The gentlemen of the Southern Railway broke with a key bit of Southern tradition today. They said goodbye to the past, and they did it quickly.

In less than 45 minutes here, the railway's all-male leadership dispensed with one year's business and tucked away 88 years of history. It was their last stockholders meeting under the rounded SR logo. And if anyone was in a mood to cry or sing Auld Lang Syne, he didn't show it.

Instead, the talk here--and aboard the special four-car train that carried the SR officers' corps round trip from Alexandria--was of the future. Come June 1, the Southern Railway officially will merge with Norfolk and Western, creating Norfolk Southern Corp.

According to statistics provided here today, consummation of the corporate marriage will produce 17,860 miles of track and $6.6 billion in overall assets, including a $850 million cash reserve. That would make the new railroad the third largest in the nation in terms of holdings, said SR President Harold H. Hall, 55.

Had the merger taken place Jan. 1, 1981, the new company could have finished the last fiscal year with $3.6 billion in operating revenues and $500 million in net earnings. "Based on profitability, we would have been No. 1," Hall said.

As it happened, SR finished 1981 with nearly $1.8 billion in operating revenues and $212 million in net income compared with $1.64 billion in earnings and a net gain of $181 million in 1980.

Hall and his colleagues--most of whom will be well-placed in Norfolk Southern--found great satisfaction in the reports on the earnings that were, those that could have been, and the earnings they expect from the new company.

"Despite some very difficult times last year . . . our revenue . . . held up surprisingly well. Indeed, Southern had its best year ever in 1981 in terms of revenues and earnings. The years ahead look even better," Hall told the 100 or so stockholders at the meeting in Southern's principal offices here.

Back aboard the special train, with its luxurious Virginia coach and Buena Vista observation car, conversation turned to the lunch and drink, served by polite waiters--one of whom even did the courtesy of holding an officer's lit cigar while the officer quickly shook some hands.

The train reminded some aboard of the glory days when the Southern Railway lineup also included its premier passenger train, the Southern Crescent.

Nowadays, SR exclusively is a freight transportation operation, with lines extending from D.C. to New Orleans, and from Cincinnati to Jacksonville, Fla. The Norfolk and Western addition will extend that network into the industrial and grain-producing upper Midwest, linking traditional Southern markets such as Atlanta and New Orleans with Chicago and Detroit.

"I think it's going to be one hell of a marriage," said SR Executive Vice President George R. Paul, observing the passing scene from his seat in the observation car. "It took a lot of work, but it looks like we're on our way."