PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Conrail has named Richard D. Sanborn to succeed retiring L. Stanley Crane as chairman and chief executive officer.

Sanborn, 52, came to Conrail in March 1988, as president and chief operating officer, titles he will retain, and board member. The company announced then that he would replace Crane.

Crane, 73, became chairman and CEO of the freight railroad in 1981 and presided over the company as it went from a federal government-owned money loser to a profitable, publicly held corporation in March 1987.

In October, Conrail reported third-quarter profit of $83 million, up from $62 million for the same period in 1987. In the first nine months of the year, Conrail had net income of $228 million, up from $220 million in the same year- ago period.

Sanborn, of Baltimore, came to Conrail from CSX Distribution Services Inc., where he was president and CEO. CSX Distribution is a division of CSX Corp., another big Eastern railroad.

In a recent employee publication, he identified Conrail's major challenges as the need to be more responsive to customers and to compete more effectively to haul commodities that now move mainly by truck.

Among the key decisions Sanborn may face early next year is whether or not to build a new headquarters. Conrail now has offices in three downtown Philadelphia buildings.

His appointment is effective Jan. 1.