Early strategy: discipline; Soviets engineer plan to keep railroads on track

Vladimir Andropov, old-time railway worker, would have approved: One of his son's first moves as Soviet leader has been to upbraid the nation's dilapidated, ill-run freight network.

Few areas of the economy better unite the problems of inefficiency, indiscipline, inertia, and, in some instances, mere incompetence that new Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov has singled out for attention.

Upgrading the nation's transport system would, moreover, seem imperative to a serious assault on related problems of food supply and wastage of raw materials.

And few areas better sum up Mr. Andropov's early strategy - avoiding major departures from past policy and concentrating, instead, on conveying a sense that the new leadership is determined to tighten overall economic discipline and ensure that policy decisions get carried out.

Mr. Andropov has adopted a somewhat tougher and more direct tone in addressing the nation's economic woes. This was particularly true of his maiden remarks on the railway sector. He has also overseen the prompt replacement of the minister of railways, long a target of official criticism.

Still, the new minister is not a new face. He has been first deputy minister, a post he got in conjunction with a 1977 reshuffle that promoted the man he has now replaced.

Mr. Andropov's early attentiveness to transportation may flow at least partly from a Brezhnev-era announcement that a new ''long-term program'' for improving that sector was being drawn up.

A decree published Dec. 14, meanwhile, applied 1979 changes in planning mechanisms to transport ministries. The move, interestingly, was foreshadowed in October, before former party chief Leonid Brezhnev's passing, by a prominent Soviet economist.

The economist noted, in a radio interview, that the 1979 planning amendments had ''left out'' half the Soviet work force, ''the nonproductive sector, transport and commerce.'' He said, ''The economic mechanism in this sphere is completely obsolete'' and that preparation was under way to correct the omission in line with policy laid out at the last national party congress, in February 1981.

If there is a particularly post-Brezhnev slant to recent decisions, officials suggest, it is most visible in the elevation to the post of first deputy prime minister of Geidar Aliyev, former Communist Party leader and earlier KGB chief in Azerbaijan.

The officials decline to say whether the promotion of Mr. Aliyev, who has a reputation as a tough taskmaster, was decided before or after Mr. Brezhnev's passing. But they do portray it as consistent with a determination on the part of the new party leader to ensure that tighter discipline and accountability are brought into policy implementation.

Mr. Aliyev's principal brief is transportation, senior officials report.

Countless critical salvoes from officials or the state media in recent years have conveyed the depth of the problems facing Soviet transportation - particularly rail transportation, which hauls fully three-quarters of the country's commercial freight.

There is the problem of planning: Officials have bemoaned the irrationality of freight-hauling routes. One Soviet journal described a train lugging concrete roof sections for apartments from Moscow to Leningrad, only to cross with another train hauling the same type of cargo from Leningrad to Moscow.

The recently replaced railway minister complained in a 1981 report: ''Every year, 2,000 flatcars carrying rice-harvesting combines are sent 4,000 kilometers from Krasnoyarsk (in the west of the Soviet Union) to Birobidzhan. There caterpillar tracks are attached to them, after which they are shipped back several thousands of kilometers'' in the direction they came from.

The flatcars themselves can be a problem. While hailing a commitment by some factories to repair rail cars that arrive in bad shape, a Moscow industrial manager said Dec. 4:

''What can (an enterprise) do when there is almost nothing left of the flatcar except for a metal skeleton? What can one do when a wagon has a door missing, or even both doors, (or) when the hatches have been lost. . . ?''

Other officials, particularly from the rail ministry, argue that some factories and farms hoard railway cars rather than speeding up the ''turnaround'' time of trains and thus keeping them in use more consistently.

But wherever the fault lies, a combination of disrepaired railway stock, irrational routing, and other problems combine to cause a general transport bottleneck with damaging fallout elsewhere in the economy.

A Soviet newspaper said recently that the far eastern port of Nakhodka had found itself with 360,000 tons of grain for lack of railway cars. Hundreds of those cars that were delivered were said to be unfit for use, and many hundreds more required on-site repairs.

Against this general background, Mr. Andropov said Nov. 22, in his first major policy speech as party leader: ''The performance of the railroads, regrettably, is deteriorating from one year to the next despite the substantial assistance given to the Ministry of Railways by the government.''

He went on to point out Brezhnev-era ''decisions on improving social conditions for railway workers and perfecting the economic (management) mechanism of transport. However, the measures taken have not yet paid back properly.''

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