PNC Bank Corp. is boldly entering the home-banking age by closing up to 30% of its 612 branches in three years, and opening a telephone banking center by mid-1995 to serve customers nationwide.

The Pittsburgh-based bank's decision, made public last month, foreshadows a trend of dramatic branch closing announcements expected from regional banks.

"Half of the top 50 banks will make similar announcements by 1997," predicted James Moss, an analyst at Duff & Phelps Credit Rating Service.

Branches will always exist in some form, observers say, but the fact is "telephone banking can be 50% cheaper than serving a household through a branch," said James McCormick, president of First Manhattan Consulting Group.

PNC is investing about $15 million to offer consumer loans and deposit services via the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week phone center.

"This is one of the most aggressive plans that I've seen to implement a telephone banking system in terms of the investment and in terms of closing branches," said Michael Mayo, an analyst at Lehman Brothers.

The bank had field-tested the service with seven telephone centers in various parts of its market. PNC will now consolidate those centers into one Pittsburgh-based office.

Many branches in PNC's five-state market are suffering declines in profits and visits from customers, said Jonathan Williams, a PNC spokesman. Specific numbers were proprietary, he said, but "there's a lot of research indicating customers would prefer to deal with us via telephone."

PNC's branches operate in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.

PNC is building up a force of 450 employees for its telephone center, Mr. Williams said. The office currently employs 100.

"The success of it will be greatly determined by the type of staff it has in there. It can't be handled by the typical branch manager with a sign on his desk that says, 'Ask me about our auto loans,'" said Duff & Phelps' Mr. Moss.

Analysts said they weren't sure how many layoffs would occur from the branch closings, since jobs would open up at the telephone banking center. Last month, the bank cut 286 back-office positions, or 1.2% of its 23,000-person work force, as part of an overall cost cutting plan. Mr. Williams said those layoffs were unrelated to the bank's creation of a telephone banking center.

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