RAILS AND THE PUBLIC

RAILS AND THE PUBLIC

he Supreme Court took a rational tack to a rail-safety issue last week, preserving a uniform national approach and helping to keep a lid on a wave of lawsuits that would otherwise have followed from every direction.

But no one should be under any illusions that the 7-2 decision is the last word on the specific subject of rail grade-crossing safety, or on broader rail safety issues in general.The ruling will not, and should not, blunt the legitimate safety efforts of government and industry. Nor, unfortunately, will it lessen conflict between the railroad industry and the public it serves. In fact, that discord is likely to grow.

It's a continuing story that will be played out around the country. And transportation companies and their customers should pay special heed. Whether they're part of an intermodal supply chain that extends far beyond the sea or just shipping domestically, they will be affected.

The case before the high court was an appeal by Norfolk Southern Railway of a decision against it in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a man who was killed when a train hit his truck at a grade crossing in Tennessee. The crossing was equipped with warning signs and the reflectorized, X-shaped crossbucks that announce ''Railroad Crossing.'' The widow maintained that the warning devices were inadequate. She successfully sued NS for negligence under Tennessee law.

The problem was, however, that the adequacy of the warning devices was not the railroad's call. As it had noted from the beginning, that fell under a federal-state effort, the Federal Railway-Highway Crossings Program, under which Washington provides money to the states for crossing warnings and is involved in decisions on the kind of devices used, while the railroads maintain what's installed.

NS cited a section of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 - which said in part that ''laws, regulations and orders related to railroad safety shall be nationally uniform to the extent practicable'' - and maintained that it was immune from being sued under state law in this matter.

The Supreme Court agreed. It cut through legal debate about two tiers of the program - one in which active warning devices like automatic gates are required in certain circumstances, and one in which decisions on devices in all other circumstances are up to the state but subject to federal review. In either case, it said, federal standards apply, and legal action under state law is preempted.

''States are free to install more protective devices at such crossings with their own funds or with additional funding from the FHWA,'' the court noted, referring to the Federal Highway Administration. ''What states cannot do - once they have installed federally funded devices at a particular crossing - is hold the railroad responsible for the adequacy of those devices.''

It's a logical decision that should help keep attention where it will be most productive: on a broad, coordinated approach to a nationwide safety issue rather than a long series of piecemeal legal firefights over who's liable, and by how much, and under whose standards at the more than 150,000 public grade crossings in the United States.

Grade-crossing safety is an issue on which significant effort has been expended, and solid progress has been made. Washington distributes $160 million to state highway agencies each year for crossing warnings and safety; the railroads spend millions of dollars annually operating and maintaining those warnings. Industry statistics show a positive result: in 1980, 833 people died in grade-crossing collisions; in 1988, 431 died.

Yet that's still too many deaths. And the fact that 210 of the 1998 fatalities occured at crossings with gates, flashing lights or bells clearly shows that devices aren't the only answer and that - despite their continuing education efforts - government and industry don't make all the key decisions. Sadly, too many people just don't take the danger seriously.

That problem is mirrored in another issue that made the news in recent months. Studies show a 62 percent greater possibility of collisions at grade crossings when trains don't sound their horns. Yet at last count some 250 communities around the country had banned the sounding of train horns; the idea, obviously not thought entirely through, is to promote peace and quiet.

A federal rule will overturn most of those bans, but the situation illustrates a basic disconnect that's going to get worse. People - and their political representatives - appear oblivious to the fact that they depend on transportation for virtually every good they use or make. They view freight transportation as a bother, not a service.

That's clear in the discontent stirred by the reactivation of long-dormant freight lines. And ironically the situation will be exacerbated by the efforts of environmentalists to get trucks off the road by encouraging a shift to rail freight.

There's danger here, and for all concerned. Unless care is taken, unless a significant amount of communication takes place, the situation will generate discord and parochial political pressures that threaten both transportation and the people it serves.

The industry and its customers ignore the situation at their peril.