Most of the nation's 235,000 freight-line workers are still warring with management over wages and health care in a dispute that could ignite a crippling coast-to-coast rail strike this week.

Passenger travel on Amtrak and commuter trains could also be disrupted if no breakthrough is found and rail employees for the nation's major freight carriers walk out at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, as they have vowed.The National Mediation Board has asked the parties to Washington for last-gasp bargaining sessions starting this weekend, but neither side is optimistic the 3-year-old dispute will be settled by the expiration of the "cooling off" period agreed to under federal law.

"We're ready to strike. We'd just as soon close 'em down, completely. If we don't make any money, why should they?" said George Donahue, a crew dispatcher for Conrail in Pittsburgh.

The Bush administration said Friday it would ask Congress to enact emergency legislation to block a walkout if a strike appeared inevitable at the first of this week.

Congress is empowered by federal law to stop a transportation strike, but has indicated it wants to wait until the parties have exhausted all avenues at the bargaining table before it creates a settlement through legislation.

Two of the 11 unions involved have reached tentative settlement with the carriers, but the other nine - including the one representing the operators who run the trains - are still far apart.

Wages are a key stumbling block. Management contends rail workers are well paid, earning as much as $56,000 a year once benefits are included, and the financial package being offered is all they can afford.

Unions maintain the proposed wage increases are too paltry to recoup past salary freezes, and instead amount to pay cuts for some workers. The railroads make huge profits and dole out seven-figure salaries to executives, unions contend, and therefore should be able to boost workers' pay. The average rail worker makes between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, according to the unions.

"We're not going to take a pay cut. They might as well fire us all," said Bob Hart, a lawyer for the United Transportation Union, which represents 70,000 conductors, brakemen, switchmen and firemen.

Management said rail workers' salaries are so far out of whack when compared with other industrial workers that they're making as much as stock brokers and investment bankers.

"The railroads just simply can't . . . keep feeding the goose that lays these golden eggs," said George Whaley, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, which represents the nation's major freight carriers, including Burlington Northern, CSX, Conrail and Norfolk Southern.