Perpetual American Bank announced yesterday it has purchased the automatic teller terminals in 91 Safeway stores in the Washington area for an undisclosed price and will run the machines jointly with the supermarket chain.

Docutel/Olivetti of Dallas, which is selling the money-losing terminals to Perpetual, said in late January that it would close the network and cart off the machines if it could not find a buyer by the end of March. These electronic tellers enable shoppers to withdraw cash from, but not make deposits in, their bank or savings and loan accounts using magnetic-coded cards.

Purchase of the Safeway network triples to 147 the number of electronic outposts owned by Perpetual, the District's largest thrift institution. The cost was modest: Bank industry sources estimate Perpetual paid no more than $3,000 a machine, or $250,000. A comparable new machine costs $15,000.

The machines will remain a part of the Most automatic teller network, which is connected to 147 financial institutions in the area. However, some customers may notice a change in charges for using the machines, because some banks charge for use of machines operated by other banks.

The banking community welcomed the purchase. Financial executives here, like those across the country, have pushed machine banking. They have worried that the technology's image would be bruised if Safeway's terminals were closed.

The new arrangement provides two ingredients that Docutel/Olivetti's ownership and management of the machines lacked: direct involvement by a banking retailer and by the store in whose aisles the machines sit.

Although 11 local financial institutions had invested in a partnership formed by Docutel/Olivetti to fund the Safeway venture, the banks and S&Ls had no direct involvement. And Safeway had no financial incentive to promote customer use of the network; it merely rented space for the machines and got its money whether anyone used them or not.

The lack of diligent oversight left some machines broken for days at a time. Others, hidden by empty crates or shopping carts, were passed unnoticed by busy shoppers. The result has been a network averaging 1,000 transactions a month per machine.

Giant Food, in contrast, has a 136-machine network that it owns and runs with Suburban Bancorp of Bethesda and that averages 3,000 transactions a month per machine.

Under Perpetual's new agreement with Safeway, the food store will provide free space for the teller machines and, in exchange, will share an undisclosed portion of profits once transactions reach an undisclosed volume.

Machines on average need 4,000 transactions a month to break even for their owners, industry experts say. But Perpetual might break even at a much lower volume because it paid so little to buy the machines.

"It's a very good, timely deal for Perpetual," said John Love, publisher of Bank Network News, an industry newsletter published in Chicago. "I predict the operations could be profitable by the end of the year."

A top executive at one of the 11 institutions that invested in the partnership said, however, that the banks and thrifts "got absolutely nothing" from Perpetual's purchase. "But we're just glad to be out of the deal," the executive said.

The 11 investors were: D.C. National Bancorp, Union Trust Bancorp, First Virginia Banks, the Safeway Eastern Credit Union, Central National Bank of Maryland, Standard Federal Savings & Loan of Gaithersburg, State National Bank of Rockville, Metropolitan Federal Savings and Loan of Bethesda, Suburban Bank of Bethesda, Madison National Bank of D.C. and Carrollton Bank of Baltimore.