Automatic teller terminals in 91 Safeway stores in the Washington area will be shut down and carted away within eight weeks if the owners of the machines can't find a buyer for the money-losing operation, investors in the teller network say.

The network, which allows customers to make withdrawals from their bank accounts using magnetic coded cards, is a joint venture of 11 local financial institutions and Docutel/Olivetti. Owners have invested at least $2 million and possibly $3 million since the system was installed two years ago, executives involved in the partnership said.

Bank industry executives blame the network's losses, which have accelerated since its founding in 1983, on a lack of commitment from its owners, on the small number of banks initially hooked into the system and on poor maintenance that has left some machines out of order for days at a time.

Docutel/Olivetti, a manufacturer of automatic tellers based in Dallas, owns 49 percent of the machine network and is responsible for overseeing its day-to-day operations. The company is the U.S. subsidiary of I.N.G. C. Olivetti, a giant office machine maker based in Italy.

The 11 institutions that own the remaining 51 percent include D.C. National Bancorp, Union Trust Bancorp, First Virginia Banks and the Safeway Eastern Credit Union. Safeway Stores Inc. has not invested in the venture but merely rents space to the partnership.

A "financial institution" in the Washington area is considering buying the network, Docutel/Olivetti Vice President Virgil Freeman said. But he said that the potential buyer could easily back away from the purchase.

According to Freeman, Docutel/Olivetti is willing to use a limited amount of money "to buy time to find a buyer." He said that, if a buyer is not found by the time the money runs out -- about two months -- "the machines will be shut down." He said that Docutel/Olivetti then would remove the machines from the Safeways and re-sell them.

"What happens remains to be seen," Freeman said. "We're losing money."

Bank industry sources say that Safeway may be considering buying the machines. Officials at Safeway and Docutel/Olivetti would not comment.

According to executives at several of the banks that have funded the Safeway automatic teller network, the financial institutions involved have written off their investment. "The partnership, as far as the bankers is concerned, is history," one official said.

Terry Eikenbery, senior vice president at Suburban Bank in Bethesda, one of the 11 institutional investors, agreed, saying, "It's pretty much water over the dam."

In contrast to the network in the Safeway stores, which its owners admit was poorly marketed, a 136-machine network in local Giant Food stores is described by bank executives as having been taken through "every right step." The success of the network is ascribed to its being owned jointly by a retailer and a bank -- Giant Food Inc. and Suburban Bancorp of Bethesda.

Also, when the Safeway network started, it could be used only by customers of the dozen or so banks that belonged to what was then the smaller of the Washington area's two automatic teller networks, Network Exchange.

Such networks link the automatic tellers of competing banks, thus enabling the customer of one bank to use the machine of another to draw cash or make balance inquiries.

Suburban Bank, however, belonged to both Network Exchange and the area's larger automatic teller network, EFT Group. Suburban plugged its Giant store teller terminals into both networks from the start, providing the Giant system with access to twice as many card holders.

Last year, Network Exchange and EFT Group merged into one system called Most, which connects automatic teller terminals belonging to 147 financial institutions in the area. The Safeway machines have been hooked up to the Most network during the last several months, but bank industry executives say the additional customer base has come too late.

Other differences between Giant and Suburban explain why one has succeeded where the other failed, owners of the two systems say.

Giant and Suburban have 15 full-time employes responsible for keeping their machines working. Docutel/Olivetti uses outside contractors to repair its equipment, a system that has left broken machines unattended for days.

"If Safeway had been a 50 percent owner, everything would have been different," said John Love, publisher of Bank Network News, an industry newsletter based in Chicago.

Docutel/Olivetti's Freeman agrees. "Managing by remote control is difficult. We have undermanaged the venture," he said. "But even if [the network] started to make money, we'd want out. It's just too time-consuming to manage." Docutel/Olivetti lost $20 million in 1983 and $40 million in 1984, Freeman said. Much of the loss came from operations such as the network in Safeway, where the company couldn't seem to earn money overseeing the operation of the machines it manufactures, he said.

Industry executives say that a supermarket machine needs to have 4,000 transactions a month to earn its keep and allow its owners to break even. Each machine in the Safeway stores has averaged 1,000 transactions a month, while those in Giant's stores have averaged 3,000.

The other financial institutions that invested in the teller network in the Safeway stores are Central National Bank of Maryland, Standard Federal Savings & Loan of Gaithersburg, State National Bank of Rockville, Metropolitan Federal Savings and Loan of Bethesda, Madison National Bank of D.C. and Carrollton Bank of Baltimore.