ON DEC. 19, 1984, the White House formally went on record saying that it preferred a sale of the government's interest in Conrail to an individual purchaser rather than through a public stock offering proposed by Conrail management.

In reporting the story David Cawthorne, The Journal of Commerce Washington Bureau's self-effacing transportation reporter, noted that none of the bidders for Conrail - there were three back then - should expect a large Conrail package to be under the Christmas tree on Dec. 25. His prediction proved to be correct. Last Friday, after more than two years of heroic but futile effort, Norfolk Southern Corp. informed Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole by written notice that it was ending its bid for the major Northeastern rail line. The letter from Norfolk Southern was a mere formality. Mrs. Dole, who put her prestige on the line in supporting the Norfolk Southern offer, undoubtedly realized she could not sell Conrail to Norfolk Southern two or three months ago. A shrewder politician would have realized that a year ago.What's left now is for Mrs. Dole to arrange for the public stock offering of Conrail. She should exert her considerable influence in that direction. And we expect she will. One suspects that, although Mrs. Dole did not know when to stop fighting, she will be more than gracious with those who won. That's how she strikes us.

The Journal of Commerce, more than any other daily newspaper, covered the skirmishes between Conrail and its suitors. In addition to Mr. Cawthorne's coverage in Washington, RipleyWatson III, our New York rail editor at that time, did extensive reporting on how the combination of Norfolk Southern and Conrail would include hundreds of miles of parallel track. He pored over dozens of rail route maps to determine that the combination would threaten shippers with a serious loss of rail competition. Keith Rockwell, enterprise editor, pressured the Department of Transportation to release the list submitted by Norfolk Southern of shippers who allegedly supported the proposal. Greg Johnson, shipper writer, interviewed many of those shippers and found that many, in fact, did not support the merger. He also interviewed other shippers who did and did not expected to be hurt by the merger.

We've opposed the proposed acquisition in our editorials, but with the full knowledge that Norfolk Southern is without doubt one of the best operated railroads in the world and one that has a well-deserved reputation for service to its customers.

Robert B. Calytor, chairman of Norfolk Southern, is someone we respect as a good manager of a well-run railroad. Friday was probably a sad day for him, but a good day, in our view, for the shippers who would have seen their competitive rail options seriously restricted by a merged Norfolk Southern- Conrail giant.

We covered the first - and last - unfriendly takeover of a U.S. government-owned corporation. It is time now, however, to get on with business - the business of finding new ownership for Conrail that will provide the best service for the region's shippers.

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