Trackside Classic: 1934 Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 – Power Meets Style

The Pennsylvania Railroad was a great railroad, with a high opinion of itself; nowhere was that more evident than in what was (and is) perhaps the most distinctive electric locomotive ever – the GG1. For over forty years, these 240 ton giants powered the Pennsylvania’s expresses between New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Harrisburg, alongside fast and heavy freights and ultimately New Jersey commuters.

To understand the GG1, you have to understand the history of the Pennsylvania (PRR, or Pennsy to its admirers) – this was no ordinary railroad!

The PRR originated in 1846 as a link between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and soon extended to Chicago, New York and Washington. The Chicago route included the famous horseshoe curve near Altoona, which enabled the line to traverse the Alleghenies on a grade below 2%.

By the 1920s, the system reached over 10,000 miles, with a workforce of 250,000 – comparable in size to the British LMS, with greater traffic than even the New York Central, and PRR was the largest publicly traded company in the world. It called itself the ‘Standard Railroad of the World’, and it was said that its governmental liaison officer was the 51st member of the State’s Senate, such was the company’s influence.

And it holds the record for continuous dividend payments – over 100 years until things began to go wrong in the early 1960s

Electrification came early to the PRR, with systems in New Jersey in 1895, Long Island in 1905 and Penn Station in New York in 1906 (a Beaux Arts masterpiece that was sadly lost in the 1960s). These were suburban services, and the response to New York’s prohibition of steam locomotives in the tunnels under the Hudson River and East River, not main lines – electric power was swapped for steam at Manhattan Transfer. That changed from 1928, when the PRR began the ambitious electrification of its mainlines in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and DC, as traffic continued to grow and trains got heavier, using 11,000 volt / 25 Hz overhead catenary.

By 1928, electrification was complete along the southern half of what is now Amtrak’s North East Corridor, from Penn Station in New York, through 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and on to Washington Union Station. And by 1938, the wires had spread west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg – here we see the first electric trains to reach the state capital.

The first mainline express electrics were the P5 class, a 2-C-2 box cab built jointly by Baldwin Locomotive Works and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. 2-C-2 means a four wheeled truck at each end, with driving wheels in the centre on three axles and mounted on the engine’s frame. They were intended to match the performance of the famous K4s Pacifics, but the rising weight of traffic soon made them underpowered.

Following a grade crossing accident in 1933, the second half of the class of 92 were built with a ‘steeple cab’ body design, which moved the crew to a safer location.

But the P5 wasn’t enough to cope with the PRR’s needs for the New York – Washington electrification that was completed in 1935, and the railroad looked for something that would provide a lasting solution. Inspiration came from a borrowed New Haven Railroad EP3. This was a boxcab with two sets of six driven wheels under the centre of the chassis, and two four wheeled leading trucks at the outer ends – in effect, two 4-6-0 chassis mated back to back. Power outputs of the EP3 was around 3,500hp, compared to the 2,500hp of the P5.

The EP3 set the template for the new PRR electric, but the PRR went further. Prototypes were ordered from both Westinghouse and Baldwin / General Electric, for a locomotive capable of hauling heavy expresses at 100mph, requiring over 4,500hp, with cabs centrally located for safety, and with the style the EP3 lacked. Westinghouse offered the R1, which was an enlarged version of the P5 with an additional driving axle, but GE won with their GG1 proposal.

The first GG1, completed in August 1934, was no 4899 (no 4800 from late 1934), and looked like this.

The engine was based on two chassis, articulated at the centre. Each chassis had six driving wheels, and each axle had two 385hp GE traction motors. Two axle trucks at each end meant a wheel arrangement described as 2-C+C-2, or 4-6-0+0-6-4. This is the source of the designation GG1 – G was PRR code for a 4-6-0 steam locomotive.

The body was similar in style to the modified P5a, with a steeple cab and twin central crew cabins (one facing each way – the GG1 is bi-directional), but longer – the GG1 was 80 feet long, and weighed 475,000lbs, with a striking streamlined body composed of riveted sheets– the world had seen nothing like it in 1934.

The motors drove the axles through an unusual ‘quill’ system, in which a shroud (or quill) round the axle is linked to the driving wheels by a spring and cup arrangement. This drawing from Classic Trains magazine shows it better than I can.

The central part of the body housed the main transformer and train heating boiler, with the driving cabs looked as if they were perched on the outside – this is the compact driving position.The hoods at both ends held air pumps, sand boxes, fuel and water for the boiler and other auxiliary equipment. A large two arm pantograph was mounted on each of the long hoods. Normally the rear one was used, so that the front one was available if the rear was damaged.

No 4800 hauled the first electric train between New York and Washington in January 1935, touching 102mph in Maryland, and covered the 225 miles in 2 hours 50 minutes – the same as today’s Amtrak Acela

After testing no 4800, PRR ordered 57 production versions, some built at GE in Erie, some at the Pennsy’s own Altoona works, and the remainder assembled in Altoona from parts supplied by Baldwin and Westinghouse.  By 1943, the class had reached 139 units

The production versions were dusted with a little magic, by Raymond Loewy, the French born designer. Already famous for his industrial designs, if not yet for cars, Loewy (1893 – 1986) smoothed the design of the GG1’s streamlined casing by insisting it was welded, rather than riveted like 4800. He also devised the Brunswick green livery, complete with five gold pinstripes running the full length of the body.

Later in 1937-39, Loewy also designed streamlined casings for some of the PRR’s new steam engines, notably the streamlined K4s Pacifics and the innovative S1 and T1 classes. These were used to haul reequipped passenger trains off the electric network, marketed as the Fleet of Modernism

He also devised this beautiful livery for the Northern Pacific Railroad

And even later, in the early 1960s, he designed another classic scheme we all recognise.

The GG1’s body is built like a through-truss steel bridge, giving it great crash protection. In 1953, this was tested when the brakes on a GG1 hauled train from Boston failed on the approach to Washington Union Station, and the train ran away into the station. GG1 no 4876 ended up crashing on to the station concourse, and collapsing the floor to finish in the basement baggage store. I don’t how you get 240 tons of GG1 out of a basement, but the Pennsy managed it and 4876 returned to service, and now rests the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad museum.

From 1935 onwards, the GG1 fleet was the Pennsy’s pride and joy, featuring heavily in the company’s advertising. Initially dedicated to passenger duty, in the 1950s, over 50 of the class were regeared for freight service – speed was down from 100mph to 90mph but power was up.

Among the trains that merited a GG1 in the Pennsy’s glory years of the 1940s and 1950s were services such as the Congressional and Senator between New York and Washington, and the Broadway, as far as Harrisburg on its overnight journey from New York to Chicago. But with a fleet of 139, they turned up hauling just about anything at one time or another.

One big event in the PRR calendar was always the Army-Navy football game, in Philadelphia. This is the temporary station built at the city’s Municipal Stadium in 1951.

And they remained the public face of the Pennsylvania for over 30 years; this is the Annual report from 1960, with a 25 year old GG1 taking pride of place

Loewy’s dark green with gold pinstripes livery ruled until the early 1950s, when six GG1s were repainted in a Tuscan red version of the same livery, to match the PRR’s coaches. Others were painted silver with a red pinstripe, to accompany new streamlined coaches on the Congressional in 1955.

Eventually, on the classic green and red, the pinstripes merged into one broader band, but then things took a turn for the worse when the Pennsylvania and New York Central merged as Penn Central in 1968, and the livery became plain black. Actually, it was usually even worse as the railroad’s finances headed for doom and the condition of equipment deteriorated. These two GG1s are typical of Penn Central trains of the era.

These two aren’t. They’re hauling Robert F Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington, and it’s probably the only time two clean Penn Central GG1s were ever seen together.

This one is commemorating the centenary of the completion of the Overland Route at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869.

In 1970 Penn Central became the biggest corporate collapse America had ever seen, leading ultimately to the initially nationalised Conrail taking the freight services (and quickly trimming the network by thousands of miles) and Amtrak and the states of New York, New Jersey and Maryland picking up the passenger business, and  the GG1 fleet was dispersed accordingly. The bright blue was a big improvement over the dirty black, even if it didn’t quite suit the GG1’s lines. This is 4800, which retained its unique riveted bodyshell.

Amtrak chose a striking silver and red scheme for the seven GG1s it managed to repaint – the rest stayed in PC black.

And in 1976, Conrail gave us this visual extravagance, to mark the nation’s’ bicentenary.

New Jersey Transit was the final operator of the GG1, with the last leaving service in 1983 – almost 50 years from 4899’s introduction. NJT never had a livery for the GG1, as they were presumably seen as a stopgap pending something more suitable being available. But 4877 was repainted, with railfan help and funds, in PRR Tuscan red for her last few years, including participation in the very last day, 8 October 1983.

16 GG1s survive in varying states of repair across the northeast USA; none are operational, and given the complexities and cost of rebuilding their electrical systems, we won’t see them run again. These are at their peak, resting at the Pennsy’s yard at Sunnyside, in Queens, before hauling heavy expresses south and west.

You can, if you’re lucky, still Tuscan red on the mainline. PRR successor Norfolk Southern painted 20 modern EMD and GE units in the liveries of predecessor railroads. GE ES44AC no 8102 now proudly bears the Pennsylvania name, and roams across the NS network with the same power as a GG1,but not the same style.

But then, ask yourself what else looks and sounds like a GG1?