Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

The Art of Locomotive Design and Color

Today, when asked what a train looks like, most would likely answer with the description of a large, powerful, and blocky diesel locomotives, while others might describe a large, black steam locomotive. Go back 50 – or even 150 years – and that image would dramatically change.

When railroads expanded beyond the English coal mines in the 1830s, locomotives and cars were in dire need of a redesign. The locomotives used in mines were drab industrial machines suitable for hauling coal, but no proper Victorian would ride behind this iron horse. Locomotives like the Rocket would change that.

Stephenson’s Rocket was a major change in mechanical design but also in color pallet. It was painted a bright yellow and would pull cars painted the same canary yellow with dashes of brown thrown in for flair. Such a locomotive appealed to passengers and changed the iron horse from a draft animal into a thoroughbred. For the next 50 years locomotives would borrow many features from the Rocket, but in order for such locomotives to make the jump over the pond to the fledgling country of the United States there would need to be other changes in design in order for them to adapt to the new world.a yellow train pulling into a station

The Rocket was a 0-2-2 type steam locomotive meaning that there were no pilot wheels, or leading wheels, two driving wheels and two trailing wheels. Such a locomotive worked well on the finely graded and manicured track of England, but would ride poorly on the rougher track of the United States. Many early locomotives were imported from England, including the John Bull. Built in England as a 0-4-0 locomotive, it was found to ride poorly and was prone to derailments when in use in the United States. American designers decided to “Americanize” this import. The engineers decided to kill two birds with one stone by placing a cowcatcher and pilot wheels on the locomotive within the same apparatus. This changed the John Bull into a 2-4-0 making it track better and the cow catcher would shove obstructions off the track, however, very rarely did it catch any cows. These were not the only things that were added. A headlight for night running and cab for the crew were also added. This fully adapted the English import to the needs of American railroads. With other minor additions, the re-designed John Bull gave way to the iconic 4-4-0 American-type locomotive; The modifications would later be employed on virtually all U.S. locomotives.

As American as apple pie, the 4-4-0 locomotive became a symbol of frontier expansion and what would become known as the “Old West”. It was so connected to the U.S. that 4-4-0 locomotives in other countries were referred to as American-type locomotives. Many of these locomotives were gaudy with polished brass fittings and painted bright colors and were truly products of the mid-19th century design. Locomotives like the Jupiter, that was present at the driving of the golden spike on May 10, 1869, are great examples of this. Flamboyant decoration was not to be routine going forward though. As the 19th century turned to the 20th, locomotives got big, black, and utilitarian. It took another invention and a world event to change train design once more.

The event was the Great Depression and the invention was the streamliner. The Depression caused the railroads to try to regain traffic —both passenger and freight— lost to the economic collapse. They did this with Art Deco streamlining and bright colors. Trains like Union Pacific’s M-10000 and the Burlington’s Pioneer Zephyr came on the scene. The M-10000 appeared in bright yellow paint with brown accents. The Zephyr was fashioned from polished stainless steel. Even older steam locomotives were modernized with streamlining and bright new color schemes. A great example of the new color trend was the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha. This maroon, orange and gray streak flashed between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul competing with the equally colorful “400” of the Chicago & North Western and the stainless-steel Zephyr. In England, Sir Nigel Gresley designed the A-4 locomotives, such as the Museum’s Dwight D. Eisenhower, which incorporated a scientifically refined streamline design. Beyond good looks and an eye-catching paint job, the A-4s also hold the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 126 miles per hour, set in 1938. (The Mallard was the A-4 that set the record.)

Electric locomotives were given a facelift, too. Heretofore, most electric locomotives were merely a box shape on wheels. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG-1 locomotive is a great example of redesign. Aesthetically pleasing, the GG-1s were the brainchild of renowned industrial designer, Raymond Loewy. These electrical giants could pull a string of twenty 85-ton coaches at an astonishing 90 miles per hour!

Sadly, many of these beacons of progress were scrapped but the Pioneer Zephyr and a 16 GG-1s remain today. The Pioneer Zephyr is preserved at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. A little closer to home, GG-1 #4890 rests in the collection of the National Railroad Museum and can be explored in our Lenfestey Center.

Even before World War II, the future of railroad power was the diesel-electric locomotive. Diesels are far cleaner than the old steam locomotives, require less labor to maintain and service and, as such, could be painted bright colors. The diesel locomotive essentially became a rolling billboard for its home railroad. It should be noted that, at first, railroads did not fully grasp the concept of distinctive color schemes for their new diesel locomotives. The tradition of dark, drab, dirt-hiding colors held over from the steam era until railroads like the Santa Fe took a chance on the brilliant red, yellow, and silver “Warbonnet” scheme for its flagship Super Chief luxury liner.

That is how trains went from dirty industrial machines, into flashy rolling pieces of art, back into industrial machines, then finally into the sleek, stylish trains of today and the future.





 Written by Justin Lambrecht, education assistant and Frederick Lauth, intern

Skip to toolbar