California is beginning a comprehensive review of train routes, cargo and operations to pinpoint areas where it thinks safety regulations should be tightened.

The program is a consequence of laws hastily passed by the state Legislature last year after two major derailments by Southern Pacific Transportation Co. trains.The review by the California Public Utilities Commission could add significantly to the overall regulation of rail carriers in the state.

"We're getting more proactive," said Bill Oliver, director of safety for the commission.

Conceivably, the state review could result in a host of new local safety regulations that could significantly burden overall rail operations in the state.

Changes discussed include restricting train speeds and hours of operations. Other topics include requiring increased maintenance and "redesigning" rail lines.

The railroads have been purposely low-key in their response to the review, hoping the state would eventually back off as the memory of earlier accidents begins to fade and the public outcry for more safety on the rails diminishes.

Legislation mandating the program was implemented late last year after the two accidents involving Southern Pacific.

In one derailment near Dunsmuir, Calif., a tank car filled with weed killer spilled into the Sacramento River, killing thousands of fish and decimating the local environment.

Two weeks later, a car derailed in southern California, spilling noxious chemicals and temporarily closing a main highway into the Los Angeles area.

The review pits railroads operating in the state against the state's utility commission over the state's power to regulate safety at various railroad sites. Most rail safety matters are governed by federal law. State regulation is restricted to situations that are uniquely local in nature.

"Anything that happens has to be consistent with federal law," said SP spokesman Mike Furtney.

"It's going to be a matter of opinion as to what they (the commission) consider unique operating conditions and what we consider unique operating conditions," said John Bromley, a spokesman for the Union Pacific Railroad Co.

Last week, the California commission - using data from the federal government, the railroads and the California Environmental Protection Agency - started compiling a list of chemicals and commodities moved by rail that it

considers to be hazardous. It also began a review of the routes those commodities take.

The agency also plans to review the site and circumstances of every train derailment in the state over the last five years. It will also identify, with the help of former train engineers and rail experts, sites that pose a danger

because of the grade, curve or terrain around the track.

The commission hopes to complete this research by mid-summer. It then

plans to target those areas that pose the most serious safety risks and propose regulatory programs to eliminate or reduce the hazards. The proposals,

commission officials said, should come by the end of the year. The safety review will be repeated every year by the agency.