Three years ago, exasperated Long Island Rail Road riders were trapped for hours aboard trains near Jamaica station after a lightning strike touched off a cascade of signal problems and made it too dangerous to leave the train cars. It was not the railroad's finest hour. But a repeat -- minus the lightning -- might not be so bad if it prevents a strike that could come as early as Sunday morning. Lock the LIRR union and Metropolitan Transportation Authority negotiators in a car and let them ride the rails until they strike a bargain.

The two sides are tantalizingly close to a deal. They've found common ground on pay raises totaling 17 percent -- although the unions want them over six years, the MTA seven -- a $10-per-shift payment, and a first-ever employee contribution to health coverage. After lengthy talks yesterday, negotiators planned to return to the table today. That's a good sign.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, in an in-your-face open letter Tuesday, said he wants future hires to pay twice as much in health care costs, take twice as long to reach top pay and contribute to pensions permanently, rather than for 10 years, as most workers do now. Such terms are fairly common in labor contracts. But unions are wary of sacrificing their "unborn" because it erodes support among future employees. It could be especially dicey for LIRR unions because efforts to increase workforce diversity mean many new hires would be minorities. Still, there are ways to make it work. Don't give up.

A strike would cost the economy of Long Island and New York City as much as $50 million a day, according to the state comptroller. With so much at stake, and so little difference between what the unions want and what the MTA is prepared to give, long hours of forced togetherness could be just what it takes to keep the trains running.