Perry Anthony of Allied Van Lines is not panicking just yet. But he is worried.
Already, several of the independent truck drivers who haul for the giant mover have been stranded without fuel in states such as Montana.
Many more of the 2,500 Allied drivers are spending big chunks of their normal 10-hour driving days hunting for truck stops that have diesel fuel, "getting 50 gallons, driving for an hour, then searching for more," Anthony said. A normal rig holds 200 to 300 gallons.
A few of his drivers - all of whom fly the Allied flag but work for themselves under contract - have become so exasperated by the shortage of diesel fuel and its rising price that they have quit.
"Our drivers won't join any national strike," Anthony said, referring to truckers who have protested at the White House over the rising price and declining supply of diesel fuel. "They'll just quit."
Steve Murphy, vice president of Yellow Freight Systems Inc., one of the nation's big freight haulers, is not worried that his drivers will quit.
Unlike the tens of thousands of independent truckers who drive for Allied and other moving companies, Murphy's drivers don't pay their own bills.
But Yellow Freight is having severe difficulties coming up with fuel for its terminals that stretch west and south from its Kansas City headquarters.
Truckers say the diesel fuel shortage has been compounded by Department of Energy regulations requiring oil companies to ship farmers 100 percent of their diesel fuel requirements. That order was augmented last week to include truck drivers who haul perishable foods and all who are exploring for or producing energy products.
The nation's railroads, most of which are dependent on diesel fuel, are feeling the pinch, too, although only a few so far have had to curtail any service.
Santa Fe Railroad, the major rail carrier from Chicago to the West Coast, has had to dip into its diesel inventory to keep operating. "Normally we carry 16 days' supply in storage," a spokesman said. "We're down to 11 or 12 days now."
An official at another railroad said that if things continue as they are, railroads may find themselves forced to suspend some trains in another six weeks.
So far, the nation's transportation system has coped with high-priced and increasingly scare gasoline and diesel fuel. But trucking and railroad officials say the nightmare of stranded rigs and reduced rail service could become a reality unless more fuel becomes available.
The problem is more acute west of the Mississippi, mainly because of the rules allocating more fuel to agriculture than to anyone else.
Ed Grigsby of Phillips Petroleum Co., a major Midwest refiner, said the new regulations put out by the Department of Energy late last week will make it even harder for most trucking companies, truck stops and railroads to get the diesel fuel they need.
While truckers and railroads talk of an impending crisis, the nation's overall fuel shortage is proving a bonanza for other segments of the transportation industry.
With motorists increasingly afraid to stray far from home, passenger volume on buses, airlines and railroads has been booming in recent weeks. Even the rental car industry is benefiting as travelers take short flights, then rent a car with a full tank.
But the growing shortage of diesel fuel raises the question of how long that boom can continue. And the gasoline shortage may make it even more difficult for rental car companies to send their customers off with a tankful of gasoline.
The major problem for the transportation industry, as for the average motorist, has been fuel availability. But with diesel fuel prices rising as fast as, or faster than, gasoline, price is becoming a significant difficulty, too, especially for industries such as trucking and railroads where fares are regulated by the federal government.
Late Friday, the Interstate Commerce Commission took steps to alleviate the squeeze that rising fuel costs are putting on trucking companies, independent truck drivers and railroads.
The ICC moved to allow all carriers to put a fuel-related surcharge on their rates with 10 working days' notice instead of the usual 30 days. The action will not compensate railroads and truckers for money they may have lost already because fuel costs rose faster than rates, nor will it keep rates rising in tandem with diesel prices. But it should go a long way toward satisfying some of the major complaints these regulated industries had about fuel price increases.
Big users of fuel such as Yellow Freight, Santa Fe or Hertz Rent-a-Car have been able to use their expertise to find fuel, albeit at high prices, on the so-called spot market.
But truck stop operators, like their counterparts at the neighborhood service station, have neither the expertise nor the financial wherewithal to go to the sport market and buy gasoline or diesel fuel, most of which apparently comes from South America or the Caribbean.
And as the supplies tighten and major users are forced to deplete their inventories, black markets are likely to appear.
An official of the Santa Fe Railroad said his company was offered 1 million gallons of diesel fuel at $1.25 a gallon last week. "We turned them down," he said. Santa Fe normally pays about 6o cents a gallon for its fuel.
For the most part, however, there does not appear to be much of a black market yet, Yellow Freight's Murphy said. The gasoline and diesel fuel that can be bought for cash is coming from the same sources as last year: offshore. Only last year, when fuel was abundant, spot prices were lower than contract prices.
John Murphy of the American Trucking Association said his organization is getting reports that some truckers are reluctant to make deliveries in fuel-short states such as California or Montana. "They've got the fuel to get in, but cannot get fuel to leave," he said.
One trucking industry source said the diesel fuel shortage at truck stops is compounded by some major carriers that usually fuel their own trucks. The companies tell drivers to fuel up at a truck stop to conserve the companies' own diesel supplies, the source said. That makes the life of an independent trucker - who always fuels at truck stops - even more difficult.
"If our guys see any of that going on, that's when the fur is going to fly," said Allied's Anthony.
To try to cope with the situation, Allied has set up an emergency phone center in Omaha, where its drivers can share with the home company informaton about fuel avaibility. So far, the system has kept most of its drivers on the road.
But interstate movers are just entering their busiest season. "Whether we'll continue to avoid any delays, I just don't know," he said.
Some major railroads such as the Santa Fe report that they are getting inquiries from big trucking companies about the feasibility of shipping loaded vans by rail, then attaching cabs at the destination to move the vans to warehouses or other unloading points.
That already is a big business. At its Chicago yards, Santa Fe loads or unloads a full truck van from flat cars every minute of every day.
Major truckers say the railroads do not have enough equipment to handle a big increase in such "intermodal" transportation. And the railroads themselves admit that although they would like the extra business, they may not have the fuel to handle a large increase in truck-related freight traffic.
News of the fuel shortage is making bus companies such as Greyhound and Continental Trailways positively gleeful, however. Their basic business is the short ride of less than 500 miles where automobiles are the main competition.
A spokesman said Greyhound is not having any fuel-supply problems now, and ridership is up sharply.The company said it does not have any passenger figures for. April and May because of the time it takes to process tickets that drivers collect, but said that it had to add 40 percent more extra sections to normal runs so far this year than last.
Greyhound, which is also the nation's largest manufacturer of intercity buses, normally adds two buses to its fleet of 4,500 each day and sells two older buses.
"We're still adding two buses, but we're not selling any anymore," a spokesman said. Ridership on Continental Trailways is up by 17 percent to 18 percent over last year, although the company is having problems getting all the fuel it needs and mustering all the extra equipment demanded, a spokesman said. Continental stopped selling its used buses, too.
Both Continental and Greyhound have their own refueling terminals along their regular routes. Chartered buses that use truck stops are encountering difficulties similar to those reported by independent truck drivers.
The fuel shortage has been a mixed bag for the airlines. They were the first to feel the fuel pinch last March when suppliers of jet fuel reduced deliveries, forcing the cancellation of some scheduled flights.Jet fuel costs are escalating, too.
But partially as a result of the cutbacks in flights and partially because of a turn from the auto to the airplane, planes are flying fuller.
Pacific Southwest Airlines, which inaugurated 13 flights a day from Los Angeles to Las Vegas two weeks ago - a trek most gamblers made by auto - has been flying the new route full. The company reports increasingly heavy ridership on its short hops as well, such as the Los Angeles to San Diego flight.
Amtrak, which operates the nation's rail passenger system, is reporting record ridership on many of its routes.
But except in the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, where many rail lines are electrified, Amtrak passenger trains (which are operated under contract by private railroads) face the same fuel problems as freight trains. CAPTION: Picture, no caption