POST-CONRAIL PATIENCE APPROACHES THE LIMIT

POST-CONRAIL PATIENCE APPROACHES THE LIMIT

Now that we have reached the three-week mark in the Conrail transition, there are several early conclusions that shippers and observers can draw.

The most obvious point is that there are some real, individual ''horror stories'' that are beginning to approach the scale of pain inflicted during Union Pacific's service disaster. Here is a current gallery:An Ohio power plant is running low on fuel.

UPS pulled at least half of its Northeast intermodal freight off the rails.

Customers are mulling lawsuits because of plant shutdown costs.

Lumber shippers in Buffalo have waited weeks for cars from the West.

An intermodal shipper watched an eastbound shipment miss a connection, go to New York, and go west again before reaching a Southeast destination.

A paper supplier couldn't find a shipment from the Southeast for days on its way to the West.

A grain shipper waited more than a week with a loaded train that didn't move. The same customer ordered cars that didn't arrive for a week.

A chemical shipper's freight was lost for days on end.

Dozens of full trains without crews were parked outside terminals because there was no space in them.

Some high-priority trains ran hours, and occasionally days, late.

The stories could go on, but the message is clear.

Shippers are eager to communicate their complaints, but few want their names used. That is understandable, given internal corporate-image politics and concern about aggravating a crucial supplier. However, if this situation persists, public comments by involved people can help to force a solution.

Any comments from customers are very important for a parochial, journalistic reason: Good reporters try hard to ensure their reporting is accurate. Finding the ''truth'' about rail operations in the Northeast today is elusive. It's difficult to resist drawing conclusions from those anecdotal horror stories, but doing so runs the risk of exaggerating a situation that is not as bad as the UP was.

Another interesting product of the Conrail breakup is the apparently widespread problem with information systems. For the most part, the other post-merger screwups in the 1990s were operationally driven. Equipment, physical facilities and people in train service and terminals were misused and abused.

Granted, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe merger produced some problems with ''ping pong'' cars that the systems reported to be empty, but were actually full - and vice versa.

The current situation has a more widespread effect, including days and weeks when customers couldn't trace their shipments. There also are apparent problems with miscoding freight moving to the East. But it's important to note that the world of shipment data on the rail industry has never been perfect.

On many occasions, information systems showed freight leaving on a connecting train before it arrived on the originating train.

Railroads lack the global positioning systems in place at some motor carriers that can tell within a few feet where a truck is located. Railroads shied away from that technology because of fear that a location mistake of a few feet could cause a collision if the train was on the wrong side of a switch.

Then there are some important people issues. There was widespread grumbling from union people that members did not want to work for NS because of its hard-nosed reputation. There were cases where Conrail people switched their job sites to choose one carrier over another. There have been reports that dozens of ex-Conrail middle managers changed their mind and quit in recent weeks instead of staying on. These are important steps. Railroad people don't leave jobs easily, because of loyalty, friendships, good pay and job skills that don't easily translate to other industries.

Another important point in the Eastern situation is the reaction. Some people compare NS with Union Pacific, which was labeled as arrogant during its merger process. Many shippers report NS went to great lengths to try to fix the problems. Sad to say, UP never gave that impression.

The post-Conrail era prompted questions about whether the rosy predictions of a smooth transition were empty promises. Many of the promises NS and CSX made about learning lessons from UP's mistakes have been fulfilled with greater planning and more available resources that have helped to cushion some of recent service blows.

The fine print in many NS and CSX pronouncements before June 1 acknowledged there would be some startup problems. They should be judged by how quickly - and how well - they fix the significant mistakes.

That remains to be seen, but there is no doubt about the fact that their customers' patience has a limit that could be approaching faster than some would think.