GIVE CONRAIL A CLEAR TRACK

LEGISLATION FOR THE PUBLIC SALE of the government's 85 percent interest in the Consolidated Rail Corp., better known as Conrail, needs a clear track. Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole is absolutely correct (we don't think we have ever said that before), the shipper protection regulations and provisions for labor protection payments in railroad line sales should not be part of the Conrail bill.

The Reagan administration's position was outlined in a letter sent earlier in the week by Mrs. Dole to John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "The sale has been embroiled in needless controversy to date, she wrote, and the only feasible approach to completing the sale will be a straightforward legislative vehicle that does not dilute the clear benefits of a sale with the burdens and costs of special interest additions.To be honest, Mrs. Dole created much of the needless controversy herself by pushing for Conrail to be sold to Norfolk Southern way past the point of reasonableness. But she is correct that if Congress is to get out a bill that will permit the public offering of the Philadelphia-headq uartered railroad it must streamline the legislation. The problem is that Rep. Dingell, who did good work in the past in preventing the sale of Conrail to Norfolk Southern, is (it would appear) an unrepentant believer in regulation. And Rep. James J. Florio, D-N.J., chairman of subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism, will be attempting to impose labor protection clauses in the bill. But the time is too short inCongress for any complicated bill to pass. And to hold over the sale until next year might well be costly to the government.

Railroads were the darlings of the investment community earlier in the year. But upon closer examination, many analysts discovered what a lot of transportation people were well aware of. The improved earnings realized by most railroads came from cost-cutting, cutbacks in people and lines for the most part. That's a one-time savings. It did not come from increased carriage. The future outlook for railroads, therefore, is not as good as last year's earnings might indicate. The point is that by selling Conrail now, the government could probably get the $1.7 billion to $2 billion it is seeking. By waiting until next year, the buyers might not be willing to spend That much.

In addition, Conrail is too important in and of itself to garbage up the bill with demands from shippers and labor that are irrelevant to the sale and operation of Conrail. Let us not forget the overriding reason the government willingly put $7 billion into improving Conrail. Without a doubt, it is the single most essential rail link in the country. All attention and energy should be devoted to hammering out a bill that does two things: makes the railroad attractive to the investment community and guarantees that the railroad will be able to operate in an efficient and profit-making fashion.

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