Anxious rail town Cumberland is afraid a CSX merge with Conrail will cost the town in Allegany County some of its best-paying jobs

February 23, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- Somewhere, miles away from the mountains of Western Maryland, the chief executives of the East Coast's major railroads are huddling in secret, shuffling the pieces of a giant puzzle.

Virtually no one knows exactly how CSX Corp.'s bid to take over Conrail Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp.'s efforts to thwart it will shake out. But some likely scenarios have created fear and uncertainty in this Western Maryland town, a major hub for CSX.

Mergers are made to get rid of people, said William L. Buck Hedrick, a 31-year veteran railroad worker. We're worried real bad that we will be losing our jobs.

More than 395,000 carloads of coal and other freight move through Cumberlands huge rail yard off Virginia Avenue each year. That activity provides jobs paying $13 to $20 an hour for the 1,000 people who run the trains, repair the cars and service the locomotives.

CSX operates two repair shops, its coal business unit and an engineer training school in Cumberland.

It's a significant employer with a significant economic impact, said Larry J. Brock, president of Brock Steel Co., a scrap recycling business near the rail yard. Even the loss of half of those jobs would mean a lot of money that wont go to McDonalds or to the supermarkets or buy cans that I can recycle.

If CSX and Conrail merge or if CSX acquires the right to use Conrails main line through Pennsylvania CSX would reroute its time-sensitive east-west freight through Pennsylvania, while continuing to send its slower-moving coal trains over steep mountains into the Cumberland yard.

Many fear that even projected increases in coal hauling would not offset the substantial loss of the freight trains. That would mean fewer trains to operate and less work in the locomotive and car repair shops, which have about 450 employees.

"It's almost inevitable that Western Maryland is going to lose ground," said Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who represents Allegany County, where Cumberland is situated.

It is a widespread fear grounded in logic -- and political reality.

From the outset, Rep. Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who heads the House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee, has insisted that any rail merger not result in the loss of jobs in Pennsylvania.

Among Conrail's thousands of employees in Pennsylvania are workers at its huge locomotive overhaul facility in Altoona, the heart of Shuster's district, and those at a smaller locomotive shop, similar to Cumberland's, in Enola, outside Harrisburg.

"They'll only need one shop," said Roger Bloss, a 30-year CSX veteran who works in the Cumberland car repair shop. "If the merger goes through, Cumberland's going to lose out big time."

CSX officials have tried to assure workers that the shops in Cumberland and Altoona perform different functions. In addition, they say, the old Baltimore & Ohio line, which runs through Cumberland, is a vital east-west route that could become an important bargaining chip in the negotiations with Norfolk Southern.

CSX is expected to file a formal plan of operation for its proposed merger with Conrail in early April.

"There's a lot of uncertainty for all of us," said Stephen C. Thienel, regional vice president for CSX. "We do have a major asset in Cumberland [the merger] may transform the functions that are performed there, but Cumberland will always be a major activity center."

CSX's assurances have done little to allay workers' unease, however.

"We just feel like we might be sacrificed in order for CSX to merge with Conrail," Hedrick said.

Ever since CSX and Norfolk Southern began vying last fall for Conrail in a $10 billion battle, such sentiments have been pervasive in the bars and restaurants in south Cumberland, and in the the repair shops and aboard the trains.

"It comes up every day," said train inspector Gary Ritchey. "If you don't work for the railroad or Westvaco [paper mill in Luke], it's minimum wage. There's not much else around here. You can live pretty good on $37,000 a year in Cumberland."

The railroad has been an integral part of the area's economy ever since the B&O, the nation's first railroad, chugged into Cumberland in 1842.

The availability of rail transportation sparked an economic boom for manufacturing industries and the coal companies that continued well into the 20th century.

Generations of children watched parents go off to well-paying jobs at Celanese Inc. and PPG Corp. But starting in the late 1960s, the plants gradually shut down, culminating with the closing of the Kelly-Springfield tire plant in 1987. Over the past 40 years, Cumberland's population has dwindled from 50,000 to 29,000.

"We just don't want to go any lower in our economic base with these types of industries," said Cumberland Mayor Ed Athey. "People are just very skeptical about this whole merger deal."

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