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Freight fright


For local firms that rely on rail service now frozen by a labor dispute, today brings concern. Next week, calamity?

Companies that ship bulk items by freight, which can't easily be converted to trucks, face the most pressing worries. Bethlehem Steel Corp., which employs more than 6,000 people at Sparrows Point, is feeling the impact already. On any given day, it has 3,000 rail cars ferrying coal, iron and finished steel around the country. Some of that is now stranded on the rails.

General Motors Corp. appeared more optimistic at its Broening Highway plant, although the company can't gauge how the dispute would affect production past this week. Because the factory has been working overtime to produce the popular Astro mini-van, it gets priority over some other GM plants. Still, with 3,000 parts per van, the domino effect of a strike on myriad suppliers could pinch production as early as Monday.

Other manufacturers stockpiled inventory to ride out what they hoped would be a brief disruption. Sweetheart Cups moved onto its Reisterstown facility many boxcars with wax for its paper cups and resin for its plastic utensils so the material wouldn't languish on the rails. McCormick & Co. Inc. shifted its limited rail use to trucks, at up to a third greater cost, to protect the pipeline for its spices.

"You could see the drop-off in shipments three days ago," Sam Azzarello of the Maryland Port Administration said yesterday. "Any traffic manager doing his job was going to hedge his bet so his product wouldn't be held hostage on some rail in Des Moines, Iowa."

About 30 percent of shipments to the Port of Baltimore normally continue on their journey by rail, the other 70 percent by truck. A rail stoppage of any length would produce a costly scramble for available trucks and would eventually shut production and lead to layoffs -- a gut punch to an economy climbing to its feet.

For commuters who ride the rails, meanwhile, the Mass Transit Administration acted quickly and admirably to arrange a menu of alternatives. Hundreds of MARC riders were bused to Metro stations or to an open Amtrak line to get to their jobs in Baltimore and Washington.

The main reason transportation and business executives said they were cautiously optimistic yesterday was because recent rail labor actions have been brief. A freight rail strike in April, 1991 lasted less than a day before Congress and the White House ordered it to an end as a threat to national commerce. Business is banking on Washington to step in this time, too -- as it must. In this tenuous economy, too many other workers would be hurt by a silent railroad.

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