MANHATTAN - Long Island Rail Road union officials are warning the public to prepare for a strike after contract talks with the MTA came to a screeching halt yesterday.

Both sides met for about 45 minutes before the talks broke off, and no further talks are scheduled. The brief meeting came just days before the scheduled strike, which would begin at midnight on Sunday.

United Transportation Union President Anthony Simon laid the blame squarely on the MTA, saying it has not come back with a counter-offer to the offer made by the unions last Thursday. Terms of the counter-offer were not disclosed, but the talks have stalled over how much future employees will have to contribute to pension costs.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast dismissed the unions' most recent counter as barely an offer at all. "We've done giving, they've done taking," he said. "Until they are ready to move, there is no point negotiating." He said it has become apparent that there is a "gulf," and not just a gap, between both sides.

Union officials say riders should be prepared for service to start "winding down" as early as Wednesday, because workers will need to secure equipment. An MTA spokesman says that if the unions go ahead with the strike, they will start taking the trains in on Saturday ahead of the Sunday deadline.