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A discussion Thursday by a local rail task force focused on the proposed merger of Eastern rail giants and how it will affect local rail service.

The proposed acquisition of Conrail by CSX and more recently Norfolk Southern has "put us in a position so that we don't know what's going on," according to Donald R. Rychnowski, director of the Southern Tier West Planning Board.

A rail task force formed by the board reaffirmed its stance on maintaining Southern Tier rail service to a state representative during the meeting.

Meeting with Steve Slovak of the rail freight division of the state Department of Transportation's Albany office, the group said they want to ensure rail service is maintained to the Jamestown area, where active shippers rely on Conrail, and that through service is maintained between Hornell and Corry, Pa.

A pact between Conrail and DOT to maintain rail service on the Southern Tier Line from Hornell west to Jamestown expires in 1998.

Earlier this week Rychnowski said the board's contacts at Conrail established in the last five years of negotiations "weren't even aware" of the proposal.

The planning board began negotiations with Conrail to acquire the local line from Hornell to Corry, Pa., on behalf of local industrial development agencies. Those talks broke off when a connecting line from Corry to Meadville, Pa., was sold to a CSX-financed investor group.

When Conrail stopped negotiating last year, Rychnowski said, Rep. Amory Houghton Jr., R-Corning, offered assistance, but the talks never actively resumed.

The board has also been communicating with the Surface Transportation Board, formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal agency that must approve all rail mergers.

"We had most positive feedback that we are now in a much better position" to influence any merger that will affect the Southern Tier Line, said Richard E. Haberer, Cattaraugus County Legislature chairman, following the Thursday meeting.

"The group wants to wait and see how it plays," Haberer said, before "exerting influence" on local state and federal elected officials who can make recommendations on any merger plans.

Rychnowski said officials of the Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, owned by Genesee Wyoming Industries, continue to negotiate with Conrail.

B&P announced last year it would abandon a line north from Ashford into Erie County and reroute traffic onto Conrail's Olean lines to Buffalo.

The B&P was chosen by the Planning Board's rail task force as the preferred operator of the Conrail Southern Tier line should acquisition take place. The B&P also operates a north-south line through Salamanca.

Attending Thursday's meeting were county chairmen and Industrial Development directors from four Southern Tier counties that are affected by the railroads -- Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Steuben counties.

A decision on the Conrail-CSX-Norfolk Southern merger is expected to be completed in 1997.

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