PRR's Legendary GG1 Electrics

The PRR's GG1 class of electric locomotive is one of the most iconic (steam, diesel, or electric) of all time. Sporting a beautiful streamlined design the GG1 not only looked good but it also performed exemplary reaching speeds of over 100 mph and remained in service for nearly 50 years after it first entered service during the mid-1930s.  During this time the locomotives carried all of the Pennsy's crack trains up and down the east coast from the Broadway Limited to regional services such as the Congressionals and Senator.  In many ways the “G” became the face of the Pennsy herself and while newer locomotives eventually retired the last GG1 in 1983 (which operated on the New Jersey Transit) the locomotive’s legendary status has not dampened. And, happily, while a G may never take to the rails again under her own power many are preserved around the country and in their original “cat whiskers” livery.

The PRR GG1 has its beginnings as the P5 class of electrics. The P5s were intended for use in the Penny’s high-speed passenger service along the Northeast Corridor (NEC). However, the motors never lived up to their lofty expectations and suffered from reliability and traction motor issues (carrying a 2-C-2 wheel arrangement, the high torque exerted from the dual traction motors caused heavy damage to the axles) causing the PRR to eventually bump them to freight service.  Still hunting for a reliable, fast, and efficient main line electric to haul premier passenger trains along the NEC the Pennsylvania turned to the New Haven’s EP-3 boxcabs for help. The EP-3 design was very reliable and did not suffer from the traction motor issue of the P5s. Based from the EP-3 design the Pennsylvania built two experimental designs for testing; the Class R1, a 2-D-2 wheel arrangement that was essentially the same arrangement as a Northern-type steam locomotive; and the Class GG1, which sported a 2-C+C-2 wheel arrangement and was based directly from the EP-3 design.

Both locomotives featured a center-cab, bi-directional, design. However, the GG1 quickly proved that it was the superior motor and the PRR selected it to replace the P5s. The locomotive included a continuous rating of 4,680 hp which could sometimes peak as high as 10,000 hp, giving the locomotive impressive acceleration and pulling power.  The initial exterior design of the GG1 was rather unappealing and somewhat boxy with riveting used for the sheet metal carbody. Wanting the locomotive to have a classier and more streamlined look the Pennsylvania hired renowned industrial designer Raymond Loewy to improve her looks (Loewy was also hired by the PRR for several projects, including fashioning the railroad’s famous Broadway Limited). While his touches were subtle they were perfect. Loewy suggested the carbody be welded rather then riveted giving the locomotive a more streamlined look (he also softened the edges and curves a bit). Loewy also gave the GG1 the famous “cat whiskers” pinstriping livery, which would go on to be used as the Pennsy’s standard paint scheme.

In all the Pennsylvania Railroad would own 138 GG1s (numbered 4800 to 4938), including the original riveted design, #4800 (known as Old Rivets) that remains preserved today! Because of their speed and reliability the Gs were loved as much by the train crews that operated them as the general public who rode behind them or witnessed them in operation. For decades after their debut in 1935 one could watch GG1s leading the Pennsylvania’s most prestigious passenger trains (like the Broadway Limited) as well as that of other railroads.  Regarding passenger operations one interesting aspect on the PRR was that the railroad never bothered to have its locomotives match the rest of the train. Streamliners were typically linear in nature with the locomotive and cars matching one another uniformly with some type of ended design for the observation car.

However, while streamlined, the GG1 included a curved nose on each end (and “cat whisker” pinstriping that sloped downward at each end) and the Class K4 Pacific #3768 (which powered the original Broadway) was painted in Brunswick green (unlike its rival, where the New York Central designed and painted its 20th Century Limited to match perfectly).  Beginning in the 1950s some PRR GG1s began to be pulled for freight duty. However, the adept locomotives proved to be just as capable at this rugged type of service as hustling passenger trains up and down the NEC.  Beginning with the creation of Penn Central in 1968, however, the Gs’ days became more uncertain. While still in daily use due to their unwavering reliability the GG1 fleet was painted in an ugly and simple black and white scheme with the “PC” symbol flanking its sides. 

However, it was the creation of Conrail that saw most of GG1s retired or sold. Not interested in electrified freight operations Conrail retired or sold the rest of its GG1 fleet in 1979 two years before quitting on the practice altogether. By the late 1970s parts were also becoming more difficult (and expensive) to come by for the locomotive and the discovery of frame cracks ultimately led to their retirement. The last GG1 in active service operated on the New Jersey Transit on October 29th, 1983.  On a positive note, however, many Gs survive. Along with Old Rivets other surviving GG1s include (per their original PRR numbers) 4859, 4876, 4877, 4879, 4882, 4890, 4903, 4909, 4913, 4917-4919, 4927, 4933, and 4935.

These Pennsylvania Railroad GG1s can be found in the east at museums like the B&O Railroad Museum and Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, and as far west as the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Museum of the American Railroad in Dallas, Texas.  The GG1 is a railroad legend and it is a real blessing to have so many of these iconic locomotives still surviving today. While it has many times been proposed to restore a GG1 to operation the astronomical costs of doing so will probably prohibit such from ever happening. However, with so many examples of the G still surviving just visit one of the many museums that feature the locomotive to see what these Queens of the rails looked like.

For more reading on the Pennsylvania Railroad's electric locomotives and operations The Pennsylvania Railroad Under Wire by author William Middleton (and released through Kalmbach Publishing, the same company which prints the popular Trains Magazine, among others) provides a nice retrospective on the subject, beginning when the system first entered service.  Also, Trackside Under Pennsy Wires With James P. Shuman by authorJeremy Plant is a coffee table title featuring a fine series of images, many of which in color, depicting the PRR's expansive electrified operations from the 1950s through the 1960s.

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