Charles L. Little, 59, has taken over the top job at the United Transportation Union, the nation's largest rail union.

Mr. Little assumed the union's presidency last week after G. Thomas DuBose, who was defeated in a re-election bid, stepped aside before the scheduled Jan. 1 transfer of power.The UTU has more than 130,000 active and retired members, more than half of whom are active rail employees. The balance are retired or work in the transit industry.

Mr. Little, who managed Mr. DuBose's successful run for the presidency in 1991, had been the union's general secretary and treasurer.

Lloyd W. "Corky" Swert departed his post as assistant president last week, leaving it to Byron A. Boyd, Jr.

Roger D. Griffeth, meanwhile, took over Mr. Little's former position as general secretary and treasurer.

By leaving early, Mr. DuBose followed the same path as his predecessor, Fred Hardin, who was defeated in 1991 and departed his post soon after the election.

A prolonged campaign, in which Mr. Little pressed for a more activist agenda for the union, brought a 353-293 victory over Mr. DuBose in a hotly contested four-way election conducted at the union's convention in late July.

As he took office, Mr. Little pledged to pay greater attention to rail- contract negotiations and legislative issues in Washington.

Negotiating strategy was an issue in the UTU election, since Mr. DuBose negotiated a tentative contract agreement last fall before the current round of industrywide negotiations began.

His package, called the Denver agreement, was presented as a new approach to get ahead of the often protracted and contentious negotiating process that has characterized rail talks for decades. However, the UTU general chairmen rejected the proposal when it was presented for approval almost a year ago.

Mr. Little has pledged to take a more aggressive approach in contract talks. That could align him more closely with Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes President Mac Fleming, who spoke at the UTU convention.

The BMWE has pursued a strategy of negotiating individually with the carriers, which has put it at odds with the National Carriers Conference Committee, the industry's bargaining unit.

There have been some indications that factions in several other unions favor the carrier-by-carrier approach. That approach was halted by a federal court this spring, however. The court accepted the railroads' argument that they had a right to determine the basis for negotiating contracts on an individual or industrywide basis.

The BMWE is challenging that decision.