Buses returned to city streets and subways whooshed through tunnels Friday, as New Yorkers began the first morning rush since the end of a three-day strike that shut down the nation's largest mass transit system.

Subways and buses rumbled to life around midnight. The city's transit authority said full overnight service had been restored, and more buses and trains would gradually be added during the morning commute. Passengers were relieved they wouldn't have to car pool, bike, skate, hitch a ride or walk to work for another day.

At Penn Station, Rachael Staten waited for a downtown train as train-generated winds swept across the platform.

"It didn't feel like New York without it," said Staten, 19, of Brooklyn. "I felt really excited when I swiped my card. I hadn't done it in a few days."

The strike ended Thursday after the Transport Workers Union worked out the framework for a deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority after an all-night session with a mediator. The deal doesn't resolve the contract dispute for the 33,000 workers, however, and if negotiations fail, a walkout could happen again.

"We thank our riders for their patience and forbearance," Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint said.

The MTA did not pull its pension proposal, which Toussaint has said is a sticking point. The union vocally opposed the MTA's plan to raise new workers' contributions from 2 to 6 percent.

The breakthrough was announced minutes before Toussaint and two of his top deputies were due in court to explain why they were continuing the strike in defiance of a court order. Toussaint recommended the union's executive board accept the deal. Some felt the union caved in.

"This was a disgrace," said TWU vice president John Mooney. "No details were provided to the executive board."

As his bus cruised along the Upper East Side early Friday, bus driver Dady Halaby said he was glad to be back on the job, but that a contract needs to be signed.

"We wanna know what we gained and what we have to give up," said Halaby.

The mood surrounding the announcement of the strike's end was upbeat, a stark contrast to the previous two days, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Toussaint traded barbs. At one point, Bloomberg blasted the union for "thuggishly" turning their backs on New York, a remark black leaders decried as racist in the context of a predominantly black union.

The transit strike was the first in 25 years, and happened in defiance of a law barring such an action. City officials said it caused millions of dollars of damage to the city's economy at the height of the holiday season.

"In the end, cooler heads prevailed," Bloomberg said. "We passed the test with flying colors. We did what we had to do to keep the city running, and running safely."

But city officials vowed there would be repercussions for those who walked off the job. A judge has already fined the union $1 million a day for striking, and under the state's no-strike law, rank-and-file members are automatically docked two days' pay for each day they stayed off the job.

Gov. George Pataki warned there was no possibility of amnesty for the striking workers who were fined. The fines "cannot be waived. They're not going to be waived," he said.

Once subways and buses were in motion again, much of the animosity across the city began to cool. As the first subways began running, some stations offered free rides, while riders said others were simply unstaffed.

Jeffrey Simmons, 27, intended to take a bus to meet friends — then heard the sweet sounds of the subway and hopped the turnstile.

"There was nobody at the train stop," he said. "It was eery but cool being the first person on the whole entire train."

For Vance Vannerman, who is homeless, the end of the strike meant he had a warm place to sleep again.

"Now I have my apartment back," said Vannerman as he came off a train about 1 a.m.