A BARGAIN HUNTER on the loose?

A European transportation concern has bought up a third-party intermodal freight consolidator in California. The European interest also reportedly is buying some other small transport companies.But it is all on the sly. As part of the buy-out deals, the various companies are sworn to secrecy. The European concern does not want to reveal its identity or its purchases until February, sources say.

National Piggyback, a small operation in Pleasanton, Calif., is one of the companies to be bought. That name is usually associated with American President Cos., which absorbed the original National Piggyback several years ago and threw the name into the garbage can. The Pleasanton operation recycled the name, but it hasn't been able to build up the kind of business the original Pig had.

Feeling the economic squeeze last year, the company decided to sell out. The new owner reportedly will change the operation from an intermodal freight consolidator and broker to a type of third-party logistics contractor, sources say.

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RATES ON THE PACIFIC are going to rise, according to John Lillie.

In a recent interview, the new chief executive of American President Cos. predicted eastbound and intra-Asian rates would increase this year. He cited steady trade growth and no new ship capacity on the traffic lanes. That's his first prediction as chief executive. We'll keep track.

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MEANWHILE, MR. LILLIE will have to oversee a major phase in his company's life cycle, the renewal of its stack-train contracts.

APC keeps the expiration dates for its rail contracts confidential. Some are expected to come up for renegotiation in the next few years. The plum, its Southern California-to-Midwest contract with the Union Pacific Railroad, will expire in 1995.

Speculation is on the rise that Santa Fe will try to make a play for some of the APC business. The railroad, one of the few without an APC contract, has the perfect route for the intermodal run but turned the business away in the mid-1980s because it thought double-stack trains were just a fad.

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IT'S A TREE MELEE at the Port of San Francisco.

The port has become embroiled in a debate over palm trees on a main city thoroughfare. The street, called the Embarcodero, is being redone as a consequence of earthquake repairs. The port has to review the designs because the street runs along port property.

Originally, the port planned to keep the street space wide open. Then came what port officials refer to as the "attack of the tree people" - concerned San Francisco citizens who believe the wide street area needs to be ''humanized" with vegetation. Consultants and committees were established. The result: a recommendation to line the street with palm trees.

Now some are concerned that it will make the port area look like San Diego - anathema to any upstanding Northern Californian. The city's art

commission is next in line to investigate the situation.