Keeping Maryland on track Rail merger stakes: State needs two major freight lines, despite Maryland Midland bid.

March 10, 1997

MARYLAND could get a bonus from the proposed giant rail merger of Conrail with CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp.: More freight hauled by the short-line Maryland Midland Railway from the vital Hagerstown terminus across Central Maryland to the Port of Baltimore.

But the attraction of that potential extra benefit should not divert the state's attention from its main purpose in these disputed, federally supervised $10 billion merger negotiations: assuring two large Class I, long-haul railroads will serve Maryland customers.

Maryland Midland, based in Union Bridge, wants this state to use its leverage in the merger approval to force CSX to sell 42 miles of track and track rights to the local carrier. This would create more business for the port and strengthen its links to Midwest markets.

The state must resist such overtures, even with promises of more local employment and economic activity. Boosting Maryland Midland's traffic capability is not a solution to the port's many problems. There's no guarantee that, even in the best of circumstances, port traffic would significantly increase, especially if the long-haul carriers choose to route cars elsewhere, at a favorable price.

Even if the state should press Maryland Midland's proposal as a condition of merger, there's little likelihood federal regulators would buy it. An undercapitalized, short-line railroad is no substitute for a second Class I carrier serving the Port of Baltimore.

The idea of expanding rail traffic through Central Maryland to Baltimore, quadrupling Maryland Midland's current car count, is an intriguing one. This prospective, Maryland-based third force in state rail traffic could pay off in the future. So state officials should continue to pressure CSX to offer track rights, or tracks, to Maryland Midland to provide for direct rail shipping between Hagerstown and the port.

But that is something to be worked out separately from the merger of rail giants, affecting national economic concerns. The Maryland Midland proposal should not be allowed to sidetrack the state's demand to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board that two large Class I railroads continue serving Baltimore's port.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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