MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Prompted by a presidential order, striking workers from the Soo Line Railroad on Tuesday began returning to work following a six-week strike at the freight company.

Hundreds of workers returned to their jobs Tuesday, a day after President Clinton ordered at least a temporary end to the strike while federal mediators seek to resolve the labor dispute. By Wednesday, the company expected to have half of its union workforce of 4,300 back on the job.

Soo Line spokesman John Bergene said the top priority will go to areas without regular service, such as northeastern North Dakota and southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. But first, he said, the company must reinspect track.

''Our goal is put everybody back to work as soon as we can, but that's going to take some time here,'' he said.

Negotiations between the two parties broke off Aug. 24 after three days of meetings in Virginia. During those talks, the union said the railroad did not alter its position in the disputed areas of wages, crew size and health care.

In North Dakota, the first crews were back to work Tuesday.

''It's definitely going to be gradual. You don't just start operating at 100 percent again. It could be two to three weeks before things get close to normal operation,''said UTU member Marion Justus in Enderlin, N.D.

''For the most part, yes, people wanted to get back to work. We weren't happy with the fact that the president had to step in. We would rather have had a contract. What it boils down to is that 60 days from now, we could be back in the same boat.''

Soo Line workers in Mason City, Iowa, where about 50 members of the striking United Transportation Union were on strike and about 75 other workers were honoring the picket line, expressed some relief.

''We're glad to be going back to work. But we don't feel anything has been resolved,'' said Jim Schupbach, president of UTU Local 174. He said the north Iowa grain line served by the Soo Line could be operating in a week.

The Minneapolis-based Soo Line operates more than 5,000 miles of track in 11 states. It employs about 4,800 people, including nearly 4,300 members of 14 unions. The UTU is the largest of the unions.