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Business highlights. Conrail-Norfolk merger steams ahead

Despite criticism from politicians and competing railroad interests, the Reagan administration's proposal to sell the government's 85 percent interest in Conrail to the Norfolk Southern Corporation appears on a fast track in the Senate. Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, concluded two days of hearings last week on the sale and said he and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina would soon introduce legislation approving the merger. Debate has focused on the effect the combination of Conrail and Norfolk Southern, two of the three major railroads in the East, would have on shippers and whether the government's asking price is high enough. Conrail was created in 1976 after the bankruptcy of the Penn Central and six smaller railroads.

The index of leading indicators, which aims to forecast economic activity in the weeks and months ahead, soared 1.7 percent in January, its biggest increase in 20 months, the Commerce Department reported Friday. The size of the increase was well above most predictions.

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Construction spending rose a strong 2 percent in January, led by big gains in office and other commercial buildings, the Commerce Department reported Friday. Spending on new construction projects in January totaled $324.9 billion on a seasonally adjusted annual rate. The January gain compared with a 0.6 percent December increase and declines of 0.5 percent in November and 0.3 percent in October.

Glitches in a new Internal Revenue Service computer system and slowness by taxpayers in filing have delayed processing of tax returns and could mean some refund checks will be late in arriving. But probably not for most people. As always, you should give the IRS 10 weeks to process the return before worrying about a refund check, it says. Earlier filing means more prompt refunds.

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