updated 1/18/2008 5:45:33 PM ET 2008-01-18T22:45:33

Facing a possible strike that could have stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters, Amtrak reached a preliminary deal Friday that apparently heavily favors the railroad’s nine unions, who have worked for years without a contract.

The tentative contract includes back pay totaling more than three times what Amtrak was offering and none of the concessions on work rules that Amtrak had been seeking, said Joel Parker, a spokesman for the Transportation Communications International Union and a lead negotiator.

While the month’s-end strike was considered unlikely, the mere prospect of it had regional rail services across the Eastern Seaboard scrambling in recent days to put backup plans in place.

“We have averted a possible strike that could have had a crippling effect on the lives of millions of Americans,” Amtrak President and CEO Alex Kummant said in a news release.

Details of the agreement will not be released until it is ratified by affected union members in the next several weeks, according to a statement from Amtrak.

People familiar with the labor agreement, some speaking on condition of anonymity because the details had not been formally announced, said it adopts the recommendations of a presidential emergency board report issued Dec. 30. The board’s report, which recommended that Amtrak grant back wages to its workers, triggered a 30-day countdown until a strike became legal.

Included in the deal are wage increases that average 35.2 percent over the life of the agreement from January 2000 through Dec. 31, 2009 — or about 3.1 percent per year, said W. Dan Pickett, head of the Passenger Rail Labor Coalition, who was involved in the deal.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said there appears to be a “pretty universal feeling” that the agreement will be ratified.

Michael Troy, an Amtrak communications and signal maintainer and union representative in Downingtown, Pa., said workers have faced increasing economic hardships.

“Every Christmas got harder and harder for the workers,” he said, with some forced to work overtime or take on second jobs to make house and car payments.

“Finally you can feel the morale,” Troy said. “There seems to be some hope here.”

If Amtrak workers had walked out for the first time in the railroad’s 36-year history, the 71,000 people who use the service every day would not have been the only ones affected. Hundreds of thousands of people who ride commuter trains also would have suffered because many such services depend on Amtrak employees or infrastructure, particularly in the Northeast.

“I knew they would settle,” said Letti O’Loughlin, a real estate agent who lives in East Orange, N.J., and commutes to Harlem. “You shut down Penn Station, which is the hub of transportation in New York City, and it would be absolute chaos.”

If a strike had occurred and all the rail commuters had to drive, it “would have been almost impossible to get through the traffic,” said Loy Carlos of Huntington, N.Y., who also works in real estate.

The labor dispute, which had continued despite years of unsuccessful mediation, involved about 10,000 employees whose last contract ended Dec. 31, 1999.

Amtrak, which depends heavily on federal subsidies, had been concerned about how it would afford the back wages, which would average nearly $13,000 per employee. The railroad had offered to give each worker a lump signing bonus of $4,500 instead of back pay. Amtrak had said the back pay would cost Amtrak about $150 million more than what the company had offered.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called the deal a relief to millions of travelers who rely on rail.

“I am determined to help get Amtrak funding it might need for next year, but in the meantime, this deal is long overdue after years of unfair bargaining by the administration and Amtrak,” he said.

The presidential emergency board had said that Amtrak should pay the first 40 percent of the back pay 60 days after an agreement is ratified and the remaining 60 percent a year later. It said the delay would allow Amtrak time to come up with the funding.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who helped with the negotiations, issued a statement noting that union leaders “held their ground, and they have delivered an agreement worthy of the hardworking men and women who keep the trains running every day.”

Kennedy chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which would have be involved in any congressional intervention.

“This is a fair and balanced settlement between Amtrak and its workers,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who pressed both sides to come to an agreement. “It’s good that the two sides were able to come together in time to save riders from what would have been a crippling shutdown of our rail system.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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