Trackside Classics: PRR GG-1 And DB E18/E19/ÖBB 1018 – Two of The Greatest Electric Locomotives Ever

(first posted 3/6/2012)      You all should know that my collection of train books probably exceeds the one with cars, and if I ever burn out on CC, I’ll start Trackside Classics. And today I’m in the mood to reflect on what I consider the two greatest electric locomotives ever. Both appeared in 1935 and were the most powerful and fastest passenger locos of the time. And both continued to serve admirably for some fifty years or more, in a triumph of their superb design.

The Pennsylvania GG1 could pull a huge string of luxurious passenger cars at up to 100 mph. And the high speed variant of the German E18 (E19) did an easy 110-120 mph, and was designed to go up to 137 mph (225 kmh), to initiate the world’s first true high speed train service in 1938. Only WW2 put a stop to that, temporarily. Ironically, the GG1 survived an effort to be retired by a new high-speed train.

We’ll do the E18 first, since that parallels my introduction to both of them. I grew up in the Alpine part of Austria, which was mostly electrified in the 1920s, so sadly, steam was not  part of my early and formative train experiences. But I loved trains, and was always gazing if not riding, which we did constantly, being car-less at the time. And nothing got my juices flowing more than when a big ÖBB (Austrian Federal Trains) 1018 came humming down the tracks where we waited.

I knew they were the fastest locomotives of the fleet, as well as the most powerful, even more so than the German E18 from which they were derived, despite being already old and looking it. Their ability to keep heavy passenger trains moving at high speed even through mountainous terrain was unparalleled.  They had the higher power motors and transformers  from the extra-high speed German E19, with some 4000KW (5,364 hp), a stellar output that is still comparable to modern locomotives.

The German E18 (blue, in top photo) was developed in 1934 to pull longer and heavier express trains on the key Berlin – Munich line, at speeds up to 150 kmh (90 mph).  Some 53 were built before the war, and after the war, some of the remaining ones ended up in Eastern Germany and Austria. The E18s served in Germany well into 1980s.

Four of the E19s (red) were built by AEG with more powerful motors and different gearing, and initiated a regular high-speed service between Berlin and Munich with speeds of up to 180 kmh (110 mph). But these engines were designed for a top speed of 225 kmh (137 mph). The only obstacle to actually running trains at that speed were the brakes; modern disc brakes as now used on high-speed passenger cars were unknown, and the existing equipment could not maintain German Railways’ standards for stopping distances.

The Austrian 1018s continued to serve well into the 1990s, by which time they were sixty years old. I was thrilled to see one when I was there in 1980, even if it wasn’t on our train, which actually was pulled by an even older locomotive! (it was just a local train to Seefeld).

The ÖBB 1018 was the pride of my Märklin HO train fleet, which my godfather augmented regularly with gifts sent from Austria. When I asked my mother some years back where my Märklin trains were, she told me she had thrown them all out! Beautiful diecast metal, as they all were! Life can be brutal.

In 1965, we moved from Iowa to Baltimore, which re-opened the world of electric trains, on the only (still) electrified mainline in the US, Pennsylvania’s Northeast Corridor. And the GG1s ruled there, as they would for some fifty years, despite efforts to push them aside.

The GG1 wasn’t actually designed by Raymond Loewy, but he did consult and advised welding the shell (instead of riveting) for a smoother look, and designed the famous pinstripe paint job. The GG1 was created specifically to haul very long (over 14 cars) and heavy passenger trains, which its previous electric engines were having to double-head in order to maintain the brisk schedules of the times (often better than today’s). Twelve 385 hp motors drove the twelve drive wheels, with a total of 4,620 hp. That may be less than the German E19, but the GG1 was heavier, had more drive wheels, and thus had greater tractive effort, better suited for American train’s heavier weights and lower speeds. Here’s a more detailed look at the GG1.

This decidedly political ad highlights the dilemma that all American railroads were facing, or had already decades earlier. The Pennsy was still doing a decent passenger business on its main lines, but regulatory requirements to keep its money-losing smaller lines running directly contributed to the eventual decline and bankruptcy of Penn-Central.

Metroliner 1968

The High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 (sound familiar?) began the first of several efforts to turn the NE Corridor into a high-speed one. That led to the development of the Budd Metroliner, an EMU (electric multiple unit) train that reached some 164 mph in test runs. It was intended to replace the GG1-powered conventional equipment from the corridor.

Its a long and sad story, but the Metroliner was an expensive failure. The tracks were never upgraded for its potential, and the trains themselves proved to be highly unreliable.  The GE E60C locomotives ordered by Amtrak to haul conventional trains in the face of the Metroliner’s demise also had serious issues, and were limited to 90 mph. The GG1 got a second (or third) lease on life, and in the seventies and into the eighties, the GG1s again proudly and effortlessly hauled the goods on the corridor. It was finally put to pasture on mainline service when the Swedish-designed AEM-7 locomotives arrived in sufficient numbers.

Although a very popular Lionel O gauge locomotive (although not to true scale), Märklin offers this superb HO model for a mere $639.00.  And here’s a nice Märklin E18 on ebay for $331.99. For just under a grand, I too can once again have the two greatest electric locomotives ever.