Atlanta — Like rivers of steel snaking across the state in glistening parallel rows, Georgia's railroads have been a commercial lifeline for nearly two centuries, guiding a seemingly endless stream of freight along pathways gilded in prosperity.
Railroads set growth patterns for towns and cities from the low country to the highlands. Some 5,100 miles of railroads still link Georgia's farms, factories, and mills to markets around the country.
But in recent years those links have begun to break down in towns in Georgia and across the nation where demand for rail service has waned, as railroad companies attempt to abandon lines that are no longer profitable.
Now, officials in small, mostly rural communities nationwide are seeking changes in the federal regulations that govern railroad abandonments, claiming that proposed abandonments threaten local economies.
''Some communities will rot on the vine,'' said Lace Futch, mayor of the south Georgia town of Willacoochee.
''It's handicapping rural communities,'' said Mr. Futch, whose own town is threatened by a railroad abandonment.
Rail abandonments hurt worst in small towns that are served by only one rail line. In many cases abandoning that line leaves a community with no rail service at all. That is particularly painful in areas dependent upon such mainstays of rural economies as farming, mining, and timber - industries that rely heavily on rail service for the transportation of supplies, equipment, and finished goods.
''It leaves them out on a limb, and somebody else has the saw,'' said Jon Grant, spokesman for the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Earlier this month, at the urging of the Georgia Municipal Association, the National League of Cities adopted a resolution asking Congress to require the Interstate Commerce Commission to consider the effect rail abandonment would have on a community before the ICC approved such abandonments.
The League of Cities, which represents some 15,000 towns and communities nationwide, has become the newest member of a disparate group of factions that have begun saying that Congress went too far in deregulating the railroads four years ago. Among others opposed to current regulations are electric utilities and coal producers, both of which contend that they are ''captives'' of the railroads and are being overcharged for freight deliveries.
The ICC has set up an informal steering committee to listen to criticisms of the railroad regulations. Congress is expected to review federal railroad regulations this winter. ''It's going to be the biggest transportation issue of the next Congress,'' said Deppish Kirkland III, Georgia's consumer utilities counsel, the state official that represents consumers in utility cases.
''The (railroad) companies are fighting like dogs,'' Mr. Kirkland said, to prevent Congress from changing those rules.
As well they might. The railroads fought a long battle to get regulations where they are today.
In 1980 Congress enacted the Staggers Act, which provided the basis for the deregulation of the railroads, increasing the control railroad companies have over rates, schedules, and routes. A key feature of the act was to eliminate the regulatory impediments to railroad abandonments.
Operating even a 25-mile stretch of railroad can cost upwards of $500,000 a year, money that railroads can ill afford to spend on lines where freight traffic is minimal. ''Lines that are money losers create a drain on the profitable lines, which in turn makes it difficult to compete with other modes of transportation,'' said Ray Bullard, spokesman for the Seaboard System Railroad, a division of the CSX Corporation. Seaboard has filed nearly all of the abandonment requests that affect Georgia.
For years, railroad companies have argued that one reason they are having trouble competing with the trucking industry is that they have lacked the flexibility needed to adapt to shifting freight markets. In the past, for example, it was very difficult for a railroad company to abandon an existing line, even if the line was unprofitable.
''Before the Staggers Act, the law was tilted fairly heavily against the railroads,'' said Edward Schack, special counsel for the Interstate Commerce Commission. The few rail abandonments that were permitted were approved only after a railroad company had shown excessive losses from a line that could be closed with virtually no harm to a community or business.
The theory behind those constraints was that, in return for regulatory protection as a natural monopoly, railroads should be required to make their service available to as much of the public as possible.
The system worked fine until the construction of the national Interstate highway network, which enabled the American trucking industry to help itself to a serious share of the freight shipments that had long gone to the railroads. At the same time, the railroads were feeling the pinch of other types of competition - pipelines, airlines, barges, and even buses. In essence, the railroad companies argued, their systems no longer constituted a monopoly.
Squeezed by new competition and lingering regulation, the railroad industry looked to Congress for relief, which came in the form of the Staggers Act.
As far as rail abandonments go, for example, ''The burden of proof is now very heavy on those who would oppose abandonment, very heavy. There have only been a handful of denials of abandonment,'' said the ICC's Mr. Schack. During the past two years, the ICC has approved 257 abandonments around the country, totaling several thousand miles of track, according to the League of Cities. There are 51 additional abandonment cases pending, representing some 1,223 miles of track.
In Georgia, railroad companies are considering abandoning some 300 miles of track. Demand for rail service on those portions of track has generally been too low to support the maintenance of the lines, according to Mr. Bullard of Seaboard. One such proposal would leave the tiny town of Ocilla stranded in the southeast Georgia flatlands, linked to the nearest railroad only by US 129, a heavily traveled two-lane blacktop roadway.
''It will be a devastating impact,'' said Mary Nelms, executive director of the Irwin County Chamber of Commerce. ''Almost all of the industry here has been dependent on the use of this railroad.''
Ms. Nelms, who is also the executive director of the Irwin County Industrial Development Authority, fears the abandonment would cripple the county's efforts to bring in needed industry. ''Who wants to locate in a town where they're trying to abandon the railroad tracks?''