The History of the GG1
by Walt Sklenar
Dependability. Durability. Elegance.
Few, if any, engines fit these characteristics better than the venerable GG1. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s ingenious design is today a legend of railroading history.The development of the GG1 was an outgrowth of the Pennsys plan to electrify their right of way from Washington, D.C. to New York City and the need for a powerful, reliable engine for passenger service.
Electrification began in 1915 when a 20-mile catenary was constructed from the Philadelphia Broad Street Station out to Paoli, PA. Within 12 years, most of Philly’s suburban lines were electrified. Utilizing MP54 electric MU (multiple unit) cars instead of steam locomotives, operational efficiency of the commuter system was greatly increased.
In 1927, Westinghouse brought out a compact A.C. traction motor, small enough to fit between the wheels of a locomotive. Soon thereafter, Pennsy began electrifying its’ route between Washington, DC and New York’s Penn Station. The project would be completed in 1935. As this ambitious electrification project got under way, the Pennsy faced the challenge of developing a main line passenger locomotive.
A pair of passenger locomotive designs was initially tested in 1930 and 1931, with the Pennsy deciding on a 3700 HP engine referred to as the P5a. Ninety of these 4-6-4 electrics (2-C-2 classification for electric locomotives, “2” un powered axles, “C” means 3 powered axles) were ordered, initially with a box cab design for the crew. Design flaws became apparent, however, after production P5as arrived in early 1933. One such flaw involved pulling problems when more than 10 cars were in the consist. A second was crew safety. The engine crew of a P5a was killed in a grade crossing accident involving a heavy truck. The box cab design was changed to a streamlined center-cab design in the last 28 P5as built. This accident would also have a bearing on the GG1 design.
In 1934 the Pennsy leased a New Haven EP3a for testing. This box cab had a 4-6-6-4 (2-C+C-2, “+” indicates articulated arrangement) design, and outperformed the P5a in comparative testing. A prototype was built combining the EP3a wheel arrangement with a streamlined body and center crew cab. The GG1 was born. Extensive testing of the prototype later that year proved that the GG1 was a keeper. Raymond Loewy recommended several modifications to the prototype, welding the shell rather than using rivets, and adding the re known pin stripes. The end result was a truly elegant machine! An order for 57 GG1s was immediately placed, at a cost of $250,000 per engine. In 1935, the prototype “Old Rivets” pulled the inaugural passenger run from Washington to New York.
To understand how the GG1 got its name, one must revert back to Pennsy’s steam locomotive classification. Their 4-6-0 steamer was designated a Class G. The “GG” refers to two 4-6-0s back-to-back, and the “one” indicated the first design.
Between 1934 and 1943, 139 GG1s were constructed. This beauty measured 79 feet in length, 15 feet in height with the pantograph down, and weighed in at over 230 tons. It was designed for bi-directional operation. The GG1 was built on an articulated frame in order to negotiate tight curves. Twelve single phase 25-cycle traction motors developed a total of 4620 HP (385 HP each), enough power to reach speeds of 100 MPH. It could accelerate from 0 to 100 MPH in 65 seconds! A step-down transformer fed power to the motors from the 11,000 volt AC catenary wire. The Pennsy maintained their own substations to provide 25-cycle power. Now most railroads buy power direct from power companies, which is 60-cycle. This change in power needs is one of the primary reasons why a GG1 will probably never run the roads again.
A testament to the durability of the GG1 is the time span over which they ran the mainlines for the Pennsy, Penn Central, Conrail, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit-almost 50 years!!! If longevity doesn’t impress you, how about this. In 1953, GG1 #4876 crashed into the main waiting area of Washington’s Union Station (air brake failure), then plunged through the floor into the basement. The engine, at that time approaching 20 years of service, was cut into three pieces and shipped to the PRR shops at Altoona, Pennsylvania, where the engine was put back together. It continued in operation until 1983!
Remember the postal carrier motto: neither rain nor snow”? Perhaps mail carriers rode GG1s to their appointed rounds. Under most conditions, only the rear, or trailing, pantograph was used to bring electricity from the catenary to the motors. “Double pantograph orders” were issued on icy days or during sleet conditions. The leading pantograph would act as a scraper to insure a good contact between the trailing pantograph and catenary wire. There were few things that could go wrong with the GG1, making it one of the most dependable locomotives ever built.
According to one GG1 engineer, visibility for the engineer was poor due to the long nose extending from the cab. This seemed to be more of a problem in and around stations where there were multiple tracks and signals.
Although the GG1 was primarily a passenger engine, some were re-geared for freight service. The last of the GG1s – nee PRR 4879 -was retired from service on October 31, 1983.
Of the 16 GG1s still in existence, four have a good outlook for long term preservation. A number of others are rapidly deteriorating, due to neglect and being exposed to the elements. One of the best preserved is PRR 4903, located at the Age of Steam Museum in Dallas. This was one of the two GG1s which pulled the Robert F. Kennedy funeral train from NYC to Washington in 1968.
It is unlikely that a GG1 will ever lead a passenger excursion again, at least under its own power. Deterioration of current carrying parts, shorted out traction motors and cracked frames plaque many of these relics. What a shame! Imagine one of these Brunswick Green behemoths coming at you doing 100 mph! Awesome!