Railroad engineers who for 60 years have been paid on the basis of how far a steam engine could travel in a day, will begin working by the hour under a new contract signed yesterday by Amtrak and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

The breakthrough railway labor agreement ends the practice of giving train crew members a day's pay for every 100 miles traveled -- a trip that takes less than two hours on some runs nowadays but represented a long day's work back when locomotive firemen shoveled coal and engineers stood over a steaming boiler.

The operating flexibility in the new contract should save Amtrak "a lot of money," said Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr.

In the past, Claytor explained, an engineer on the Washington-New York corridor would earn two days' wages for the 225-mile trip, and another two days' pay for the trip back. As a consequence, an engineer worked 2 1/2 days a week, Claytor said.

The new contract also eliminates the extra payments, called "arbitraries," that were given engineers for working on a bigger engine or for taking the engine through the washing machine.

"Under the new contract, an engineer will be making the same money he made before," Claytor said. "The difference will be that he will work 40 hours a week for it instead of considerably less, depending on the run."

The contract, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will be phased in over three years to minimize the impact on veteran employes, Claytor said. As a result, the engineers will work two more days a month the first year, another two more days a month the second year, and another two the third year.

Claytor said Amtrak is still negotiating with the United Transportation Union and expressed optimism that a similar agreement would be reached with that union representing other train crew members who are still paid on a mileage basis.

In his first news conference since taking over Amtrak four months ago, Claytor said Amtrak is three years ahead of schedule in meeting its congressionally mandated goal of covering 50 percent of its costs from passenger revenues.

Several factors were important in that achievement, Claytor said. Strict cost-cutting measures enabled Amtrak to spend $103 million less than budgeted in this fiscal year and at the same time, Amtrak revenues increased $52 million to $558 million despite a 9.1 percent drop in actual ridership.

Claytor also announced that beginning on Sunday, Amtrak will add a sixth Express Metroliner to the Washington-New York run and will reduce the scheduled time of the trip to two hours and 49 minutes. The other Metroliners will make the run in two hours and 59 minutes, he said.