In the television ad, the worry in the woman's eyes is apparent. As she watches in her rearview mirror, a big truck pulling a triple trailer bears down on her car. While her three children in the back seat sing and play on a toy xylophone, the truck looms ever larger and the woman's anxiety grows more intense. Then, the truck swings out and past the car, and a voice declares, "Some companies want these big trucks. If you don't, call this toll-free number. We'll tell you how to stop them."

That ad is part of a multimillion-dollar campaign by the railroad industry to persuade ordinary citizens and members of Congress to oppose the spread of triple trailers on the nation's highways. Similar print ads, which have run in major newspapers, say of the double and triple trailers: "The trucking companies that want them are trying very hard to persuade Congress to clear the way for them to run everywhere."

Fear is what inspires and propels the campaign: Fear on the part of the railroads that the big rigs will rob the rail industry of the fastest-growing part of its business and will reduce profits by 40 percent or more. To prevent that from happening, the rail industry is playing on motorists' fears that they will have to share already crowded highways with more and more of these behemoths.

"It's a Willie Horton approach," complained Lana Batts, senior vice president of the American Trucking Association in Washington. The railroads have unfairly played upon people's fears and have vastly inflated the threat posed by the big trucks, she said.

Unfair or not, the all-out campaign against the big trucks seems to be playing to a very receptive audience. Last week, on the first key vote on the Surface Transportation Act, the Senate Public Works Committee restricted the longer trucks to those states that already allow them. (Maryland does not.)

The truck size issue is part of a more general congressional debate on legislation to reauthorize the federal highway program. New legislation is required, because federal trust fund taxes expire this year. As part of the new legislation, the trucking industry wants Congress to change current weight limits, so more states can allow the use of bigger trucks.

The railroads are not alone in the opposition to changing the weight limits. They have built a coalition -- whose members include the American Automobile Association and the Sierra Club -- that will be tough for truckers to overcome.

Many AAA members are elderly, and the big trucks are "quite anxiety-provoking for many older drivers," said the AAA's director of highway transportation, George A. Viverette Jr. "We feel the truck size and weights should stay right where they are. They're big enough."

The prospect of freight moving off the railroads and onto the highways is also distressing to many environmental groups. They say trucks pollute and disrupt the environment more than trains and are less energy efficient. That has put the Sierra Club and other environmental groups on the side of the railroads.

If the railroad industry were going it alone, it might have a tough fight on its hands. But what member of Congress would go against an alliance of industry, environmentalists and virtually everyone who drives a car? Even Ms. Batts conceded the difficulty of the task. "Nobody likes big trucks," she said.

Still, she said, the railroad industry has responded hysterically on both the safety and competitive issues. Big rigs have a very good safety record, much better than conventional trucks, she maintained, because of the very strict rules and limited conditions under which they operate.

She said that the casualty rate for the double and triple trailers is less than 1 death per 100 million miles of operation -- or only one-fifth that of trucks in general and one-third that of conventional tractor-trailers.

The rail industry counters with statistics that compare the big rigs to trains rather than other trucks. Citing U.S. Department of Transportation figures, the railroads say the combination vehicles are more than three times as dangerous as rail: 3.72 deaths per billion ton miles for the trucks, compared with 1.23 deaths for trains.

The big rigs do not represent a mortal competitive threat to the rails, Ms. Batts said, since the trucking industry doesn't expect to expand their operation much beyond the 20 states where even longer combination vehicles are now permitted.

The trucking industry is not pushing for permission to run double and triple trailers on all interstates and major state highways, as the railroad ads seem to suggest, she said. "Nobody in their right mind would advocate that," she said.

The trucking industry does want to give individual states the right to choose whether to allow the bigger rigs, something she said only a few states would likely do. Some states in the West and Midwest might opt for the big trucks, but states like Maryland and Virginia probably would not, she said.

In Ms. Batts' view, the railroad has painted a picture of the worst possible outcome and then campaigned against what no one -- not even the trucking industry -- wanted.

The dispute between the railroad and truck industries will be resolved in Congress this spring and summer during debate on the five-year, $105 billion Surface Transportation Act. In last week's key vote, the Senate committee approved an amendment restricting the longer trucks to the 20 states that already allow them.

The House has yet to introduce its own bill, but the chairman of the key House committee, Representative Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., has made clear his opposition to expanded operation of longer trailers. "We've told the truckers not to try to put triple trailers in New Jersey because they won't fit," he told a rail conference in Washington last month.

While the railroads have been playing to the safety concerns of the general public to broaden their support in Congress, they have also been drumming hard about what they see as a fundamental threat to their economic vitality.

In a speech last month in Chicago, Richard E. Briggs, executive vice president of the Association of American Railroads, said that permitting nationwide use of double and triple trailers would cost the railroads almost one-fifth of their traffic and two-fifths of their pre-tax profits.

According to a study done for the railroads by the consulting firm of Temple, Barker & Sloane Inc., the lost cargo would come in the one area where the railroads have been experiencing growth in the last decade: intermodal containers and trailers.

These are the big metal boxes and vans that can move on rail cars or on the highway -- thus the term intermodal. Railroads have been successfully competing with truckers in long-haul markets by providing door-to-door service. The cargo travels most of the route on flatbed rail cars, but trucks are used for local delivery to get the cargo from the factory to the railhead and from the railhead to the ultimate destination.

Allowing trucks to operate triple trailers would in essence permit trucks to achieve the same kind of economic efficiencies now enjoyed by trains over very long runs, the TBS report said.

Under the current rules, trains become competitive with trucks after about 600 miles. Double-trailer trucks, however, could charge 25 percent less than current single-trailer rates and still make a profit on very long hauls, the TBS report said. That would effectively eliminate the cost advantage now held by trains. Because trucks are generally perceived as providing better service than trains, most intermodal shippers would probably shift their traffic onto the highway.

The study suggested that the railroad industry would have to contract dramatically in the wake of a decision to allow the bigger trucks to operate nationally. "If twin 48-foot trailers are legalized, the survival of the railway industry will require a full-court press," the study said.

Walter Thompson, executive vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, supports the view that the threat is not quite what the railroads make it out to be. Double 28-foot trailers are already allowed on interstates and certain designated highways in Maryland, but anything bigger than that is illegal. No one in the trucking industry in Maryland is pressing for permission to run longer double or triple trailers, Mr. Thompson said, because the highways are too congested for such rigs.

If the stakes in the fight really are great, only the railroads seem to think so. Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who sits on the committee that voted last week to limit the big rigs, said he saw very little effort by the truck lobby on behalf of nationwide operation of double and triple trailers. "I don't think anybody lobbied very hard for the long jobs," he said.

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