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The Men Who Loved Trains: The Story of Men Who Battled Greed to Save an Ailing Industry

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A saga about one of the oldest and most romantic enterprises in the land -- America's railroads -- The Men Who Loved Trains introduces some of the ... Show synopsis

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Reviews of The Men Who Loved Trains: The Story of Men Who Battled Greed to Save an Ailing Industry

Overall customer rating: 5.000
metra2

THIS ONE'S GOT IT ALL! DON'T MISS IT!

by metra2 on Feb 25, 2007

In the early 1960s the Norfolk & Western Railroad of Roanoke, Virginia, started looking around for a likely merger candidate. The obvious choice was The Pennsylvania Railroad of Philadelphia, the self-anointed "Nation's Standard" with its heritage of great passenger fleets, powerful locomotives, busy industrial shippers and a pervasive route structure that went to Chicago and penetrated most of the industrial Midwest. The principal routes of the two possible merger candidates touched without overlapping, which would speed up shipping by eliminating routing and sorting yards suddenly irrelevant in the middle of the merged system. There was a history of partial ownership and a shared "corporate culture" although they didn't use that term back then. Even if the time had been right, the law wasn't. The Interstate Commerce Commission wouldn't let the two roads talk marriage. It wanted the Pennsy to mate with its Northeasten regional rival, the New York Central. Though a smaller road overall, the Central had a great and progressive rep--not to mention the celebrated "Twentieth Century Limited" that in fiction took Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant to Chicago in a Hitchcock flick. In theory, such a merger would make sense. Rationalization -- shipping economies due to fewer transfers, route-trimming, pruning of the ranks of redundant ground workers, seemed key. The railroad industry was changing--and given the impact of the new jet aircraft that stole the railroads' sleeping-car customer base, and the new toll-free Interstate Highway that enhanced the speed and flexibiity of tractor-trailer trucks, not to mention the Interstates' popularity with the motoring public, which vitually abandoned the long-haul passenger trains--it looked like time to change for the smaller. Back at the Norfolk & Western in 1963, a lawyer-turned railway exec named Stuart Saunders left his CEO position there for a CEO post at the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. It took until 1968, after years of lobbying, corporate tweaking, union-pacifying, and public relations-mongering for the Pennsy and the New York Central to merge into "Penn Central." Saunders became boss there, too. Saturday Review, the arts-and-politics journal, named Saunders "Businessman of the Year" for 1968. In 1970, Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, the biggest ever in U.S. history. In light of the Pennsy's traditional stability and the ICC's chronic stolidity, Saunders was virtually forced not to risk radical tinkering with railroading (besides, he just wasn't a risen-thru-the-ranks "railroad guy"; he even took a limousine to work despite living within walking distance of a PRR commuter station) -- instead, Saunders became more interested in buffing up the balance sheet by putting most of the Pennsy's remaining investable money into more lucrative ventures like corporate aviation(!) and downtown real estate. "America's Standard" swiftly became a conglomerate, but for years Saunders kept that largely a secret. Since nobody, not the analysts nor Saunders' well-heeled stockholders, had reason to doubt, Saunders perpetuated a fast one by releasing Consolidated Statements of Earnings that didn't have to mention that practically all the revenue came from non-railroading enterprises. As the Sixties wore on, and the traditional railroad revenues turned to loss, he started cheating. At first it was just exploiting ambiguities in corporate and tax law to the railroad's advantage. But then it really began to get "creative," especially after Saunders understood how financially untenable the new Penn Central was-- just how incapable of doing anything but losing buckets of money. Despite the years each road thought it was preparing for merger, Penn Central seemed to consist largely of incompatible equipment, incompatible computer systems, incompatible egos, and trains so late and dirty they were incompatible with the human spirit. By the end, 1970, Saunders was eerily anticipating Enron thirty years later: he had threatened an independent analyst with his job if the man didn't tart up the financials; and he (quite illegally) acted as his own financier by putting phoney-baloney money on the balance sheets of those shell corporations that existed solely to puff up PC's balance sheet. In 1976 Congress created Conrail, essentially essentially a mop-up network of the Penn Central and all the smaller, regional roads it had dragged into bankruptcy when it crashed). By the early Eighties, Conrail actually started showing some profit. This was the Reagan era, so instead of Congress' supporting something that looked suspiciously like socialism, Conrail reorganized and sold shares to the public, just like IBM or Hilton Hotels or any other for-profit company. Two executives with very different styles made Conrail survive and prosper. Stanley Crane was good at politicking out much-needed federal money for Conrail, which early on was in execrable state, and held a score of regional rail lines Penn Central had taken into bankruptcy with it. Crane also had to slash all those intertwined routes into one lean, healthy system able to serve an increasingly post-industrial world. David LeVan had the thanless task of going to the head of Conrail's biggest union and asking for a twelve-percent pay cut across the boards. LeVan was a railroad-ops oriented, hunker-down-and-talk-with-the-railroaders type. LeVan's honorary blue-collar creds came to fore when he argued (correctly) in front of the union that without the twelve-percent pay cut, Conrail would die. The union accepted the cut, and while everyone wasn't thrilled, the company held together. A man of many interests, LeVan decided on a mid- career shift out of the railroad industry and into another type of transportation altogether: he opened up a Harley-Davidson dealership in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By the mid-Nineties, Conrail made ready to sell itself off, deciding to retain only a few switching and yard facilities in or near big cities in an operation restyled "Conrail Shared Assets." It still exists today, and keeps the various megasystems from muscling each other too much for big-city rail access. But the route structure and equipment of Conrail still up for grabs, it wasn't until 1997 that the two remaining U.S.-headquartered "mega-system" railroads (Norfolk Southern and CSX) that operated in the East and South (as well as significant parts of the Midwest and Northeast), got into a crazy bidding war over the various routes of Conrail put up for auction. Together, the two corporations paid Conrail's auctioneer nearly TWENTY BILLION DOLLARS for the routes! CSX desperately had to have the exx-NYCentral "Water Level Route" of New York - Albany - Cleveland - Toledo - Chicago for its connections to New England. It wound up getting only the eastern half of that route; the western part from Cleveland to Chicago went to Norfolk Southern. CSX, all told, paid about $600 million less for Conrail's parts but many observers feel it did not get full value even at that, emerging with only forty-one percent of the route miles auctioned off to NS' fifty-nine. People are still arguing about the fairness of it all. A particular pride of NS was the ex-Penn Central, exx-Pennsy mainline "Horseshoe Curve" route from New York thru Philly and Harrisburg to Altoona and on to Chicago. There was no longer any ICC around to worry that such a combination might lead to greater operating efficiencies and, in the New Dealish mindset of the former ICC, provoke "unfair" competition. So it took until 1997, after the cost of how many jobs lost, industries left high and dry, commuters enraged, investors defrauded, rail lines prematurely allowed to rot, and taxpayers gulled, NS got its 1962 dream: merger with the Pennsy. Loving was there in person for much of this story. He was interviewing Penn Central executives for FORTUNE magazine way back in 1970, just after the crash. Whom he ...

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