A wildcat strike briefly disrupted a swath of the nation's rail system yesterday but caused only minimal delays to service in Seattle and around the country, officials said.

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A wildcat strike briefly disrupted a swath of the nation’s rail system yesterday but caused only minimal delays to service in Seattle and around the country, officials said.

Nearly 200 train dispatchers in Fort Worth, Texas, walked away from controls of a system that directs 1,200 freight, passenger and commuter trains a day across 32,000 miles of track in 28 states, mostly west of the Mississippi River.

The strike, which lasted two hours and 45 minutes, delayed commuters in Seattle and Chicago and may have slowed freight across the West, according to officials at Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

“I can’t tell you how lucky we are,” said Seattle Amtrak station agent Harry Patterson of the walkout’s short duration. “It could have hit us real hard.”

In Seattle, one Amtrak train experienced a lengthy delay: the 4:45 p.m. Empire Builder through Stevens Pass to Chicago, which left Seattle with about 65 people at 5:40 p.m., nearly an hour behind schedule.

Meanwhile, children in a second-grade class from Brier Elementary School, near Mountlake Terrace, thought they might be stranded returning from a field trip to the Seattle Aquarium. But their northbound Amtrak to Edmonds Station was only about 15 minutes late, as was a southbound run to Portland.

Snow Nguyen, a medical assistant boarding the last Sounder train from Seattle, spent a nervous afternoon expecting a cancellation. She called relatives, but they couldn’t offer her a lift to her Auburn home. The last time she had to ride the bus home, it took 2 1/2 hours, she said.

Sound Transit herded some passengers from the Sounder platform to buses on Fifth Avenue South but brought them back to the train station when officials learned that the first Tacoma train would be available, Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein said.

All three of Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter trains to Tacoma and the single train to Everett departed within five minutes of scheduled times yesterday afternoon.

Sounder trains are expected to be on time this morning.

The Texas train dispatchers, whose union is negotiating a new labor contract, left their posts at 4 p.m. CST (2 p.m. PST), just as the afternoon rush was beginning in Chicago.

Richard Russack, a spokesman for Fort Worth-based BNSF, said the company had no warning about the strike but had other workers who took over.

Chicago’s Metra system said three trains were canceled and others delayed up to an hour. The Chicago Tribune reported crowded trains and platforms.

Though BNSF’s entire network was affected, Russack said, the other delays were “minimal.” Some freight trains might have been slowed by a matter of minutes, he said.

The dispatchers are represented by the American Train Dispatchers Association, according to The Associated Press. Union officials couldn’t be reached for comment. Burlington Northern centralized is dispatchers in 1995, before its 1996 merger with Santa Fe, Russack said.

Russack said all of the company’s union employees were working under contracts that expired in November. “We happen to be at the beginning of a new round of bargaining with all of the unions,” he said. “Until you have a new contract, the old contract remains in force.”

Commuters in California, the other area where commuter trains use BNSF tracks, weren’t affected, he said.

At a regional control center in San Bernardino, Calif., dispatchers stopped work for three to four minutes around 4 p.m. local time, BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said. Nonunion workers were available in case the dispatchers stayed away.

In the Northwest, about half of the rail traffic remained on the move during the strike, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told The Associated Press.

Delays on Amtrak service in Washington didn’t seem to bother travelers.

“It’s no big deal,” Marjorie Myrga said as she sat on a bench at Everett Station. She and her husband, Ron Myrga, were heading home to Washington, D.C. After a two-month stay in the Northwest, the 45-minute delay in the eastbound Amtrak train wasn’t a problem.

Marilynn and Jim Leckenby of Mount Vernon didn’t mind, either. They were going to visit friends and sightsee in North Dakota. “We just go with the flow,” Marilynn Leckenby said.

Alwyn Scott 206-464-3392 or ascott@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press was included.