DESCRIPTION: The nation's eighth largest rail firm in terms of miles of road (10,200) and one of the most profitable, with a system that stretches from Alexandria to Florida, Louisiana and Illinois (NYSE, P). 1979 PROFITS PER SHARE: $10.39. DIVIDENDS: $51.7 million ($3.68 a share). FOUNDED: 1894. TOP EXECUTIVES: L. Stanley Crane, chairman and chief executive officer; Harold H. Hall, president.

Southern has been engaged in talks on several potential mergers in recent years but none has concluded with an agreement. The D.C. firm studied a combine with Norfolk & Western last year, but not merger plan resulted. All the while, Southern concentrated on upgrading its own business. Crane cited "primarily a continuing high level of business enjoyed by Southern throughout the year" for record 1979 results. Noting that many economists are predicting a decline in the nation's economy, Crane said if this occurs, both Southern and the railroad industry in general will be adversely affected. He pointed out that the good condition of Southern's track and equipment, resulting from more than 10 consecutive years of heavy spending for new plant and equipment and for maintenance, has positioned the company well to weather a possible slowdown in business activity.