Loaded with coal, the Chesapeake and Western train descends through the Appalachian foothills, past a Victorian resort hotel, and chugs across a vertical lift bridge to the port on the Chesapeake bay where the cargo ship Peter J. Hakel waits. The trip takes 40 minutes.

It is a world 1/87th real size, and one of its master builders is John Lureau. The hotel, the bridge and the ship are his handiwork.

In real life, Lureau is a television engineer and not all that fond of trains. "I never ride them," he says. They're inefficient."

But making the system work the way he wants is one of the fascinations of model railroading for him. A member of the Silver Spring Model Railroad Society, he's one of the country's 220,000 serious model railroaders. "To me this is like a giant chessboard," he says.

"This is a hobby that attracts everyone from janitors to neurosurgeons," says Lureau. "The hobby can be pegged to any income level. You can buy an engine for $7 or $700." Last year the average model railroader spent $419 on trains and equipment.

H-O-gauge trains were introduced in the mid-1940's. They weren't popular initially due to what John Sumner, another member of the Silver Spring club, calls "the RC factor -- resistance to change." He adds, "We're very clique-ish and clannish. You have to protect your investment."

The Silver Spring Model Railroad Society is creating a composite miniature of the mid-Alantic region. After weekly work sessions, and uncounted hours, the Chesapeake and Western railroad and diorama are almost half finished. Materials and equipment have cost the 40-member club over "10,000.

"This is model railroading, as opposed to toy trains," says Lureau.

The layout measures 40' by 60', filling a basement room. The railroad has a 7 1/2-scale mile main line of double track, a 4 1/2 -mile branch and a three-mile line of narrow-gauge track.

"The trackwork is one form of scratchbuilding. You have to lay out transition curves the same way a railroad engineer would," explains Lureau.

C&W trains are run on "slow" time, where five minutes equal an hour. Operators move freight and pasenger cars according to schedules. "The object is not to see how many trains you can run, but how much work you can do," Lureau explains.

And they've got big plans for additions: a steel plant and train terminal and train engines that transmit authentic sound; and a computer, to eliminate manual switching, so that the train operators can focus on the subtleties of time tables and operating conditions.

John Lureau looks forward to the day when micro-vision cameras mounted in the engine will relay conditions by closed circuit television.

Although members of the Silver Spring club all run the railroad, some have specialties. Some spruce up the interiors of passenger cars. Some concentrate on building engines, painting cars or installing sound packs. Others prefer to lay track or build scenery and buildings.

"Everything gets accomplished," says John Sumner.