There is good news and there is bad news about Consolidated Rail Corp., the giant Northeast transportation firm set up to succeed the region's bankrupt rail system starting April 1, 1976.
The bad news first: As forecast by some skeptics when Congress was studying projections for Conrail's eventual profitability, it will be later rather than sooner before red-ink accounting entries are eliminated. Not only has the day when Conrail breaks even been pushed into the future, but the railroad firm also will need more federal aid.
As often is the case when government planners seek approval for their blueprints, economic projections for Conrail success were much too optimistic and the potential short-comings were not emphasized. No realistic margin for crises was included in estimates of how much taxpayer money would be necessary.
It was an oversight that was made worse by the record cold of last winter, which crippled rail operations throughout the region, reduced freight business and piled up unexpected bills.
But there is good news, too, from America's attempt at the largest corporate reorganization in history.
Shippers, rail industry officials and government experts in the Midwest and East generally agree that Conrail today is offering more efficient and attentive service than railroads have provided in the region for a decade or more, at least along the heavily used main freight arteries. Executives of railroads that interchange freight traffic in large volume with Conrail, such as Southern Railway president L. Stanley Crane, give the young firm high marks.
In addition, Conrail has completed two summers of extensive track improvements throughout its system, which extends to 16 states, the District and two provinces of Canada. Altogether, Conrail operates more than 17,000 route miles and 34,000 miles of track as successor to the bankrupt Penn Central and half a dozen smaller lines.
Conrail chairman and chief executive Edward G. Jordan said recently he has "no idea today" whether his government-aided company will need more federal support than the planned $2.1 billion investment authorized by Congress.
To date, the government has invested some $1 billion by purchasing Conrail securities. At a Sept. 28 board meeting of U.S. Railway Association, a federal agency that planned the railroad reorganization and is charged with financing and monitoring results, directors approved an additional investment of $121 million in the final quarter of 1977.
If Conrail draws down all of those funds, as expected, the total U.S. commitment on Dec. 31 would be $1.152 billion. U.S. Railway has completed the purchase of $1 billion in Conrail debentures and now is buying series A preferred stock.
Eventually, Conrail will draw down the entire $2.1 billion, and government planners now are trying to figure out how much more federal investment is required. Acting U.S. Railway president Donald C. Cole said last month that Conrail will need more aid, a statement that upset officials at Conrail and in the railroad industry.
The main fear is that talk of even more federal aid could lead to renewed talk about nationalizing the company.Such a fate for the principal Northeast railroad would be followed in time by government takeover of all rail transportation, according to industry leaders, who can't see competing with the government and surviving.
It was Cole agency that planned the rail reorganization and emphasized a goal of retaining private-enterprise ownership and management of the industry.
Stung by comments in the press and by public officials earlier this year to the effect that Conrail was a quasi-governmental corporation similar to Amtrak or the Postal Service, the Philadelphia-based railroad sought to emphasize the potential for disaster in its mid-August report to stockholders.
"Continuing misconceptions of the true purpose and structure of Conrail could materially affect the achievement of the ultimate objective of the Conrail mandate - an economically viable solution to the Northeast rail crisis. If political and other constituencies incorrectly construe the corporation as a government entity, then expectations about its operating policies will be greatly altered, with the result that economic viability for Conrail may never be achieve.
But the same report also had to relay the bad news. In the first half of 1977, Conrail had a net loss of $235.1 million, more than $100 million of which was attributed to the costs of last winter. Revenues totaled $1.6 billion for the six months. Conrail is not making as much progress as expected in its recovery program, and freight business is sagging along with the economy in general.
In seeking with other railroads a new increase in freight rates of 5 per cent on most commodities, Conrail told the Interstate Commerce Commission it would suffer a freight hauling loss of some $750 million in the 12 ended next June 30 without a change in current conditions. However, those figures are based on ICC accounting requirements that charge off extensive track rebuilding against current revenues.
Conrail's public reporting of losses has been based on generally accepted accounting principles of most business, with rehabilitation expenses spread out and subject to depreciation. In any event, the nation's railroad companies hope to institute higher rates at the end of November, if the ICC approves.
In an interview at Conrail's small L'Enfant Plaza office here, chairman Jordan said he doesn't consider himself in "the business of asking for more money. I think we are doing well, and that doesn't mean there are no problems and people need to know that."
And among the facts people should know, he said, are that Conrail has met its basic targets for expenses but not met its targets for loses. U.S. Railway Association planners "always said" that forecasts would be imprecise and that there would be some questions about long-term financing, said Jordan, himself a former top officer of the government agency before being tapped to run a railroad.
"We have expended enormous energy and money on rehabilitation and we are meeting our goals," he said. But nothing prepared Conrail executives for such expenditures as $13.5 million in the recent quarter to rehabilitate facilities literally washed away in flooding at Johnstown, Pa.
Since Day 1 in early 1976, Conrail has installed some 1,800 miles of continuous-welded rail along main routes; replaced 9 million crossties, or 9 per cent of all ties in its system; rehabilitated all cabooses: repaired 26,000 revenue-producing freight cars from a fleet of 150,000; and rebuilt nearly 1,700 locomotives.
Jordan said the fleet of freight cars and locomotives that Conrail inherited was in worse shape than described by government planners. Conrail may not be able to repair some of the old freight cars and may have to spend more than projected for new equipment. Jordan said he hopes to finance such purchases in the private sector ($150 million has been so sinanced in 1977) but he clearly is worried that talk about troubles could inhibit Conrail's market status.
By November, he continued, Conrail officials will complete a thorough study of the company's future requirements, based on "a changing profile of problems." As the data about freight business grow, the strategy must be changed, he noted.
In particular, Jordan pointed out that the American steel industry's increasing malaise is having a significant impact on his business. Nealy every day now, a steel firm announces a new cutback in production plans. Expansion plants has been curtailed.
At Conrail, three of its top six customers are the major steel manufacturers. The weakness in steel already has cut into Conrail volume, and the prospect of even smaller steel activity is of great concern to the railroad's economic planners.
"We have to come to grips with what we do have," and that may mean there still is too much railroad infrastructure in the Northeast, the Conrail chief executive stated. "The most serious question facing Conrail is redundant main lines. We must protect our main lines from losses on branches if we ever are to make money."
For 1978, Conrail planners expect "close to a no-growth economy," with the physical volume of freight about even with 1977.