Amtrak train no. 160, the 3:05 out of Washington for New York, was a few miles north of Baltimore when a southbound metroliner roared past.
Engineer Harry A. Wilgis, 36 years a railroad man, looked out the window of engine No. 4935, built in 1943, and said of the gleaming silver metroliner, "I wouldn't take two of those for one of these."
"I think the good old girl runs good," said Wilgis of his GGI electric locomotive, whose exterior was designed in 1935 by Raymond Loewy-America's premier industrial designer.
Loewy was on the 3:05 yesterday, riding a train-length behind Wilgis in "the Pennsylvania," a private car. Like engine No. 4935, the private coach is a relic of the heydey of American railroading and was used by Presidents Roosevelt, Trumen, Eisenhower and Kennedy on campaign trips.
Loewy boarded "The Pennsylvania" yesterday at Union Station following ceremonies honoring both the designer and his design. No. 4935 has been fully restored at a cost of $10,000 by a group of railroad buffs who call themselves the Friends of the GGI. Today, with a new coat of pain in her original colors of dark green and gold pinstriping, the locomotive was returned to regular service along Amtrak's eastern corridor.
Like all of Loewy's designs, including those for Skylab and the famed Studebaker Avanti, the GGI is a perfect synthesis of form and function. "It looks," said the 83-year-old designer, "like it is moving when it is standing still."
No gleaming chrome to tarnish and blind! No square edges to resist the wind and waste fuel. No show which does not contribute to go.
Her nose is sleek and protruding not for the sake of sleekness, but to deflect any hapless vehicles crossing the track. Her skin is welded rather than riveted, not just to look smooth, but to make it easier to construct prefabricated bodies for building on frames and to make washing easier. The bottom edge of her sides curves under, not for looks but so that maintenance crewmen can work under her with less danger of injury.
"This brings back memories," said Loewy, riding in the private car, which is now owned by New York attorney George Pins. "It reminds me of my younger days."
But even though he designed the train in those younger days, Loewy said, "If I were to do it again I would do it exactly the same way. It is a tough locomotive. Even the gold stripes have a functional value . . . the gold reflection on the dark surface is visable from a great distance."
The greatest tirbute to Raymond Loewy and the GGI locomotive is that, even though the last of them was built in 1943, there are still about 100 of the giant machines, with their 20 wheels and 12 traction motors, in use on Eastern railroads. None of the others looks as good as the 4935. But they do the job.
The new electric locomotives "can't hold a candle to these babies," said Harry Wilgis as he sat in Union Station waiting for the signal to start. "Whenever the weather gets bad, a little snow, you see these pulling the Metroliners."
At 3:06 p.m., one minute late, Wilgis received the signal, and, with two exuberant blasts of the air horn No. 4935 began to roll. Twenty miles an hour. Fifty miles an hour past the Hecht warehouse on New York Avenue NE. Blink once. Blink twice. Forty-four years after her building, 4935 was doing 80.
In his right hand Wilgis held a Seiko stop watch. In his left, the throttle. Pull it back. Ease forward. An eye on the speedometer, an eye on the track ahead. A glance at the watch. "She's two seconds off," he said of the speedometer.
"She rides good," he shouted to Bill Dottere, the fireman. "She runs good and she rides better. She's got new boxes" (which hold the axles)."A lot of these old ones have lateral movement. She doesn't." She does, however, as Loewy observed, look like she's moving when she's standing still. And when she's moving, she is a hundred childhood dreams of locomotives blended into one speeding green nad gold blur.
Form Harry Wilgis' vantage point one realizes the train is rushing up grades - long, steep grades. Wilgis slowly pulls back on the throttle. The speed is a constant 80. But riding in the passenger cars there is no awareness of the hills - just a constant smooth speed, a steady, comfortable blur.
There is no boredom on the cab of No. 4935. There are signals to watch and respond to. If the response isn't fast enough - 6 seconds - the train will brake of its own accord.
But after 36 years on the job Wilgis responds fast enough. He knows all the grades, all the curves. He even points ot a particular black smudge near trackside north of Bowie and says that a coal car once derailed there in a 142-car freight he was pulling! "I brought it a mile . . . and only the one car was lost."
Wilgis comes from a long line of railroaders. "My father was an engineer, my uncle was a conductor, my two brothers were conductors and one was a car inspector. My son is a freight brakeman!
"It's been a good life," said the 56-year-old Wilgis. "I make a good living. You do your job and nobody bothers you. I've got more friends than I do enemies. I love everything about it. I just love railroading. When I'm railroading I'm railroading and when I'm playing I'm playing. I love to drink beer and eat crabs," he said with a twinkle in his blue-gray eyes.
To Raymond Loewy, the GGI is "more than a successful locomotive. It is a symbol of quality, American quality. After all these 40 years it's still working. It requires very little maintenance and the people who drive it love it.
"We can't keep on building junk, sleazy stuff that breaks down the minute you take it out of the carton," Loewy continued. "We should test what we are making before it is sold. The greatest thing that could happen to American industry is a moratorium on new development and solidification of what we have."
And to that, Harry Wilgis, who brought the 44-year-old No. 4935 into Penn Station here precisely on time tonight, would probably add a heart amen.