It probably was accidental, but I found it interesting that Philip F. Anschutz, 53, one of the richest men in America, had a hole in the elbow of his shirt when we met in San Francisco last month.

Arguably, it was a fitting symbol for the latest round of belt- tightening and cost-cutting that were about to be launched at the Southern Pacific Rail Corp., of which Mr. Anschutz is a 52 percent owner.Mr. An- schutz was in reasonably high spirits. He had just appointed Edward L. Moyers, 64, as chairman and chief executive officer of SP Lines, a man in whom he clearly has high hopes. Mr. Anschutz remains as chairman of the parent corporation.

And his recent decision to take the privately held SP public with a stock offering had resulted in $405 million in new equity that was oversubscribed on Wall Street by a ratio of 4-to-1. Moreover, he'd raised another $375 million with a successful unsecured public debt offering.

"Investors are showing a lot of interest in railroads," said Mr. Anschutz, who struck it rich when oil was discovered on his family ranch in Wyoming/Utah in the 1970s. "I've said it before, the 1990s are going to be the decade of the railroads."

Mr. Anschutz, who today is probably worth a couple of billion, said the tables had turned between railroads and their traditional competitors in the trucking business. He gave three reasons:

1. Railroads generally have been lowering their costs and achieving many new efficiencies that enable them to price more competitively against trucking.

2. Trucks, however, face higher costs, including increased fuel taxes.

3. The dynamics of environmentalism give rails a long-term advantage because

trains are relatively pollution free.

Moreover, the high cost of rebuilding the U.S highway system looms as a dark cloud on the horizon of a cost-conscious nation. Track maintenance, however, paid for at this juncture by the railroads, combines to make rail transport far more attractive.

Mr. Anschutz did not say it, but the implication is that in the long run there could be a public policy aimed at putting more traffic onto railroads.

There is some question, however, whether the SP will even be around if and when that day comes. Obviously, the investors who came up with nearly $800 million this summer are believers. But there are the naysayers who say that were it not for the sale of $1.7 billion in real estate assets, SP already would have ceased to exist in its present form.

SP filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate the company has another $1.7 billion in salable assets, not bad considering Mr. Anschutz and his small band of investors paid only $1.1 billion for SP in 1988.

But there has been bad news. The Midwest floods reportedly cost the railroad an estimated $30 million to $40 million and the pending sale of land to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for $260 million has been at least temporarily halted.

Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Anschutz said that SP service in recent months had been poor, partly, but not entirely, because of the Midwestern floods.

Last year, when I had met with Mr. Anschutz, he said that SP service was unreliable and had to improve. Apparently, it didn't, nor did the economy get much better. Thus, enter Mr. Moyers, a proven cost-cutter and turnaround artist at the Illinois Central Railroad.

Mr. Anschutz introduced me to the courtly Mr. Moyers, who is packaged as an elder statesman with Southern charm but who is said to be both tough and decisive. Last January he had open-heart surgery but is fully recovered. I asked Mr. Moyers about his top priorities and he began his orderly reply by saying what a great job Mr. Anschutz had done in giving the railroad a foundation.

"Phil has given me the opportunity to make it look pretty," Mr. Moyers said.

"The three most important objectives now are first to improve our service reliability," he said. "Second, we have to reduce expenses. Thirdly, we have to improve our locomotive fleet.

"The tracks are in good condition so we thankfully don't have to spend money there," he said.

Cost-cutting isn't the only solution. Both Mr. Anschutz and Mr. Moyers said Mexico offered a tremendous opportunity for revenue. But Mr. Anschutz believes that the SP lags far behind in achieving the kinds of efficiencies already in place at other railroads such as Norfolk Southern, CSX and Illinois Central.

"Ed knows how to do these things," Mr. Anschutz said.

Indeed, he does. Since our meeting, SP has announced it will reduce its work force from 22,000 to 18,000 by the end of 1994.

Mr. Anschutz has said the presence of Mr. Moyers would enable him to spend more time on other things.

"But I'll remain very involved," he said. "I want to assist Ed in every way I can."

From what I can gather, ownership of the SP has brought some disappointment to Mr. Anschutz in getting SP's long-imbedded and tradition-bound management layers to function with the needed sense of urgency. That is obviously about to change under Mr. Moyers, who unlike Mr. Anschutz, has spent his entire working life as a railroad man.

A couple of weeks ago I happened to be having dinner with an investment banker who has known Mr. Anschutz personally and professionally for several years.

I commented that you had to admire Mr. Anschutz for taking such a big risk with SP.

"Are you kidding?" said my friend. "Phil has never taken a risk in his life. He's a great bottom fisher. I don't think he put up a dime of his own money to buy SP."

OK, I said, so he's risked prestige, which probably means more to him than money. My friend made no argument.

Our railroad expert, Larry Kaufman, believes Mr. Anschutz is going to succeed with SP. If so, he'll probably be adding another billion or so to his fortune.

The bottom line is that while Mr. Anschutz may have a hole in his shirt there seems to be none in his pocket - or in his head.