Utah strike lines and picket signs are drawn in preparation for a nationwide rail strike President Bush says could cripple the U.S. economy.

"Hopefully we can avoid a strike. If there is a strike, we're ready," said Les Bowman, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 650.Most of the nation's 235,000 freight line workers have vowed to walk off their jobs at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday if there are no breakthroughs in contract negotiations. The unions have worked three years without contracts.

"The issue is health care and three years without a wage increase," said Ed Mayne, president of the Utah AFL-CIO.

Mayne said picket lines have been established in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, Price and Beaver. Unions spent much of Monday preparing picket signs and telephoning their international offices for information about the negotiations.

The likelihood of a nationwide rail strike is "very good, barring congressional or presidential intervention" said Carl James, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, in a telephone interview from his Pueblo West, Colo. office. The union represents 320 railroad employees in Colorado and Utah.

Congress has authority to stop a transportation strike through emergency legislation. But congressional leaders have indicated they will wait until the parties have exhausted all avenues at the bargaining table before imposing a settlement through legislation.

The anticipated strike remained a likelihood after the two sides remained deadlocked Tuesday morning following an unsuccessful all-night bargaining session with negotiators. The sessions resumed at mid-day.

The possible national rail strike would be the first since 1982, which stranded passengers, choked the flow of goods and idled hundreds of thousands of non-railroad workers.

The 1982 walkout was estimated to have cost the U.S. economy up to $1 billion a day.

Bush said the strike could severely disrupt the economy. But James said the "effect will be negligible if everything goes as we anticipate."

Large shippers have already made contingency plans in case the strike is called. James said he believes the strike would be short-lived.

"If we're allowed to go, without intervention from the president or Congress, we're anticipating we'd be forced to go back to work in 24 hours," he said.

Contrary to reports that the strike also would stall commuter and passenger train service, Mayne said the unions have assured the Department of Transportation and Congress that service will not be affected. "Amtrak is not impacted by this," Mayne said.

However, officials of Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Neb., and Burlington Northern Railroad in Fort Worth, Texas, said their systems would be completely shut down if a strike occurs - and a shutdown would halt Amtrak trains using the railroads' tracks.

Although the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen is one of three unions that have reached a tentative settlement with carriers, union members will walk off the job if a strike is called.

"We're not slated to go on strike, but we're going to honor the strike," said George Jones, southwest general chairman, from his Spanish Fork headquarters. The office represents signal workers in 15 states, including Utah.

Three of the 11 unions involved have reached tentative settlement with the carriers, but the eight others - including the one representing train operators - have yet to settle.

Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner said a two-week strike could result in more than 550,000 layoffs for workers who produce everything from automobiles to grain, coal, plastics, chemicals, steel and forest products.