SEPTA's transit police will go on strike at 2 p.m. Thursday, if no settlement is reached in their long-running contract dispute, union officials said today.

If the approximately 200 transit police strike, SEPTA will rely on SEPTA supervisors, Philadelphia police officers, and private security guards to protect riders, agency officials said.

"We believe we will have essentially the same level of protection as we have now," SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said.

But transit police union leaders urged passengers to stay off SEPTA for their own protection.

"Your safety is in jeopardy," said Edward Kaiser, a union vice president. "We don't want to see anyone injured."

Subway safety has been under increased scrutiny since the March 26 death of a rider in Center City.

Sean Patrick Conroy, a 36-year-old Starbucks manager, collapsed and died after truant high schoolers beat him at the 13th Street Station on the Market-Frankford Line.

SEPTA responded to the March death by using overtime to add 30 officers to the 60 already on duty between 2 and 5 p.m. The additional officers are to remain until the end of the school year this month.

If the transit police strike, Philadelphia police officers will be on subway concourses and platforms throughout the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines, Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, said today.

SEPTA will pay overtime costs for the Philadelphia police patrols, Vanore said. He declined to detail the number of officers or the costs.

The SEPTA transit officers want the same pay as officers in the Philadelphia Police Department, who start at about $39,000 a year.

The starting salary for a SEPTA police officer is $30,752 a year, with a maximum salary after four years of $49,804, including longevity payments. The "vast majority" of police receive the maximum salary, Maloney said.

SEPTA has offered its police a 3 percent annual wage increase over four years, a boost in longevity pay, and a requirement that police contribute 1 percent of their salary to help pay for health care.

The officers' last contract expired Sept. 30, 2005, and was extended for one year. The union membership has rejected three tentative agreements.

A Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board fact-finder in March recommended that the police accept SEPTA's offer, with an additional increase in death benefits for families of officers killed on duty.

"There is absolutely no need for a labor action of this type," Maloney said. "We've had three agreements, we've been to formal fact-finding . . . we need to get past this and get a contract."

Maloney said union president Richard Neal Jr. and SEPTA labor chief Fran Keating had agreed yesterday evening to resume negotiations on June 24, so SEPTA officials were surprised by today's strike announcement.

Before striking on Thursday, the union will seek a court order compelling SEPTA to submit to binding arbitration of the contract dispute, said Neal.

Unlike Philadelphia police officers, transit police are not prohibited by law from striking, but they cannot compel binding arbitration to settle deadlocked wage disputes.

Because the transit agency is not required to go to binding arbitration, "SEPTA has won by doing nothing," union spokesman Anthony Ingargiola said.

Union leaders met with reporters today outside union headquarters in a gloomy corridor in the Suburban Station concourse. Earlier, the union's executive board met to make final plans for their court action and possible strike.

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