THE STORY that has been unfolding during the National Transportation Safety Board's hearing into railroad tank car safety has a familiar ring. It sounds much like the tale we heard after the Teton Dam disaster two years ago. In both situations, almost everyone recognized that the existing dangers could be reduced if the proper precautions were taken, but those with power to act seemed to feel no sense of urgency. It took the intervention of President Carter to get the federal dam-inspection program moving even after the collapse of the Teton Dam. It shouldn't take that kind of prodding now to speed up the installation of safety devices on the nation's tank car fleet.

There is, of course, some validity in the wail of the railroads that they lack the funds to make their badly deteriorated roadbeds as safe as they ought to be. And there is also something to the contention of the tank car companies that they can't pull all the cars out of service to modernize them without disrupting industry all over the nation. There is also some truth in the claim of the railroads that their safety record in the transportation of hazardous materials is better than that of the truckers. But neither the wail nor the contention nor the pat on the back is good enough. A problem exists, the recent wave of accidents has demonstrated the potential for disaster, and precautions need to be taken now.

The changes have been mandated by the government are not huge. The safety board demonstrated that the new coupler can be installed on a tank car by a handful of workmen in 7 1/2 minutes; it took about 30 minutes to weld the new safety shield on one end of a tank. Given the fact that there are 20,000 ot so jumbo tank cars out there, much work will be required to retrofit all of them. But it ought not to take the four years the government has given the industry to make the second of those changes. We do not which safety shield design is best; installation of the shields has apparently been slowed down because of an argument between the railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration. But we do know the know the argument needs to be resolved - and quickly. It shouldn't take another community to convince the industry and the appropriate government agencies of the need for quick action.