Amid increased fears about rider safety, SEPTA transit police are threatening to strike because of a long-standing impasse over wages.

Officials from SEPTA and the Fraternal Order of Transit Police are to meet with a state mediator Thursday to try to resolve their differences. If no progress is made, "a strike could come at any time," police union president Richard Neal Jr. said.

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

Unlike Philadelphia police officers, transit police are not prohibited by law from striking, but they cannot go to binding aribtration to settle wage disputes. SEPTA's police have been without a contract for 30 months, and the union membership has rejected three tentative agreements, most recently last month.

SEPTA's 201 transit police are primarily responsible for patrolling the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines, though they also have jurisdiction throughout SEPTA's bus, rail and trolley network. There are also 45 supervisory officers and nine dispatchers and clerks on the transit force.

Violent crime on the transit system, after years of decline, is up 81 percent since 2004. On March 26, 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.

"Our men and women are doing an excellent job, but we don't have the number of officers we need," said Neal, who blamed inadequate staffing, low wages and high turnover for security woes. "If it was up to me, I'd cover every station and every train. I'd flood the whole subway system with officers."

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 next month.

Neal said the union had long urged SEPTA to put officers on duty for four 10-hour shifts rather than five eight-hour shifts each week.

"It took a violent incident to get SEPTA to put more officers out there, but they're a day late and a dollar short," Neal said.

Neal said SEPTA should use a $130 million budget surplus to hire more police and increase salaries.

SEPTA has offered its police a 3 percent annual wage increase over four years, with a requirement that police contribute 1 percent of their salary to help pay for health care. The police are seeking a "double-digit increase," Neal said.

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

SEPTA police want to be paid on a par with Philadelphia city police, who start at about $39,000.

Maloney said SEPTA's offer to the police was similar to its contracts with other unions.

"They've never had parity with the Philadelphia Police Department," Maloney said. "They're always welcome to go join the Philadelphia Police Department." He said most transit police remained with SEPTA because "they like the pay and the benefits."

SEPTA created its police force in 1989 when, amid a city budget crisis, the Police Department dramatically reduced the number of officers it deployed to transit security.

Until 2003, city police maintained a small transit unit to supplement SEPTA's force, and Philadelphia police still sometimes deploy officers underground.

Neal said turnover among his members was high; he put it about 10 percent a year. And he said the number of transit police was declining, an assertion disputed by Maloney.

SEPTA's budget documents show that the number of budgeted transit police and supervisors has remained steady for five years, with a slight increase budgeted for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

SEPTA does not anticipate a strike, Maloney said, but if the transit police walk off the job, "we would provide adequate security for our riders."

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