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Amtrak strike averted by deal

A labor agreement reached Sunday between Amtrak and maintenance workers averted a possible national passenger rail strike that would have disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands.

The threat of a shutdown hung for months over long-distance passengers nationally and daily commuters in a half-dozen major cities, just as the railroad has been fighting off bankruptcy.

The deal gives workers "a fair and deserved (wage) increase while preserving the financial integrity of the company," said Amtrak chairman Tom Downs.

For the agreement to hold, congressional approval is required for an Amtrak rescue package under consideration on Capitol Hill. That package has been stalled in Congress over provisions that would relax some labor protections.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who brought the parties together for days of talks that stretched overnight into Sunday, urged lawmakers to act quickly.

The strike could have begun as early as Thursday. A prolonged shutdown would have forced Amtrak's 54,000 daily passengers to find other travel and could have led to the suspension of commuter rail services for more than 500,000 people in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and Washington areas.

Apart from its long-distance services, Amtrak provides rail commuter transportation under contract in some cities. Overall, Amtrak serves 500 communities.

The tentative three-year contract gives the 2,300 members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees a wage increase each year, but it will amount to less than the annual 3 percent raise proposed earlier by mediators. Officials refused to give details until the contract goes for ratification to workers and the Amtrak board.

Slater announced the deal at a news conference, flanked by Downs and Jed Dodd, the union general chairman.

"Thanks for staying up for four days," President Clinton told them in a call from Air Force One while flying to New Jersey from Florida. "Get some sleep."

Clinton intervened in the summer to delay the strike and appoint an emergency mediation board. The original strike date of Oct. 22 passed without a walkout. Congress was considering stepping in to delay a strike further when the parties resumed talks.

"This is a significant breakthrough," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. "Now Congress has to . . . keep this agreement from careening off track."

Slater dodged when asked if the deal would fall apart without approval of the proposed rescue package. But the settlement places pressure on Congress and the administration to resolve their differences over the struggling federally subsidized railroad.

The federal balanced budget sets aside $2.3-billion for better equipment but specifies the money will be released only after Congress passes legislation to overhaul how Amtrak does business.

As defined in the legislation, the changes would let Amtrak contract out more work, reduce other labor protections and focus more on its profitable routes. The legislation also provides $3.4-billion for Amtrak to operate through 2000.

Clinton and many Democrats in Congress oppose linking the money to rolled-back labor safeguards.