Conrail was incorrectly described in an article yesterday. It is a private railroad, no longer operated or funded by the federal government. (Published 6/25/92)

The nation's major freight railroads shut down operations from coast to coast early today after the machinists union struck CSX Corp. in a dispute over a new contract. The action threatened to halt commuter rail service throughout the Washington area by the start of the morning rush hour.

The dizzying round of events that led to the nationwide shutdown occured after three unions -- the International Association of Machinists, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees -- announced they were postponing any strike against Amtrak, the government rail passenger service, for at least 48 hours because progress was being made at the bargaining table.

At the same time, however, the IAM announced it had struck CSX at midnight, but was not taking immediate action against the other 39 railroads with which it was also negotiating for a new contract.

Less than an hour later, Edward Harper, president of the Association of American Railroads, announced the other railroads were shutting down and locking out their union employees. The move appeared calculated to force Congress to enter the dispute and force a settlement.

"Because of the seamless nature of the nation's freight rail system, a strike that begins in one region of the country affects service in the entire nation," Harper said. "Thus, the freight railroads are taking steps to proceed with a safe and orderly shutdown."

The announcement created immediate uncertainty about the ability of the Washington area commuter rail system to continue operations.

"We've told our people not to interfere with the commuter lines," said John Peterpaul, chief negotiator for the IAM. "We're telling our people on those {commuter} lines to go to work if they can. We're going to cooperate wherever we can" to keep the commuter lines operating.

CSX spokesman Jay Westerbrook said the railroad would continue to allow the commuter railroads to operate on CSX tracks as long as the company thought it was safe. Westerbrook said safety could become an issue for the railroad as early as 7 a.m. when the morning shift shows up for work at the Jacksonville, Fla., dispatching center that controls the railroad's operations in 20 states.

Westerbrook said the center was surrounded by pickets at midnight, but that the overnight shift had already reported to work when the strike began. If the morning shift refuses to cross the picket lines, he said, the railroad might be forced to shut down all operations, including Washington area commuter service.

If the train crews of the Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) system, who work for CSX, refuse to cross the picket lines at Cumberland and Brunswick, Md., in the morning, Westerbrook said, MARC service would definitely be halted. It was unclear whether the train crews would follow the instructions of the IAM and continue to operate the commuter lines.

If they don't and the trains stop running, MARC officials last night issued the following instructions for Maryland commuters:

On MARC's Brunswick line from Frederick and Montgomery counties, riders at Brunswick and Point of Rocks stations were expected to be transported by bus to Shady Grove Metro station. All other riders on the Brunswick line would be forced to find their own transportation.

Buses also were expected to take MARC riders from Camden station for rail service to Washington. Riders from Laurel, Savage and other mid-point stations would be transported to Odenton by bus for MARC service to Washington.

An Amtrak official said today that service on all but the Penn line of the MARC service would probably be shut down by morning. A spokeswoman said it was also Amtrak's understanding that service on the new Virgina Railway Express between Manassas and the District would be halted by the strike.

Amtrak, in the meantime, said it would continue to operate passenger trains in the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, but was suspending all other passenger operations. The railroad said the impact on local commuter services throughout its system would be "mixed."

President Bush earlier yesterday called on Congress to act quickly in the event of a strike. "Should a strike occur, Congress has an obligation to move fast to protect the American people," Bush said. "The public good is not served by a prolonged strike, so it ought to end the day it begins."

Although modern railroad strikes are usually measured in hours rather than days, there were some indications yesterday that Congress might be willing to wait a few days before taking action, depending on the extent of any shutdown. If Congress were to act, it would order strikers back to work and impose the terms of any new contract. A 19-hour strike in April 1991 against 40 freight railroads ended when Congress did just that.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a 10 a.m. hearing today in anticipation of a walkout. Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said that in the event of a major strike, "Congress will not sit idly by." But it was not immediately clear if a strike against a single freight railroad would be enough to trigger congressional action. It was clearly the union's hope early this morning that Congress would not act.

The Senate yesterday afternoon overwhelmingly approved a "sense of the Senate" resolution that warned of the "devastating" economic consequences of a railroad strike. And in a conversation with Bush, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, pledged as much bipartisan cooperation as possible.

Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, meanwhile, yesterday flew to Los Angeles, where she will serve as guest co-host for a television talk show for the next two days, leaving Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card to handle the situation.

Amtrak, in anticipation of a walkout, stopped taking reservations for Metroliner trains between Washington and New York for either today or tomorrow. Amtrak has an arrangement with some airlines to honor long-distance tickets in the event of a strike. It was unclear last night what Amtrak would do now about reservation requests.

Six railroad unions involved in three different contract disputes were free to strike virtually every major railroad after midnight. The emergency provisions of federal labor law that have prevented a strike have been exhausted and Congress would have to enact special legislation to end a walkout.

The negotiations concerning wages and work rules involve three different contract disputes. The IAM is negotiating for a new contract with 40 major freight railroads. The IAM and five other unions are in separate contract negotiations with Amtrak, the quasi-government passenger train corporation. Amtrak reached tentative contract agreement with its electricians, carmen and dispatchers yesterday.

In the third set of negotiations, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way, which maintains the tracks, is bargaining with Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), the federally operated freight service in the Northeast.

More than 200,000 other rail workers not covered by the contracts at issue are expected to honor any picket lines. Many of these workers were involved in last year's brief strike, which set the wage and benefits pattern for the current contract negotiations with the IAM and the major freight railroads and Conrail. Amtrak was not involved in last year's negotiations.

Whatever the impact of the CSX strike on the Washington commuter rail services, commuters last night seemed philosophical about the prospects of any disruption of train service.

Hours before the strike deadline at Union Station, MARC commuter Lavinia Shelton, a court stenographer at the D.C. Superior Court who lives in Baltimore, offered a simple solution: "I'll just drive my car. I don't drive normally because it means too much wear and tear on the car." She said she's been commuting since 1984 and that her car "will do fine {mechanically} as long as the strike doesn't last too long."

A 54-year-old man who did not want to be identified said, "Tomorrow I'm not coming if there's a strike. After that I will have to make arrangements to drive."

Arlene Straughn, a librarian for the Center for Maternal and Child Health in Arlington who lives in Baltimore, said she would drive to the New Carrolton Metrorail Station and catch the subway. "Driving consumes too much of my energy. As early as I have to get up, the train allows me a little rest."

At the Rolling Road station of the Virginia Railway Express, which made its inaugural run on Monday, Jim Hertsch said that in the event of a rail strike, he will commute like he usually has done between his home in Springfield and the Pentagon. That means he will drive. So will Wayne Pierce, who usually either drives or takes the Metro bus and train between his home in Burke and the Federal Aviation Administration's offices in the District.

Pierce said the train yesterday was late and had no power for lights or air conditioning in his train car. "One passenger stood in the front holding the door open for the whole time to get a breeze," Pierce said.

A nationwide freight strike would have serious economic consequences for such industries as autos, steel and chemicals. This is particularly true because of the growing use of the "just in time" manufacturing concept, in which factories depend on frequent deliveries rather than on maintaining large inventories.

Staff writers Patrice Gaines-Carter, Steven C. Fehr, Jane Seaberry and Brian D. Mooar contributed to this report.