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Ringling Bros. Red Unit Circus Trainmaster, 2003

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Train  

Part III, Trainmaster, Tim Holan

Red Unit, 133rd Edition, July 25, 2003, Anaheim, California

Story and Photographs by Carl Morrison

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“The dream is as much a part of the American culture as Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey ® itself:  to run away and join the circus.   For the human performers, animal stars, and crewmembers of the two unique editions of the The Greatest Show On Earth®, life on the road is the best life you could imagine!”    

--Introduction to Boss Clown David Solove’s online diary
of a recent two-year Circus tour living on the Circus Train.

Tim Holan, Red Unit Circus Trainmaster, seems to feel the same.  He ran away from home at the age of 13 and joined the Red Unit of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus® (RBBB) in Long Beach, California, in 1977.  He hired on as a Porter, sweeping and mopping.

Tim swapped to the Generator Side (mechanical side) and eventually became Assistant Train Master in 1980 at age 17!  The combination of a loyal, hard worker and a company with many opportunities makes advancement like this possible.

He was Trainmaster from 1981 to 1989.  Training took place in the form of Ringling Bros. sending him to school at New York Air Brake and other train industryl facilities.  Instructors were also brought in to teach HBAC and generators.

From 1989 to 1993, Tim was the General Manager of the Red Unit.  In 1993, Tim left Ringling and worked for “Big Apple Circus” from 1993 to 1994 as General Manager.

Leaving “Big Apple Circus,” Tim went to his ranch in Texas, and  worked for Amtrak for two years out of Austin.  He concurrently ran a non-profit organization that used dance to improve character in young people.

Tim returned to the Ringling Bros. Red Unit as Trainmaster in 1999, and holds that position today.

His job is to safely transport over 200 performers, clowns, acrobats, tight rope walkers, animal trainers, flyers, management, and support personnel of the circus on his train.  Additionally, he moves elephants, horses, tigers, and various exotic animals.  This precious cargo is moved on a 56-car train, weighing 4,065 tons, and is 4,968 feet long, called the Red Unit of the circus.

In order to make these movements in a timely manner, he plans the railroad portion of the circus operation at least six months in advance.  Then as show dates approach, he becomes involved in the necessary local issues.  He may travel to the future host city to meet with Trainmasters in each city/territory to arrange for yarding the 57 cars of the Red Unit of the Circus Train when the need arises.  

You will find him in San Francisco making arrangements now, even though that opening date is over a month, and shows in four cities, away from Anaheim.

One of the inherent railroad issues these days is that there simply is no unused rail space on which to park a 57-car train for a week or so, especially in the Los Angeles area.  Tim says it is his unofficial opinion that there is more rail freight operations in the L.A. area than any other American city, which compounds the yarding issue for the circus train.

Another issue sounds like an arithmetic story problem to me as he related it.  The Circus Train’s maximum speed is 60 mph and the train is nearly 5,000 feet long.  Big trains these days can run 80 mph and are 7,000 to 8,000 feet long.  So you have this slower train you want to keep on time because of the animal cargo and the inherent need for stops to care for the animals.  You have faster trains who need to pass this slower train occasionally to stay on time themselves.  Add to the mix sidings too short for the faster trains, so guess who has to, by necessity, use the sidings.  There is onging track work so some sidings may not be available even for shorter trains.  I can see why Tim and others are called Trainmasters, to figure all this out with the dispatchers.  This explanation, however, nullifies the statement that I had heard, from a non-train person, that the circus train travels at the ‘lowest priority.’  In fact, only Amtrak can pass the circus train, and some ‘hot trains.’  Since the railroad is paid by the time it takes to deliver the cargo, it is to their best interest to deliver trains quickly.

Normal problems affect any circus train run to a new city, such as signal problems, but with these all  trains are delayed at that point.

Of course, things can work out in the circus train’s favor also.  Tim mentioned that the animals in Long Beach were loaded and ready for departure earlier than scheduled.  He called for a crew and power, and there are considerations as to how soon before work a crew must be called.  Once the crew is onboard, there are safety checks, and that time can vary depending on the crew.  Then the actual travel time from Delores Yard, where the animal train was parked at the end of the Alameda Corridor in Long Beach, to Anaheim was scheduled for four hours, but it actually took only two-and-a-half hours. This is all in a day's work for a trainmaster.

This “Town Without a ZIP Code” is comprised of a complete living and working environment for a town of about 200 people of the 300 some people in the Red Unit of the Circus.  This ‘Town’ is on the move, touring non-stop, for 50 weeks the first year of the 2-year run, and 46 weeks of the second year.  They are currently in the second year of the tour.  They have the week before Christmas and the week of Christmas off, or at least some do, while others find this is the best time to do maintenance.  This year they will not return to Florida as in the past, but will instead ‘winter’ in South Carolina.  The Trainmaster gets one month of vacation, and he usually works it in during cities where they have longer stays.
Between performance cities the performers and personnel have days off  as the train is enroute to the next city.  This allows them time to relax, watch TV, prepare meals, clean house, play with children, visit neighbors or gather in vestibules to socialize and watch the scenery of America roll by.  At the end of their tour, they will have seen over 16,000 miles of American countryside and cityscapes per year.

All the private quarters on the circus train are similar to efficiency apartments, and have at least a sink, refrigerator, and microwave.  Some have full ovens, and all have access to showers and washers.  Many factors play into who gets which accommodations on the train including seniority.  Generally the ‘First of Mays’ (new hires) are at the bottom of the pecking order.

All passenger cars are equipped with power cables supplying heat, air conditioning and lighting from 2 or 3 circus generator cars in the consist.  Performers and crew can live on the train, or have a house trailer or motor home.  As with any town, there are many and varied needs and this plays into which type of housing is selected.  For instance, some Ringling employees have to be at the arena at all times, and therefore a trailer or motor home is the living quarters of choice.  With that choice is an inherent problem, at some arenas, of not enough space to park these vehicles.

Performers with animals want to be at the arena where the animals are kept as well as those with families, so they have non-train accommodations.

For instance, the star of the 133rd Editon of the Circus,  “Bello” Nock, named “America’s Best Clown,” by TIME magazine, chooses to stay in a trailer for a number of reasons.  On ‘three-a-day’ performance dates, when the circus puts on three 2-hour performances, 11:30 a.m, 3:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m., there is not enough time for Bello to return to the train between performances,  but he can return to his on-site trailer and rest and be with his family between shows.  And, if you’ve ever seen Bello’s performance, you wonder how he has the energy to put on three shows a day even with rest between!

All those who enjoy the on-site trailer or motor home convenience think differently when it is time to move to a new town, because they  have to transport their trailer rather than taking one of the two Ringling busses back to the train and relaxing in their train accommodations until they arrive in the next city.

The restaurant on the circus train is called the “pie car.”  Not all residents of the train choose to use the pie car for food service, since they can cook in their quarters, but this car is open to all train residents and is a social center for the performers and crew.

Since people of all ages live in this ‘town’ there is a year-round school with one teacher.  In the L.A. area they hire a second teacher from “On Location Education,” which is based in New York and provides teachers for the entertainment industry.

Security on the circus train is principally by radio.  Many resident workers on the train carry radios and problems can be reported immediately.  Tim related that Anaheim is a good place to park the train with few security issues.  However, he related that a few nights earlier some graffiti painting had taken place, yet I saw none any day I was at the train.  “We have stuff to take it right off,” he said.  I glanced at the cars again and they all looked clean as a whistle.  In some cities in which they perform, however, they have to hire local security.  The other obvious means of communication around the train and at the performances, is cell phones.  A.T.&T. is the cellular service provider for the circus.

Tim had related earlier that there are always lots of jobs around a circus and he mentioned that he had two job openings on the train itself.  He needed a HBAC/electrical worker as well as a Foreman for lthe Mechanical Department.

Look for a DVD to come out soon, which was funded by Feld Entertainment, in which helicopters and traditional video methods were used to film the train at such unique railroad locations as the Tehachapi Loop in California.  

Remember to look for the red, or blue logo background on the sides of the cars, and the shields the elephants have on their foreheads, so you can tell your friends which unit they are viewing, the Red Unit, or the Blue Unit.  Each Unit Train carries the distinction of being the “Largest Private Train in the World.”

For an extensive photo gallery of RBBB rail cars, visit on the Internet.  Also look for circus train information by Rhett Coates, who worked for the Ringling Circus for over five years.  He has a list of where all circus cars came from at

Tim Holan, Red Unit Circus Trainmaster, sincerely appreciates our interest in his unique circus train. He is happy that we appreciate the heritage, design, and functionality of the train.  He added that railroad personnel in general are proud of their equipment and welcome railfans and their picture taking activities.

Animal unloading from the Red Unit of the Circus Train in Anaheim, California, July, 2003.

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