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PC: Wreck of the Penn Central

Wreck of the Penn Central is a good book, but the authors skim over some
of the factors that led to the death of the PC. They contend that
mismanagement is prime reason for PC's failure. While they mention the
other factors (often in passing) they dwell on the management problems.
The PC would almost certainly have died, no matter who ran the company.
PC was playing against a stacked deck. NYC and PRR were in sad shape
before the merger, as was the U.S. rail industry as a whole. If PC had
struggled on until the formation of Amtrak, bankruptcy may have been
avoided for a few more years. (But if PC had not failed, Congress may not
have seen the urgent need to do something about passenger service.)
Another big road might have died before PC leading to reform, but that
would have been small consolation. PC was playing a losing game. The
managment made the situation much worse, but a pre-Staggers PC was

Wreck of the Penn Central's main strength is also its main weakness. By
being written so close to the events, the book has a wealth of detail
that may have been lost in a later book. On the other hand, the book does
not have the perspective on the rail industry that a book written in
1985, for example, would have. The book is required reading to understand
Penn Central, but doesn't give the reader a complete picture. An informed
reader who knows what happened with Conrail, regulation
(over-regulation), deregulation, and other mergers will not be mislead by
this book.

Personally, I think it is still too soon to write the definitive book on
the Penn Central. Just as a history of World War II should cover more
than 1939 to 1945, the PC story should cover more than 1968 to 1976. The
story should start with state of post-World War II railroading, and the
proposed PRR/NW and NYC/Chessie mergers; the story should at least
continue up to the government's sale of Conrail. I don't think the story
will be over until Conrail is integrated into CSX and NS.

Bryan Turner
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