In late editions of yesterday's Washington Post, a typographical error resulted in an incorrect statement about Southern Pacific Railroad's interest in Seaboard Coast Line Industries. SP has purchased 4.8 per cent of the Florida firm.
Recent train derailings have highlighted a growing problem plaguing the railroad industry: The track belonging to much of the American rail system is deteriorating rapidly, and the financially troubled industry is doing little to stop the dangerous trend.
And as trains rae getting longer and heavier for economic reasons, placing more and more of a physical burden on aging track, the risk of derailments like those occuring over the past weekend increases rapidly, according to federal officials.
"The first place a railroad cuts costs is in the area of maintenance of track and equipment," Raymond K. James chief counsel and acting heard of the Safety Office of the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an interview.
James explains that the bulk of the inspection function falls on the railroads themselves. "They have 10,000 people in the industry whose job it is to inspect their own track. We can only do spot checks on what they are doing," he said. The FRA has slightly over 300 inspectors.
"Obviously the railroads are not doing their job," James said. "Whenever we can, we go in and tell them that, until improvements are made, trains can only travel over certain track at lowered speeds, but we can't catch ev-
Yesterday Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton called for nationalization of railroad beds, "like the highway system," Blanton urged creation of an organization similar to the National Highway Trust Fund to "improve the decrept condition" of the nation's rails.
In a press conference at the Department of Transportation, Blanton said "about 70 percent of all rail accidents are caused by rail beds," and called the condition of the rail beds in the country "a national disgrace."
The possibility of nationalization of rail beds was raised several years ago during discussion of the restructuring of several eastern railroads, but the idea was dropped.
The following Blanton, Tennessee Senator Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), and Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams told reporters that, while they did not favor nationalization, they both were in favor of stepped up" inspection efforts.
"We do have problems with the roadbed, particularly in the Southeast," Adams said, but added that he didn't think there was support in Congress for nationalization.
He said he has been increasing, and will continue to increase, the number of FRA inspectors.
But, as even Adams admits, "There are severy severe economic problems in the rail industry." He cited the need for a railroad relief bill.
Adams also said that highly developed companies in what he called "the industrial-technical complex" are shipping more and more hazardous materials on the nation's rails, making the problem even more acute. All three major derailments last weekend involved hazardous matials. More than 20 people were killed in the accidents.
There have been several bankruptcies in the rail industry in recent years, and because many companies are struggling to reach solvency, they reportedly are skimping on repair work in the hopes of turning a profit.
That situation is further complicated by the fact that rail regulation is two-pronged: While the FRA regulates safety the Interstate Commerce Commission regulates the economics of rail transport, including what lines can or must beserved.
So when a railroad asks the ICC if it can drop anunprofitable route to a small town, the ICC can tell that railroad that it cannot do so because of the impact that action might have on the community.
Still, the railroad is losing money on the line, and is forced contine to those money. "So what can they do," says James. "They just stop mantiaining that track. They run as much of a shoestring operation as possible."
Where it is possible, the FRA will now go into an ICC proceeding proceeding with a railroad it ftels has a case for dropping a line," James says.
"It's a declining industry," he says. "And the whole system of economic iregulation of railroads has done even more to stifle their ability to compete with other forms of transportation."
But sourcts in the FRA say it isn't only the financially troubled railroads that are cutting maintenance costs. "The Louisville and Nashville, which was involved in one of last weekend's derailments, is a profitable railroad," said one source.
"And there art indications that Seaboard Coast Lines, the porent firm of the L & N, has been trying to make the profit-and-loss statement look good because of a possible merger with Southern Pacific," the source added.
There has been talk of an SP takeover of Seatboard, especially because the San Francisco-based giant bought 700,000 shares or 4.8 percent of all outstanding stock, of the Jacksonville company last fall.
Seaboard officials deny that they have been shortcutting on maintenance, claiming that 1977 expenditures for maintenance for right of woy totalled $227.3 million, up from $205.3 million the year before.
But industry figures compiled by the FRA show that structural or road-bed defects have risen dramatically in recent years, and now account for about three times the accidents they accounted for ten years ago.
Derailments (7,000 last year alone) are about three-fourths of all accidents, although a deroilment can be caused on the rolling stock, as well as strack problems.
But the Association of American Railroads calmsi that there have been significant industry efforts in recent years to improve saftty) on the rails.
"Spending for maintenance of way has increased markedly," said a statement from the AAR. "And the proportion of operating revenues devoted to maintenance of roadbed, track, terminals, switching yords and other structures has grown from 12.2 percent in 1966 to an estimated 18 percent in 1977."