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ICC chairman sees railroads as next on the agenda for deregulation

The historic deregulation of the US trucking and airline industries is no passing fancy, darius W. Gaskins Jr. Maintains. In fact, says Mr. Gaskins, it is likely that a railroad deregulation law will be enacted by Congress later this year or early in 1981.

Mr. Gaskins probably has his ear as close to the staccato rhythm of the US railroad system as anyone else. As chairman of the powerful Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), Mr. Gaskins sits at the head of the 2,000-member independent agency that regulates the US bus, truck, and railroad industries. (The airline industry is regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.)

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An articulate, fast-talking economist who has held important posts with the Department of Energy, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Aeronautics Board, Mr. Gaskins says deregulation is one step -- though certainly not the only step -- towards boosting American productivity. The ICC is now working carry out the congressionally mandated deregulation of the trucking industry.

The commission is also continuing to make decisions on its own to allow railroads more freedom to raise and lower shipping rates. At the same time, staff planners are already looking down the regulatory highway toward what is expected to be an eventual deregulation of the bus industry. But that is at least a year away. A conference on the bus least a year away. A conference on the bus industry is being held this month in Boston.

What effect might the election of Mr. Reagan have on rail deregulation?

Mr. Gaskins says he does not foresee that that would make much of a difference on deregulation. Moreover, he is proud of ICC efforts to ease the regulatory burden of US rail carriers. "We've [the ICC] been evolving fairly rapidly in the past several years with our own policies toward both rail and motor carrier deregulation," he says.

During the past months, the commission eased filing and reporting burdens on rail carriers; struck down railroad collective ratemaking agreements (to enhance competition); and set up an office of consumer protection, among other major decisions.

Mr. Gaskins is new to the ICC chairmanship this year, replacing former chairman Daniel O'Neal, also a strong proponent of deregulation.

Does Mr. Gaskins believe US railroads have a long-range future, given their economic woes, plus outside competition?

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"Railroads do have inherent problems that are plaguing them in the 20th century," he concedes. "They're relatively inflexible in responding to fundamental democgraphic changes an dindustrial shifts. It's no surprise that those railroads that are having problems are located in the northeastern United States" (where jobs and population are moving away). "Railroads are making money in the South and Southwest," where population is resettling, he says.

Mr. Gaskins notes that Canadian railroads, which were deregulated in 1965, have posted significant gains in productivity since that time. US carriers, by contrast, have had "virtually no growth in productivity" in the same period.

That factor alone, he suggests, is an incentive for deregulation.

The Senate passed a strong rail deregulation measure last spring. As of this writing the issue is bogged down in the House.

So far as trucking deregulation, Mr. Gaskins expects some merger activity during the months and years ahead. Some, he says, will really be "acquisitions" designed to obtain "skilled personnel" and equipment.

But he is hopeful that truck deregulation won't lead to industrywide bankruptcies.

Meanwhile, the ICC is pruning its operations under Mr. Gaskins. It might be down to 1,800 employees by 1982 -- but never out of business, he says with a smile, noting all the problems associated with industries as active as trucking, bus lines, and railroads.

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