Rush Loving Jr., a Ruxton journalist and author, whose book The Men Who Loved Trains: The Story of Men Who Battled Greed to Save an Ailing Industry was recently published by Indiana University Press, quite naturally came by his love of the flanged wheel on the fixed rail.
A native Virginian, Loving was born in Norfolk and raised there and in Richmond, where he grew up watching trains of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Seaboard Airline Railroad, Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, Southern Railway and Norfolk & Western Railway, as they chugged and clanked by with their steam whistles blowing, while denim-clad engineers with hands firmly gripping throttles leaned out of engine cabs, checking to make sure the road ahead was clear.
He was almost 4 years old when his grandmother took him to Suffolk, Va., for his first train ride on an N&W; Railway passenger train. After that came an overnight trip with his grandfather, a conductor, on the Southern Railway.
"In those days, families in the South always had some member working on the railroad, and my other grandfather was a conductor. He took me on his run from Richmond to Danville, Va., and I remember getting on the train and hearing the other railroaders calling him 'Cap'n Ben.' It was quite an experience," Loving, now 71, recalled the other day. "I also rode the Southern's steam engines and had my first cab ride over those same tracks."
"While my favorites are old-fashioned steam engines, I'm not your classic rail fan. And while I love to watch them and take cab rides, I have a reporter's interest in railroading," Loving said. "I've had an intuitive love of transportation all my life which also includes ships and planes."
After graduating in 1956 from the University of Richmond, he began his career as a photographer-reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and then served for two years as a lieutenant with the National Security Agency before eventually landing in the late 1960s as an associate editor at Fortune magazine in New York City.
"I found out early in my career that railroads were a colorful institution and were filled with colorful and quotable people. And because they are a Byzantine industry, stories about them always make for good reading," he said. "I got totally involved and listened to old railroaders. I even got rail executives to teach me about the business."
Loving's arrival at Fortune coincided with the 1968 merger of the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad -- which created a 20,530-mile system operating in 16 states and two provinces of Canada with 94,000 employees -- and was the largest transportation-related merger in the nation's history.
And when Penn-Central, as the combined company became known, collapsed on June 22, 1970, after filing for bankruptcy protection following the Nixon administration's decision not to guarantee $200 million in loans for the ailing company, it entered the record books a second time as the nation's largest corporate bankruptcy.
The plunge of the railroad's common stock illustrated the plight of the crippled rail company. Two years earlier, it had sold for 86 1/2 ; a day after its failure, it sank to 6 1/2 in what The New York Times described as a "mammoth transaction."
Loving sensed something was wrong long before its collapse, and he broke stories in Fortune exposing the bookkeeping scandal at Penn-Central. For years, the Pennsy exaggerated profits.
"The result would be a precursor to the great Enron and WorldCom scandals that erupted 31 years later. Never in recent times had the books of a large corporation been so thoroughly cooked," Loving writes in his book.
In 1976, the Consolidated Rail Corp. -- Conrail -- took over Penn-Central and six other bankrupt Northeastern rail companies. Conrail, which eventually became profitable, was divided between CSX and Norfolk Southern in 1999.
Loving never threw away any notebooks from his days covering Penn-Central and during the intervening three decades interviewed all the players who shaped Conrail into the successful that it eventually became.
Loving's book is replete with sharp details and motives -- including greed and envy -- of rail executives and their teams of advisers as they sought to design a better and more efficient rail system on the bones of the old Penn-Central -- sometimes, as Loving reports, with suggested routes drawn on bar napkins while sipping tumblers filled with Jack Daniels.
Only a likable and courtly Southerner like Loving, who was admitted to that exclusive company, could write such a book.
He unfolds the story through some of the 20th centuries greatest railroad executives -- many of whom became personal and valued friends -- such as Alfred E. Perlman, Jervis Langdon Jr., Graham Claytor, Stanley Crane and James A. Hagen -- as well as villains such as Stuart Saunders, David C. Bevan and William H. Moore.
"The men who ruled the railroads and many other portions of American business as late as the 1980s were inculcated to some degree in the mores of the nineteenth century. They did not take home the multimillion-dollar bonuses so common today," he writes. "While most were not driven by greed, many did suffer the stupidity, the arrogance, the hubris and all the other weaknesses of many executives today."
Loving observes that meetings at the Association of American Railroads could be reduced to an out-of-control fraternity house or boxing ring.
They "often turned into shouting matches, and on at least one occasion one chief executive threatened to punch another," he writes.
Most corporate histories tend to be as dry and uninspiring as a scorched Eastern Shore farmer's field in August, but Loving's book is in a category of its own.
It's the tale of nonstop corporate drama that is so grand and sprawling in its consequences and telling that it's almost impossible to put down.
He even introduces a little sex in describing how Penn-Central chairman Stuart Saunders in the midst of his railroad falling down around him -- like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned -- still found the time and energy to have a weekly assignation with a society leader from Philadelphia's Main Line in a "discreet area hotel where neither would be known," Loving writes.
"The nearest thing I'd compare it to is the Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and railroad historian and author. "After reading the manuscript for Indiana University, I told them to give Rush their usual six-figure advance and let it roll. It's a book for those who are seriously interested in railroad business history."