermined manner. It's just something we enjoy doing for the public."
But the best part of this project, at least for the firefighters, is that when not on public view, the layout is subject to constant tinkering and revision by its enthusiasts.
It stays up throughout the year, but is only opened to the public for the holidays.
Heinbuch, an avid train enthusiast like his colleagues, is indulging a lifelong passion.
"I've been watchingtrains all my life. Maybe it's the mass (size of the real engines).
"They're so large and have so much power, and they're just real neat to watch."
Heinbuch says that his associates, including volunteers Bob Drexler, Ronald Gref and Jim Boney, prefer doing the scenery and the buildings of the layout, but he'd rather lay track and handlethe rolling stock.
He added that the firefighters are heirs of a peculiarly Maryland tradition, alive since about the 1930s, but not much practiced anymore.
"At one time in the Baltimore area and evenin the county, there were so many fire houses that had layouts. Now it's down to just four," including at least two in Anne Arundel County.
Heinbuch speculated that the popularity and decline of the train displays was basically a reflection of the times.
"One reason that so many fire stations had layouts is that there wasn't that much to do around Christmas, unlike now, with TV and visiting your family."
But the layout is a lot of fun for both visitors and firefighters. This is especially so, said Heinbuch, "when people come in, and thekids start jumping up and down, and even the parents start jumping up and down when the train goes by, it's all worth the effort we put into it."
The layout is open weekends through Jan. 4, from 1 to 3 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m.; and weeknights between 7 and 9 p.m., Dec. 16 to Jan. 3.
There is no admission to the display. However, builders ofthe railroad will accept donations from the public, purely to keep their hobby on the right track.
"Whatever the public wants to drop in the box is fine with us. We put the money right back into the layout. Then we also have a raffle for a set of trains and make a little money that way, too," Heinbuch said.
The display is located in thebasement. Enter from the rear of the fire house. There is plenty of free parking.
Information: 255-1314 or 255-3636.