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The History Channel's AMAZING TRAINS program notes on the Circus Train

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Train

2009 Red Unit Circus Train Report and Photos from Anaheim, CA, by Carl Morrison

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1.  Notes about the Circus Train from The History Channel's Amazing Trains program on the circus train.


Extreme Trains: Circus Train DVD

Hop aboard the longest privately-owned train in the world, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's circus train. Matt and the circus must race against the clock to dismantle tons of equipment and get it on the rails. As they travel from Baltimore to Washington, DC corridor in the dead of night, Matt discovers the less glamorous side to the greatest show on earth.

50-minute DVD   $14.95

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You may have seen Extreme Trains:  Circus Train, on The History Channel.  I recorded it and went through it again recently for the following statistics.  It is the same Red Unit that was in California this year, except that it was recorded in Washington, DC.

There are two Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey trains - The Red Unit (the subject of this DVD) and the Blue Unit.  Either one is the "Longest Private Train in the World."  The train is over one mile long, 5,280 ft.  Each Unit travels 20,000 miles a year, carrying 12,000 lbs. of stage sets.  Mike, the MC of the show, called it, "A Town Built for the Rails."  The circus itself, "The Greatest Show on Earth."


The RBBB Circus Train carries 4,000 tons of equipment, 30+ animals, and 98 performers.  The consist of the circus train is 33 "Coaches,"  (residential cars, living quarters, for 250 some employees),  4  "Stocks" for elephants and horses, and 19 "Flats" which carry wagons with lighting, concessions, trapezes and other equipment to the next arena.   This 56-car train is more than a mile long.

In Car 58, the Shop Car, you will probably find the Trainmaster, Mike Hickey.

The power for all the cars is provided by two diesel generators housed in one car.  Each is a 400 kilowatt generator.

When I visited the train a few years ago, they had to replace quite a few wheel sets.  They had to bring in a crane to lift the car, and a semi flatbed with replacement wheel sets to get the job done.  In this episode they mentioned that they carry 2 wheel sets, 3500 lbs. each, slung under the cars.  I saw and photographed one set when I visited the cars this year:


Asian elephants are used in the circus and travel in the 4 stock cars.  The stock cars are the first cars in the consist when they travel, right behind the locomotives, because this is the location for the best ride.  The 10 elephants weight a total of 30,000 lbs.  The Elephant, Asia, weighs 4 tons.  Each elephant eats 160 lbs. of food a day.  The stocks have built-in misting systems and if the ride to the next venue is too long, the train is stopped so the animals can be unloaded and exercised.  Exercise is also accomplished during the "Elephant Walk" from the train to the arena accommodations before the first show and back to the train after the last show for the trip to the next venue.  It takes a 30-person crew to unload and walk the animals to the arena and back.

Dave Pittenger, Transportation Boss, is in charge of moving 6 tons of stage sets, and 350 costumes to and from the train.  The many wagons of supplies and equipment are pulled to the flats and Mike Hickey's invention, the Push Plate, is used on a 2,000 lb. rated CAT to push the wagons up onto the flats.

P. T. Barnum was the first to move his circus by train, in 1872.  His Business Manager invented a way to load the wagons onto the train so that they could be off-loaded in order of use at the next venue.  His system was later used by the U.S. Military in World War I.  That system is called, End Loading.  By 1915, Barnum had 85 rail cars, that moved in 4 sections with a steam locomotive pulling each section.  June 22, 1918, at Gary, Indiana, there was a head-on collision between a Circus Train and a Troop Train.  Eighty-six people were killed on the circus train, of the 300 onboard.  The cause of the accident was determined that the troop train engineer had fallen asleep.  It was this accident that caused the establishment of rules relating to the length of time a train crew can work, and the amount of time train crews must rest before resuming work. (More at:

Locomotives from the railroad provide the power to move the circus train from city to city.  These locomotives are 4,400 horsepower, 12-cylinder diesels that generate 2,000 amps of electricity to its traction motors.

The circus trains travel to about 42 cities logging 2.5 million miles a year.  With the 50+ animals and 250 residents, that's a "City without a ZIP Code."

The DVD showed the Ring Master's quarters:  kitchen w/microwave, bunk, coffee machine, and 'donniker' (see 'Circus Logo' for the definition of this term).

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The Pie Car

The Pie Car, the diner for the residents of the train, is managed by Uncle John.  His task is to feed 200 people a day.  Pie Car, Sr. is the rail car  kitchen and diner. Uncle John has to be ready with food for the workers one hour before the first bus leaves the train for the arena.  Each week he uses 60 gallons of cooking oil, 70 lbs. of chicken, 60 lbs. of steak, and 75 loaves of bread.  This car started as a 1950s car purchased for about $10,000 and refurbished in the Palmetto, Florida, shops into a $1 million kitchen/diner. 


Pie Car, Jr.

(closed for cleaning at the end of the Anaheim show)

Pie Car, Jr. is a smaller version that can be taken to the arena and is used to feed the performers and crew when they do not have time to return to the train for food between performances. 

Next Page:  Chapter 2:  RBBB Rail Car Photos in Anaheim, CA, July 25, 2009

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