WASHINGTON (AP) – Amtrak said Friday it planned to resume negotiations with nine unions next week to avoid a crippling strike that could affect commuters in the Northeast, including New York City and Boston.

The national passenger railroad could face a walkout as early as Jan. 30 unless it reaches an agreement with the unions or Congress intervenes. There has never been a strike at Amtrak, and both Amtrak and union officials say they don’t believe it will come to that.

If it did occur, a strike would hamper the operations of many commuter lines that rely on Amtrak infrastructure, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

A strike would have a major impact on Boston commuters. Amtrak dispatches all service in and out of South Station, which handles 60 percent of the MBTA’s commuter trains. Amtrak also operates the track between Boston and Providence.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said talks would resume next week.

“There is some sense of optimism that we’ll come to an agreement and avoid a strike,” Black said. “Neither side appears to be interested in a shutdown of any portion of the railroad.”

The talks affect about 10,000 Amtrak employees, who have been working under outdated contracts since 2000. Under the Railway Labor Act, the workers could not strike until federal officials determined that mediation had been unsuccessful.

An emergency board appointed by President Bush to help resolve the dispute sided with the unions on several issues, recommending in a Dec. 30 report that Amtrak provide full back pay to compensate the workers for eight years without a raise and scrap plans for sweeping changes in work rules.

Now the parties are in a 30-day cooling-off period. When it ends Jan. 30, the unions will have the legal right to strike if Congress doesn’t step in.

In most disputes under the Railway Labor Act that reach this stage, the emergency board report serves as the basis for an agreement.

The unions were pleased with the report, and told Amtrak following its release that they were eager to return to the table.

Amtrak, which depends heavily on federal subsidies, is 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.

Black said the back pay would cost Amtrak about $150 million more than what the company had offered.

AP-ES-01-11-08 2007EST

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