N&W vs. Southern Railway

nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue Oct 25 00:29:07 EDT 2005

Bill, Bill, Bill -

Here you go again. First the ACL R-1s vs. the N&W J, now N&W vs. Southern.

In both cases, you're comparing apples with oranges.

The N&W was fabulously profitable, as you say, but if it was so easy, why
didn't C&O do it? C&O had more coal to haul, had an easier railroad to haul
it over (they didn't have N&W's grades or curves), and on the west end of
the railroad hauled their coal all the way to Lake Erie while N&W had to
turn over its coal to the PRR (and other connections) at Columbus. Also, in
steam engine days, C&O had roundhouses full of the most fashionable
locomotives that could be conceived by the mind of man - 2-8-4s, 2-10-4s,
2-6-6-6s, 4-6-4s, 4-8-4s . . . All the N&W had were low-drivered Northerns,
some 2-6-6-4s and some 2-8-8-2 compounds which all the national motive power
intelligentsia said were obselete.

The N&W did it by savvy operation. They earned high rates for coal dumped
at Lambert's Point because they marketed it as being blended for each
customer. They didn't dieselize until the costs of running steam
locomotives became higher than that of running diesels, and when it did,
they dieselized faster than anybody.

They earned their dollars, don't think they didn't. The Southern needed a
Brosnan in the 1970s to pull it out of the muck, and he put it on the map.
The N&W was already on the map; in point of fact, it kept the PRR afloat for
about 65 years (paid them $407 MILLION worth of dividends, they did . . .)
And the N&W represented the two smartest decisions the PRR ever made -
first, to buy 39% of the common stock in 1901, and second, not to try to
tell the N&W folks how to run their railroad, even though they had control.

N&W began CTC operation during WWII with two critical stretches - one on the
Shenandoah Division and the other on the Bristol Line. The CTC of the
double-track main line was progressing through the 1960s and 1970s; what
wasn't CTC was Rule 251 territory.

After the Wabash-NKP merger/lease in 1964, the President became an old
PRR/WAB man named Herman Pevler. The Wabash was like the PRR in that it
believed its press clippings. There were folks on the WAB who thought they
were the only ones under the sun who knew how to railroad, and they couldn't
wait for Pevler to take a bunch of them to Roanoke so they could show the
hickabillies how it was supposed to be done. When they got down there, the
silence was deafening. The found out where the money was made, and
decided - smartly - not to mess with how it was made.

As far as the N&W taking over after the Southern merger, you'll find that's
not quite true.

But you go ahead and believe what you want. A few years after the 1982
merger, I asked a good friend who was a Southern man how things were going.
He was not a fan of N&W management, and said "terrible. If it wasn't for
that BILLION dollars we have in the bank, we'd not be doing well." I asked
him who he thought put that billion in the bank. It sure as hell wasn't the

Maybe if the Southern had had a bunch of skinflints accounting for every
penny it might have been more successful than it was.

Ed King

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