Hopes of averting a nationwide rail strike dwindled yesterday, and the nation's biggest freight railroads and their unions said they saw little chance of reaching agreement by the strike deadline of midnight tonight.
Two of the 10 rail unions reached tentative contract accords last week, and agreement with a third union, the American Train Dispatchers Association, was announced yesterday. But that leaves only one day of talks to reach an understanding with the other seven, an achievement both sides suspect is just about out of reach.
Charles I. Hopkins Jr., the head negotiator for the railroads, said yesterday afternoon that "it remains unlikely" agreements will be reached with each of the unions before the deadline.
The main issues include pay, work rules and health benefits.
President Bush, speaking in Washington to the Association of General Contractors yesterday, warned that a rail strike "could seriously disrupt the economy just as the economy, in our view, is trying to turn around and get out of this recession."
He observed that a Presidential Emergency Board report issued in January "can and should serve as the basis for resolution of this difficulty."
Although Congress has the power under the Railway Labor Act to order the rail workers back to their jobs and to legislate a settlement, Mr. Bush did not directly mention the possibility of government intervention yesterday.
On Friday, Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner said that the Bush administration was ready to help Congress move quickly "to fashion emergency legislation to forestall a disruption."
Mr. Skinner also said the PEB report should form the basis for any legislation to end the strike.
In endorsing the PEB recommendations, the Bush administration has lent considerable support to the stance taken by management in the negotiations. The rail unions have been resisting accepting the terms of the PEB report. The PEB report did serve as the basis of the three tentative agreements reached to date, according to Mr. Hopkins.
The pressure being exerted by the Bush administration on the unions to accept the terms of the report has hampered the negotiations, according to a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, the third-largest of the 10 unions in the negotiations.
"It's looking more and more like there will be a strike," said Steve Fountain, a spokesman for the BMWE at the union's offices in Detroit.
He was critical of Mr. Skinner's endorsement of the PEB report. "His comments regarding the negotiations give the carriers no incentive to negotiate," Mr. Fountain said.
The three unions that have reached agreements -- the Transportation Communications International Union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and the American Train Dispatchers -- represent a little more than a quarter of the 200,000 rail workers covered by the current negotiations. If no agreement is reached, the unions would be free to strike tomorrow morning.
Keith O. Hartwell, who represents the Regional Railroads of America in Washington, said he expects a strike "unless there is a miracle." His group represents the operators of many of the nation's smaller railroads. The smaller lines are not involved in the current national negotiations.
Mr. Hartwell said he thought he detected a hardening in the positions of both sides as the deadline approached, paving the way for congressional intervention.
He said Congress could if it wanted intervene within a few hours of a strike.