Rumbling locomotive engines fell silent in Utah as members of the nation's rail unions walked off their jobs early Wednesday, joining a nationwide strike against major freight lines.

Pickets appeared along major rail routes in Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, Price and Beaver Wednesday morning after last-ditch negotiations in Washington, D.C., faltered Tuesday night.Thousands of commuters around the nation scrambled for a way to work Wednesday, while others braced for the ripple effects of the strike.

The unions have worked three years without contracts. Members object to wages and reduced benefit packages offered by management, as well as proposed cuts in train crews.

About 235,000 workers were expected to walk off their jobs nationwide, and the strike could stall the transport of about 37 percent of the nation's goods and result in the layoffs of more than 550,000 non-railroad workers.

Congress promised quick action to keep the walkout short, but Democratic lawmakers cautioned that settlement legislation might not reach President Bush until this weekend.

"A lot of us don't want the strike but it's the only way to get something across. We haven't had a contract in three years. Nobody wanted it but that's what we had to do," said Otto Hardison, who was picketing outside the Union Pacific offices in Salt Lake City.

Conductor Marty Rice, a member of the United Transportation Union, said Utah members of the national unions stood united in the first day of the strike.

"The company won't negotiate with us. They're letting Congress do their dirty work for them," Rice said.

The railroad has offered a 10 percent base salary increase over the next three years plus periodic lump-sum payments.

Provo resident Mike Nelson, a track patrolman and equipment operator for the Denver-Rio Grande Western Railroad, said the pay offer is unacceptable. "That's not even enough to put a dent in inflation," he said.

Department of Labor Statistics indicate the average railroad employee earned $15.99 an hour, compared with $11.85 for truck drivers.

Management wants to cut train crews from three to two. Overstaffing accounts for 58 percent of the industry's payroll for conductors and brakemen, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Despite assurances that the freight strike would not have an impact on commuter lines or Amtrak, service was disrupted in areas throughout the country except in the Northeast, where Amtrak owns its own railway. In Utah, Amtrak was running on schedule Wednesday morning.

But delays and travel disruptions are almost a certainty, Amtrak spokesman Marci Larson said in a telephone interview from her Washington, D.C. office.

"Basically, all our service outside the Northeast corridor has been affected by the strike," Larson said.

Amtrak's No. 5 train, with westbound service from Chicago to Oakland, Calif. "isbeing terminated in Salt Lake and alternate transportation is being arranged. It's scheduled to get into Salt Lake City at 11:20 p.m. MDT (Wednesday)," she said.

Meanwhile, the line's eastbound train from Oakland to Chicago will terminate in Denver at 8:05 p.m. MDT Wednesday.

A number of Utah businesses that could be affected by the strike have made contingency plans so their operations will not be disrupted.

Geneva spokesman Mitch Haws said the Orem company "has been stockpiling raw material in anticipation of a strike." Geneva has a 30-day supply of iron ore and coal, which are used to make steel. It takes three tons of raw material to produce one ton of steel.

Haws said Geneva could alter its shipping arrangements if the strike persists. The mill receives about 12,000 tons of raw material every day. It ships about 4,000 tons of steel per day.

Two of the state's largest users of coal, the Intermountain Power Project and Utah Power & Light, stockpile coal in case of emergencies.

"We keep approximately a 90-day supply of coal on site for emergencies such as this. It's a very expensive thing to do because you've got millions of dollars just sitting there not earning any interest," said Reed Searle, general manager of the Intermountain Power Agency that operates IPP.

Searle said he is optimistic that the rail strike will be short-lived.

Tonny Vander Stappen, president of Local 1227 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees in Ogden, agreed that the strike would end soon.

"There's too much at stake for the employees, the company and the nation as a whole," Vander Stappen said. "If the government steps in, it will be for the benefit of the company. The company has stalled negotiations in an attempt to get the government to intervene on their behalf."



U.S. freight railroads

Intercity freight delivery* (1989)

Railroads 37.3%

Trucks 25.5%

Pipelines 21.3%

Barges on rivers

and canals 12.8%

Shipping on Great Lakes 2.7%

Airlines .3%

Because of rounding, figures add up to 99.9%