Some of the nation's railroads, facing fierce competitive pressures to cut costs, are talking about abandoning the traditional industry-wide labor negotiations, scheduled for next year, in order to seek individually tailored deals with their unions.

Since the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 deregulated much of the railroad industry, railroads have been under increasing pressure to reduce labor costs, which consume 47 cents of every dollar of revenue.

Changes in the nation's economy have resulted in reduced shipments of basic commodities such as grain, coal and iron ore and intensified competition from other modes of transportation. As a result of the shrinking transportation market and the railroads' shrinking share of what is left, rail companies have been able to maintain profitability principally by reducing labor and other costs and by diversifying into other industries, according to rail executives.

"We've been able to tread water," said Richard E. Briggs, executive vice president of the Association of American Railroads.

The changes in the rail industry have been accompanied by massive reductions in the rail work force. Between 1980 and the end of 1986, employment in the nation's major freight railroads decined by 43 percent. Absent the huge cutbacks, which were accomplished by a combination of attrition, buyouts and voluntary separations, the industry's labor costs "would have been $7 billion higher than they are now . . . and the railroads would have been out of business," said William H. Dempsey, president of the rail association.

Reducing labor costs further, either by reductions in wages or changes in work rules that will improve productivity, looms as the major issue in the railway talks ahead.

"The only way we can increase earnings is going to be cutting labor costs," Union Pacific Corp. President Drew Lewis told a House hearing last week.

Burlington Northern and the Soo Line have said that they will not participate in national labor negotiations. Both lines have asked their unions to begin discussions in advance of the normal starting time.

"I think most of the major railroads have been looking at that, and we are certainly among those major railroads," said Diane Liebman, vice president for corporate communications for CSX Rail Transport.

Burlington Northern has written its unions asking for a meeting later this month but is closed-mouthed about what it is seeking. "About the only thing we are on the record as saying is that in 1988 we would like to negotiate directly with the unions that represent Burlington Northern employes rather than being involved in national negotiations," said Mike Wenninger, public affairs director for the railroad company. "Deregulation has made our business so keenly competitive, it's obviously going to require some changes in the work rules our unions operate under.

"We're going to see if we can get some things tailor-made for Burlington Northern, rather than something worked out by committee for the whole rail industry," Wenninger said. "We feel that would be a better deal not only for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but for employes, too."

The Soo Line, a much smaller railroad, has told its employes that it needs a 25 percent reduction in labor costs, either through changes in work rules or compensation. "What's good for a mega-carrier is not necessarily good for somebody that's not that large," said John Bergene, director of communications for the railroad company. "We're trying to find solutions that are tailored to our territory."

Generally, railway labor agreements are constructed in part through national negotiations and in part through individual bargaining on issues more specific to each road. Some of the work-rule issues that govern the size of rail crews and other operations are settled nationally, while others are settled individually.

Some rail unions agreed in previous negotiations to work force reductions that were supposed to have been accomplished by attrition. To the extent business has declined, that reduction has not occurred as fast as the railroads would have hoped, said Robert Hart, general counsel to the United Transportation Union, which represents fire fighters, conductors, road brakemen and yardmen and yardmasters. "We feel we settled that issue once." UTU is one of more than a dozen unions that represent workers in the rail industry.

Hart said that Burlington Northern has notified the chairmen of various unions of a meeting next week to outline the railroad's demands. "We think what they're going to be going after is the issue of crew consist {the number of railroad employes on a crew}," he said. "That's the linchpin of the whole thing."

The Chicago and North Western Transportation Co. has approached the UTU about bargaining on crew size but still intends to participate in national negotiations. "What we have asked them for on crew size is managerial discretion on manning our freight trains," said James M. Foote, assistant vice president for corporate communications. Foote said that the rules now require a conductor and two brakemen on each train on the road and a yard foreman and two yardmen on trains in the rail yard. "We have determined that all our road and yard trains can be operated productively with an engineer and a conductor in road service and an engineer and a yard foreman in yard service," he said.

Technology has made the need for larger crews obsolete, he said.

Walter C. Wallace of the National Mediation Board, the agency charged with dealing with railway and airline labor disputes, said that the talk about abandoning national negotiations might evaporate as the date for bargaining approaches.

"It seems to be pretty good speech matter every once in a while to talk about going it alone and avoiding national handling. But the only major railroad that has really taken the action is Burlington Northern," he said.

Wallace said that if railroads choose to go alone, it might make it somewhat more difficult to achieve settlements, he said. It might remove one of the tools for settling disputes, which is the ability to invoke emergency provisions, creating an emergency board to make recommendations for a settlement. The provisions are invoked in situations in which a section of the country would be deprived of essential transportation if a railroad were struck. When a deadlock in negotiations involves all the nation's major railroads, there is little question that the provisions are appropriate. In a more limited situation, the emergency provisions -- which often help achieve a settlement -- could be harder to justify, he said.

There are other reasons, too, why individual bargaining might not be a good idea, he said. "I would prefer to see national handling, because I think any time you have a change that the change in itself is precarious. . . . To make a change adds dangers of miscalculations, of misunderstandings of what things really mean. That's a kind of instability that we don't need in the railroad industry."

A recent Supreme Court decision upheld the right of railroad unions to engage in secondary picketing, carrying a strike to another railroad that is not involved directly in a labor dispute. That decision is still another complication in the outlook for railway labor relations.