STRAIGHT TALK - IRA ROSENFELD THE AAR'S CHALLENGE: DERAILING WASHINGTON'S RUNAWAY METAPHOR

STRAIGHT TALK - IRA ROSENFELD THE AAR'S CHALLENGE: DERAILING WASHINGTON'S RUNAWAY METAPHOR

Congress and the president are heading for a confrontation that could see the government out of money on Oct. 1.

The problem is that in the federal budget's present condition, the buck is likely to stop anywhere.Republicans have vowed to balance the budget. Of course, the only way they can do that is to tip over the country or the president. The Democrats, taking their traditional position, say they will curb spending no matter what it costs.

The battle lines have been drawn. On Oct. 1, when the fiscal year begins, if appropriations bills have not been passed by Congress and signed by the president, the government will be technically in default.

Since the beginning of the summer, the sides have been rushing headlong to this "train wreck."

There are no great words of wisdom here to stop it, although we do support Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's plan for a continuing resolution to allow the government to function, at the same time making across-the-board reductions in all federal programs except Social Security.

What we will look at today is the phrase "train wreck," and how that has become Washington's metaphor of choice this summer.

The Association of American Railroads, the Washington lobbying group that is sensitive to anything that might impugn the integrity of the nation's railroads, is annoyed by the phrase.

"We hate it," said Carol Perkins Steckbeck, an AAR vice president in the communications department.

(It should be noted that the AAR also hated Steven Seagal's summer movie ''Under Siege II," which involved the takeover and subsequent collision of two trains. It had no opposition to the original "Under Siege," which involved the takeover of a ship, but you do have to draw the line somewhere.)

Anyway, the AAR says the train-wreck theme began innocuously enough during July in a couple of Associated Press stories. It picked up steam, and a life of its own, after The Washington Post began using it on a regular basis.

The train-wreck designation for the Oct. 1 fiscal showdown made further progress on Monday, when Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, used it not only in a front-page headline but also in the executive editor's column, Morton Kondracke's "Pennsylvania Avenue."

Perhaps our use of the language is not what it once was, or it's just that our point of reference has been lost. Whatever, metaphors that included Lakehurst and the Hindenburg, the Titanic or the Wreck of the Hesperus appear gone forever.

Ms. Steckbeck said it would be wrong to use another mode to get the railroads off the hook for impeding collision between the Republican-dominated Congress and the Democratic administration. Still, something involving the Exxon Valdez crashing on the rocks stirs the imagination.

PARTY TIME AT CN RAIL

Everybody is worried about the national debt. Too much money going out and not enough coming in. This is not surprising; after all, the government is busy spending taxpayers' money seven days a week, and we are only getting paid for five.

The problem is no different north of the border, where Canadians are trying to raise money to bail out their overextended government.

One of the things on tap is the privatization of CN Rail, the government- owned railroad.

The railroad has no money, says the government. OK, national railroads have traditionally run in the red throughout the world.

But now this. CN Rail confirmed this week it is celebrating its new $100 million computer system with a series of five big parties across Canada.

The railway is spending thousands of dollars for more than 2,000 people to attend the "appreciation dinners," which began in August and are continuing this month.

The employees worked so hard to get the system in place, beginning in the West in March 1994, that they deserve to be rewarded, said Christine Skjerven, spokeswoman at CN headquarters in Montreal.

Bob Chernecki, who is an official with the Canadian Auto Workers union, called the parties "absolutely ludicrous."

"At a time when CN is laying off thousands of workers and the government is handing out nearly a billion dollars to boost the investors' pocketbooks, putting on a party is shameful," he said.

If Mr. Chernecki thinks the idea of the parties is ludicrous now, wait until he reads this and finds out that the $100 million computer system CN Rail has installed is not fully operational.