By Jim Christie
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Commuter rail service in the San Francisco area resumed on Friday after striking employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system agreed to extend current contracts by 30 days.
The strike, the first since 1997 by BART's workers, began on Monday after talks broke down just hours before labor agreements expired.
The system's trains transport 400,000 riders daily across the San Francisco Bay area. Commuters who rely on BART's train service and who could not work from home were forced to drive, join carpools or crowd onto buses and ferries for lengthy and frustrating commutes.
The increased car traffic choked area highways, particularly the Bay Bridge linking cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay to San Francisco.
In a downtown San Francisco BART station shortly after the system's trains began running again on Friday afternoon, Grant Fineman said he was relieved to have them back in service after starting his morning commute this week well ahead of his normal schedule.
"I'm hoping they can get to a compromise soon," he added.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the rail system and representatives for its striking employees would continue talks over pay and benefits during the 30-day contract extension. The two sides agreed to the move late on Thursday to help work toward final labor agreements.
"It was clear we needed significantly more time," Trost said. "Everyone felt last night that this was the best approach to make that happen."
BART trains began running at about 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT/2200 GMT), said Darrow Richardson, a station agent at the system's Embarcadero station in San Francisco.
"It's been hard on everybody, everybody on both sides of the fence and on the riding public," Richardson said. "I'm optimistic that things will get ironed out."
Unions for BART's 2,400 workers are seeking significant pay raises and have concerns about safety protocols. Management wants them to increase their pension and healthcare contributions.
Union representatives were not immediately available to comment on the agreement struck with help from California's labor secretary and his mediation team.
But one of BART's unions, the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, issued a statement that said the agreement is "designed to encourage good faith bargaining, bars lockouts, strikes, and includes measures that would prevent unilateral implementation of a contract.
"BART workers would like to assure the public that we are working diligently to quickly reach a resolution that is fair and improves safety for both riders and workers," the statement added.
With vacationing employees expected to return to their jobs across the San Francisco region on Monday, commuters and businesses were bracing for even more painful commutes if the strike persisted.
The Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimated the strike had cost the San Francisco Bay Area $73 million a day in lost worker productivity.
(Editing by Ian Simpson and Carol Bishopric; Editing by Sandra Maler)