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Motormen and conductors on the Long Island Rail Road struck the nation's busiest commuter rail system early Friday, leaving more than 100,000 riders to find another way to work. New Yorkers used to grief and gridlock struggled to cope.

Up to 2,300 union employees walked out over wages after talks overseen by a federal mediator failed to yield an agreement in the 21/2-year contract dispute."We can't be stepped on," said union chief Edward Yule Jr.

Gov. Mario Cuomo called on President Clinton and Congress to act quickly to approve legislation forcing the employees to return to work for a cooling-off period.

Commuters had a week's warning that the walkout was coming and were encouraged to come up with backup transportation, including bicycling, driving and taking the bus. Several charter yacht companies even offered sea commutes. For many workers, the answer was a three-day weekend; others stayed over in Manhattan hotels.

As the morning rush drew to a close, it appeared that major problems had been averted. "The (subway) system is doing all right," said Transit Authority Vice President Tom Prendergast.

The city was already more crowded than usual because of a ticker-tape parade for hockey's championship New York Rangers, the Gay Games this weekend and a World Cup soccer game across the Hudson River in New Jersey on Saturday.

The railroad's parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, chartered hundreds of buses - even school buses - to take commuters from Long Island suburbs to New York City subway stations.

"The public should know - because they will suffer - that we took the extra step to avoid this strike," MTA chairman Peter Stangl said.

No new talks were immediately scheduled.

The railroad collects an average of 254,000 fares each weekday. Most come from the 103,000 people who ride in and out of New York City during rush hours.

Transit officials also arranged for commuters to park in 18,000 spots at Kennedy Airport, Shea Stadium and Howard Beach.

"It's appalling that they're holding us hostage," said commuter Karen Loewe, as she arrived at the Shea lot. By 8 a.m., the 7,500-car lot was quickly filling up.

Some tried to pass the outlying borough parking lots and drive into Manhattan. A gridlock alert was called for the city.