Forestalling a possible strike by Amtrak workers on Saturday, President Bush today created a five-member "presidential emergency board" to investigate the labor dispute between the passenger railroad and employees who have been without a contract for nearly eight years.

Bush's action pushes back the start of any strike until at least Jan. 31. The president did not immediately announce the names of the board members.

The labor dispute centers on health-care contributions, proposed changes in work rules, and back pay to Jan. 1, 2000, when the last contract ended.

Amtrak has about 15,000 unionized workers in its workforce of 18,500. About half of the union workers are represented by the nine unions affected by the current impasse. They include train dispatchers, track repairmen, signal operators, machinists, electricians and coach cleaners.

A strike, which would be the first by Amtrak workers, would also disrupt commuter railroads, including SEPTA and NJ Transit, which operate some of their trains on Amtrak tracks and rely on Amtrak dispatchers.

The presidential board has 30 days, starting Saturday, to investigate the labor dispute and report back to Bush.

After the emergency board makes its recommendations to the White House, another 30-day cooling-off period is required, to allow the parties to try to settle. If they don't, the unions could then strike or Amtrak could impose a settlement.

Congress could also intervene to impose a settlement or send the parties to binding arbitration.

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com