Want to buy a railroad?
''If you know of anyone who wants to buy a railroad, please let me know.'' This line about the federal Conrail freight company is typical of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole's campaign to get government's foot off the brake of the nation's transport system.
She said it in Boston during a National Transportation Week swing around the country. The selling of Conrail was part of an agenda including further transport deregulation and stressing safety through incentives rather than mandates.
Attaining the agenda would give the nation a far-reaching test of a diminished federal role in transportation.
It is evident there will be no lack of trying. Secdetary Dole has obviously completed her first three months in office with a buoyant enthusiasm for the effort as well as a lawyerly recognition of the pros and cons that have to be resolved.
Conrail has moved from a loss of $244 million in 1980 to earnings of $174 million in 1982. Next month comes the first mandated report to Congress on the company's future profitability.
So optimistic is the Department of Transportation that Mrs. Dole has begun meeting with Goldman, Sachs and Company, the investment bankers retained to help with the sale.
Despite early opposition from truckers, trucking deregulation has become a fact of life. Mrs. Dole is continuing the process, proposing, for example, complete elimination of the immunity from anti-trust laws that some truckers have enjoyed. Deregulation of water transport is also proceeding.
But deregulation can present problems. There was outcry from various states when the recent 5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax package included permission for huge double-trailer trucks to use more roads than before.
The secretary pledges the trucks will not be allowed where they are found to present hazards. She cites the ''de-designation'' of some roads that had been opened to them.
Indeed, the top priority on the Dole agenda remains the safety of the public. She cites the $9 billion air traffic-control venture that will eventually double the capacity of US airspace and give airports a virtually ''weather-proof'' system. She cites toughened state laws on drunk driving and federal efforts to support the drive against it.
As for safety devices such as seat belts and air bags, Secretary Dole is all for them. But, again, not by federal mandate. Rather, she favors incentives for installation of automatic devices and for use of optional ones.
She calls on employers to set up safety programs for employees. Her own department brought safety belt use among employees up from 23 percent to 62 percent (against a national average of 13 percent).
Air bags are being encouraged through the example of equipping 5,000 government cars with them.
Retrofit kits are being offered so that police departments, for example, can add air bags to their cars.
The secretary suggests incentives for individuals by having insurance companies offer reduced premiums to users of air bags, for example.
To some safety advocates these may seem like piecemeal efforts after all the years of research showing the effectiveness of various devices - if they are only used. Part of the test of the Dole agenda will be whether people and companies can be persuaded - rather than legislated - into looking out for everybody's best interests.