They were originally intended to haul limited express trains on the Tōkaidō Line. Although based on the earlier EF53 design, the EF55s featured a unique non-symmetrical wheel arrangement with a streamlined cab at only one end. The number 2 end had a traditional-style cab with access deck.
The need to turn locomotives in regular use proved to be the downfall for this small class, and the locomotives were placed in storage from 1958, and then officially withdrawn in 1964. Following withdrawal, EF55 1 was moved to the former Chūō Railway Institute near Nishi-Kokubunji Station for apprentice training purposes. EF55 3 was cannibalized to donate motors and other components to the ED30 prototype AC electric locomotive, and EF55 2 was also cut up shortly after.
EF55 1 was designated as an important piece of railway heritage in 1978, and was subsequently restored to running condition, re-entering service in 1986 for use hauling special event trains. It was operated by JR East, based at Takasaki depot, until it was finally withdrawn in December 2008.