Rail union leaders who saw their ultimate weapon, the strike, curbed by Congress just 19 hours after a nationwide walkout contend the gloom-and-doom predictions about what a strike would do to the economy were overblown.

"The (Bush) administration and the railroads teamed up to do a wonder selling job," Mac Fleming, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, said Thursday as the nation's railroad freight unions returned to work after strike-ending legislation was rushed through Congress.Industry officials made "it seem as if our economy was going down the tubes unless the strike was immediately settled," Fleming said. Thus management was able to get what it wanted in Congress without having to negotiate a settlement, he charged.

Union leaders would have preferred the strike to go on unimpeded to force management back to the bargaining table. But Congress, which has the power to halt a strike in the transportation industry, never considered not intervening and immediately went to work on negotiations with the White House to stop the strike.

The railroads on Thursday rejected the unions' contentions, saying it was President Bush who, as early as last May, said any rail strike would have a crippling effect on the economy.

Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah - who is known for bashing Congress for usually moving slowly - praised it Thursday for managing to end the rail strike with lightning speed in just one day.

"Through the years, I've become accustomed to the very slow, deliberative ways of the Congress. Frankly, I was surprised action was taken so swiftly," he said.

"This could not have been accomplished without the full cooperation of the president, the Cabinet, the Congress and the railroad unions and management.

The Bush administration this week pressed for the quick resolution, saying it was needed to stem a $50 million daily loss to the U.S. economy the strike would cause.

"We're awfully good if we can get President Bush to do our public relations for us," said Dan Lang, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

Steve FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, said a freight strike alone would not have created a dire economic emergency.

"All the headlines were saying economic devastation . . . but Japan's largest shipping companies were saying no problems until this strike reaches three weeks," FitzGerald said.

Under the strike-ending legislation, signed by Bush early Thursday, freight carriers and unions will now make their cases on wage and work-rule disputes to a special review panel. Absent any new agreements the parties reach on their own, the panel will impose a mandatory settlement on both sides by late June.