ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, most experiments in loading cargo directly from ships to

trains ended in failure. Shipping lines found it was almost impossible to schedule hundreds of cargoes so that they could be transferred easily into railcars. The smartest recognized the financial wisdom of reshuffling cargo at the wharf before trucking it to a railhead.

Today, enthusiastic advocates of on-dock loading of containerized cargo onto double-stack trains are hailing it as the hottest development since the container itself. They maintain that on-dock rail access not only eliminates trucking charges and railyard entry fees but avoids tying up expensive containers and truck chassis. The question West Coast port executives are asking is how much to make of on-dock rail service.Ports that spent millions of dollars designing coal terminals for a boom that never materialized understandably are reluctant to make a full-scale commitment to on-dock rail. What's more, some ports have poured other millions into off-dock railyards that almost certainly would be hurt if loading of

trains on the wharf becomes commonplace.

On the other hand, managers at one or two West Coast ports remember all too painfully what happened when they were slow to recognize the importance of the container: Cargo those ports had controlled for decades moved to competitive ports with space for containers.

There can be little doubt that there is a place for on-dock transfer of ocean cargo to trains. Loading of unit trains either on or very near the wharf already is being done in all three of the West Coast's major cargo gateways. First results have been favorable enough that the carriers involved are pressing to expand on-dock rail service.

We believe each West Coast port individually must evaluate the merits of on-dock rail service, taking special note of the amount of available property, cost for new tracks and prospective demand. What is right for one port with high volumes of import containers may not be right for another port with moderate amounts of export containers.

Whether on-dock rail service will bring about changes as dramatic as those produced by containers remains to be seen. Any port that believes it will have no change at all, however, is likely to suffer the combined fate of those who overpromoted coal terminals and those who underpromoted container terminals. The time for ports to size up what on-dock rail will mean for them is now.

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