Anyone who ever rode the old Pennsylania Railroad between Washington and New York from the mid-1930s into the 1970s owes a certain debt of gratitude to Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer who died Monday at the age of 92.
Loewy was the man who turned an otherwise routine train trip into one of style. He's the man who, to a great extent, gave us the famous class GG-1 locomotive -- those electrified behemoths that hauled passenger trains between Washington and New York's Pennsylvania Station and freight trains between Alexandria's Potomac Yard and New Jersey.
Atop this column is a picture of one of the 139 GG-1s, bearing the Tuscan red colors and windstream striping of those engines' earlier years. My own first initiation to East Coast railroading -- on a World War II troop train to a port of embarkation for France -- was behind one of her sisters.
Until Loewy came upon the scene, electric locomotives operated by a handful of American railroads looked like glorified boxcars. When the Pennsylvania Railroad, aided by funding by the federal Reconstruction Finance Corp., embarked upon electrifying its Washington-New York line in 1934, it not only assembled top-notch engineering minds but it engaged Loewy, already known for industrial design work (including the Coldspot refrigerator).
As Alvin S. Staufer put it in his 1962 book "Pennsy Power," "Loewy probably did his best locomotive styling job of all time with the GG-1." The units, which he did not engineer, had a starting strength of 8,500 horsepower and cruised at 4,620 horsepower hauling 18-car express trains at up to 90 miles an hour. Loewy achieved one aim of railroad management in those days of many road crossings at grade: moving the engineer's cab amidship from the locomotive's vulnerable front end.
Alas, the privately operated railroad passenger business declined and its equipment deteriorated even with such magnificent locomotives. Except for an occasional railroad buffs' excursion with a refurbished GG-1 at the head end, the breed has died, most having gone to the scrap heap. Amtrak rescued the service, but has reverted to the boxy look for its locomotives.