More than 100,000 railroad employees in safety sensitive jobs will be subject to periodic, random, surprise testing for drug use beginning in January, according to the head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

FRA administrator John H. Riley, who was in Salt Lake City Monday to address a four-day FRA Regional Safety Conference at the Salt Lake Hilton, said he will announce soon just what percentage of the nation's railroad workers will actually be tested under the new mandatory drug testing program, which is aimed at stamping out drug abuse among rail employees and increasing railroad transportation safety.He said approximately 250,000 railroad employees in the United States work for six giant railroad companies, 40 medium-size railroads and about 350 short lines. Only 100,000 of these workers are in safety sensitive jobs.

"In the past 20 months, railroads have had 59 accidents where one or more employees involved in the accidents have been found to have been under the influence of drugs. These accidents have resulted in 33 deaths, 400 injuries and $40 million worth of property damage," Riley said.

On June 22 Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which will become effective Jan. 1, 1989. For the first time in the FRA's 21-year history, the agency will have the power to suspend and fine railroad employees.

Before the act was established, only the railroads could dismiss their workers, Riley said.

The new act also will enable the FRA to fine railroads up to $10,000 per day per count for safety violations - four times the amount the FRA previously could fine railroads.

Riley said his agency now has 325 inspectors in the field and 33 lawyers on the payroll. Once the new act is put into effect, he said, "we will have to examine our staff to make sure we have enough people to do the job."

He said an accident in January 1987 in which a Conrail train ran into an Amtrak passenger train, killing 16, spurred Congress to pass the new Rail Safety Improvement Act.

"Two of the crewmen on the Conrail train, the engineer and the brakeman, were found to have been under the influence of drugs when the crash occurred. Later, the men confessed they were busy lighting marijuana cigarettes when the crash happened."

While studies have shown marijuana is the most frequently used drug among rail employees, cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol are also being used, Riley said.

The FRA chief said rail safety is at an all-time high despite the accidents and drug problems that have gained national attention. "Our accident rate was cut 58 percent during the 1980s. Last year, rail safety was the best in railroad history, and we hope to do even better this year."

Riley said a drug-testing program was started in 1985 by railroad companies. During the program's first full year, 1986, 3.7 percent of those tested flunked the drug test. "In 1987, 5.1 percent flunked, and in the first six months of this year 7.7 percent of railroad employees tested for drug use flunked."

He said there is a program called Bypass that allows rail workers to admit their drug use and ask help from their employee assistance counselor.