Despite the rail industry's years of effort to transform itself into a business seen ascustomer friendly and quality driven, shippers are delivering mixed verdicts on service improvements.

Some shippers report that they no longer receive routine complaints from angry consignees about missed deliveries, or worse, missing railcars."I used to get calls every night about sugar beet (delivery) problems," said Byran D. Whipple, traffic manager at Amalgamated Sugar Co. in Ogden, Utah. "I get to sleep now."

"Service has improved, there's no question about that," said J. Robert Dobrzynski, manager of transportation, logistics and distribution for the Board of Trade of the city of Chicago.

Other shippers say railroads no longer take them for granted, even if they are captive. In fact, many traffic and distribution managers agree that railroad marketing officials go out of their way to listen to their problems and seem keen on learning how their customers' businesses operate.

"They're more concerned about us remaining a good customer," said J. Robert Woolery, vice president of transportation at ADM Milling Co. in Overland Park, Kan. "They realize that if our business holds up, so will theirs."

"The railroads have really upgraded themselves, and they've made some pretty good strides," Mr. Dobrzynski said. "Outside of car supply, there haven't too many complaints."

Shippers point to several reasons for this. Most cite the rapid increase in the use of telecommunications and computers within the rail industry, which has reduced the need for personnel but increased the availability of on-time data.

Others point to the railroads' hiring of marketing people who have taken an interest in learning their operations.

"We have put a lot of emphasis on technology," said Dick Flynn, senior director of customer service at Consolidated Rail Corp.

"But we've found for that to work and to get the benefits, you must look at the underlying business practices, the way the billing process works and process of tracking shipments."

Railroads, eyeing opportunities to boost their market share, expend a lot of time and effort tabulating responses of their customers.

"We do customer surveys regularly, which show measurable improvement in some areas," said Charles N. Marshall, Conrail's senior vice president for development. "Of course, in some areas, improvement is greater than in others."

But for other shippers, "customer service" and "quality" are simply buzzwords that railroad sales representatives toss around as easily as they pass out business cards.

These shippers believe service has remained basically unchanged, despite the railroads' installation of millions of dollars in computers, centralization of their customer support centers and even inquiries about their manufacturing and procurement procedures.

"The railroads still seem to be, to a large extent, fractured," said one traffic manager for a large Western grain shipper, who asked to remain anonymous. "Their sales reps call on you, but they don't know anything about grain routing. In general, you have to go back to their marketing people for answers."

"You cannot have customer service and quality with voice mail," said Terry Voss, senior assistant vice president for transportation at Ag Processing Inc., the Omaha, Neb., agricultural cooperative.

Other shippers point to the rail industry's relentless cost-cutting, which has resulted in the loss of jobs for half of the nation's railroad employees since 1980, the year the industry was deregulated.

In 1980, there were 450,000 railroad workers, said James M. Brunkenhoefer, national legislative director of the United Transportation Union in Washington, D.C. Now there are 230,000 jobs, he said. Of these lost jobs, 88 percent belonged to union members, he said.

These job cuts have slashed the sales force so deeply, some shippers find that getting answers can be troublesome.

"They've cut back on their staff so much that, at times, it's hard to get hold of someone to work on an issue," said John L. Amos, manager of traffic and logistics at Bech- tel Corp., the San Francisco global construction and engineering conglomerate.

"You like to work with someone that is familiar with what you do," said Mr. Amos, who is also second vice chairman of the National Industrial Transportation League.

While shippers credit payroll slashing for returning the railroads back to prosperity, some believe the job losses have left organized rail labor embittered and large gaps in rail carriers' sales ranks.

"The amount of traffic has grown, and the number of employees has dropped," Mr. Brunkenhoefer said. "So the amount of responsibility for each employee has vastly increased. Employees are stretched to the limit. It's time to rehire."