The train runs through the paper mountain then into a forest of sponge trees and sawdust lawns.
Of course it's a Lionel, the toy that celebrates its 100th birthday this Christmas. The train is never, never late.
The passengers converse in black silhouette in sleek silver cars that roar past stations with advertisement boards for Baby Ruth bars and Rival dog food. The smoke is chemical, not coal. It hangs over the room like heavy ozone. Press an orange button and the log car sends a half dozen miniature timbers into a plastic tray.
Of all the toys ever to rest under a Christmas tree, few possess the emotional power of a vintage set of Lionel trains packed in classic orange and blue boxes.
Heirs fight over who gets the passenger and who gets the freight. Mothers who gave away collections to poor cousins will never live down this act of toy abandonment. Grown men line up at toy collecting shows to rebuy the caboose that got away from them 40 years ago.
"They were a symbol of elegance in childhood. That was the top of the world," says Russell Baker, the former Baltimorean who hosts Masterpiece Theatre for PBS. "I never had Lionel trains myself, but I had two sons. And they had to be outfitted in Lionel trains."
This product, introduced originally as a window display prop, has become so famous that it rivals the Hoover vacuum and the Kleenex tissue for name recognition.
"Lionel is the heart of the train under the Christmas tree," says Lionel president, Richard Maddox. "It is as much a part of a family tradition as turkey on Thanksgiving."
On Sept. 5, 1900, Joshua Lionel Cowen opened the Lionel Manufacturing Company in Manhattan.
"Neither childhood nor Christmas in America would ever be the same," says Ron Hollander, the author of "All Aboard!" a Lionel history that has been through numerous printings and is out this season in a revised edition.
Cowen conceived his first trains as mechanical props for merchants wanting to jazz up their display windows.
By 1903, he had copied his first model from an unusual Baltimore and Ohio locomotive workhorse - an electric motor car that operated in the Howard Street Tunnel. The real motor car pulled steam engines and their cars up a steep hill from a spot near Camden Station to Waverly. By 1909, he was advertising his expanded product line as the "Standard of the World," despite the fact that German and competitive U.S. toy manufacturers were also making and selling quality trains.
Cowen was a demanding taskmaster who had a genius for producing first-rate toy trains. This wasn't enough. He was also marketing them so that his middle name became known to generations of schoolboys.
The annual Lionel catalog was a gem of advertising art, overflowing with buy-me illustrations of steam locomotives, electric engines, metal stations, Pullman and observation cars. At their peak in the 1950s, one million Lionel catalogs were printed annually - third to Sears and Montgomery Wards in quantity.
"The trains just always ran no matter if you ran them off the table or you ran them into each other," recalls Rudy Fischer, a 56-year-old Glen Arm home builder who grew up on Lionel trains. "They were indestructible. You could pack them away in the attic for 40 years, take them out and they'll still run like a good watch."
Many Lionel collectors feel the toys made by the company peaked in quality in the 1950s, when Lionel had become the world's largest toy manufacturer. Cowen retired in 1958. By the time he died in 1965, toy trains seemed to have suffered the same fate as the real American railroads. Despite changes in ownership - and the pessimism of those who owned Cowen-era trains - the company still turned out tracks, engines and cars.
But something happened in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who were given these toys years before unwrapped their precious Lionels for yet another look. The hobby experienced a brilliant renaissance as baby boomers returned to the toys of their childhood.
Perhaps none was as adamant as Mike Wolf, 40, who heads MTH, a Columbia toy train manufacturer with annual sales of $57 million. Wolf launched his own line in the late 1980s, modeling his trains on the Lionels produced in the Cowen era.
"My success has been to model my trains after the approach Cowen took," Wolf explains. "People come up and look at our trains and say, `I didn't know that trains this good were still being made.' "
Both Lionel and MTH issue huge catalogs and offer train sets aimed at novices and must-have-everything-made collectors. Both companies have also embraced electronics - sound chips and state of the art, 12-alarm smoke devices.
"What fascinates me is that Mike seems like a young Cowen," says author Hollander. "He is giving fits to the Lionel establishment and is raising the quality level of the toy."