THE BIG TREND IN RAILROADS of late has been to shed uneconomical and light density trackage. In many cases, lines are being spun off to new "short line" railroads which continue to operate them. Light density lines are not inherently uneconomical. But railroads feel they have been forced to make an end run around rigid work rules.

Managers of the new railroads are proving tenacious in their efforts to keep and even win back customers who formerly used their tracks. They are aided by more flexible work rules than the former owners faced. Two-person crews are common and workers perform a variety of duties without worrying about craft union boundaries. Some short lines have eliminated the costly dual pay system where workers are paid for both time and mileage.With low overhead, smaller capital bases and lower operating costs, short lines are trying to satisfy customers. Shorter trains run more frequently. Rates and service are tailored to the needs of shippers and their markets.

One railroad, in effect, is trying to create a dual system. The Soo Line is attempting to convert some light density trackage into its own short lines rather than divest them. Soo management is trying to gain union approval if not support for a proposal it thinks can save some jobs and earn some profit.

It is axiomatic that labor has soaked up every dollar of cost reduction the railroad industry has wrung from other categories, forcing capital to cover the cost of labor rather than to improve performance and earnings.

In the long run, rail service will survive only where it is economical - where freight can be moved profitably, efficiently and at a price customers are willing to pay. This may sound like fundamental economics, which it is, but it also is something many railroads and their employees seem to have forgotten.

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