Safety on rails and in air

On two fronts the US government is moving to ensure transportation safety: rail and air. Both moves are proper steps at this time, when there is concern about the safety of both means of travel.

Many Americans travel thousands of miles each year without mishap. This should be acknowledged, while insisting that highest safety standards be promoted in all areas of travel.

In response to several recent Amtrak accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration will inspect the condition of the 22,000 miles of railroad track that Amtrak trains use. The track is actually owned by other railroads, which are to keep it in good repair.

But one recent accident, with fatalities, has been attributed to track washed out by rainstorm, yet not detected. Using sensitive detection devices on special railway cars, this inspection should pinpoint track needing attention. Then improvements should be made promptly.

The railroad agency will also evaluate the way Amtrak dispatches and signals trains in the Boston-Washington corridor.

The government recently took action in one additional safety area - preventing alcohol or drug use by train crews, now recognized as a serious problem. The Department of Transportation's proposed new rules are expected to take effect in a few months: To the degree that they are strictly enforced, they should prove helpful.

A longstanding problem is train-highway crossings. Some crossings need to be made safer; they should be identified, and money from the Federal Highway Trust Fund used to improve them. The solution, however, more often lies in educating drivers in safety, since some drivers try to race through the intersection although they can see a train coming, sometimes even driving around the arms that block the track.

A way should be found to communicate the latest important weather information , both to Amtrak and to those railroads on whose track Amtrak's trains run.

As to air safety, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced plans to add more than 1,000 additional air controllers. Some controllers had been warning that more were needed to ensure safety and decrease air travel delays. In addition, the FAA's new administrator has installed a direct hot line to his office, so that controllers can tell his immediate staff of any safety problems. The FAA is also improving its computers so that they will offer to controllers late weather information that has an important bearing on air traffic.

On balance, both Amtrak and the airlines run safe systems today. Yet more can be done, and this week's actions by the two government agencies are moves in the right direction.

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