Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train at Safety Harbor, Florida in 1992.

(© 1992 James G. Howes, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons)



A circus train is a method of conveyance for circus troupes. One of the larger users of circus trains was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBX), a famous American circus formed when the Ringling Brothers Circus purchased the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1907.

In 1872 the P.T. Barnum Circus had grown so large that it was decided that they would only play at large venues, and that they would travel by train. P.T. Barnum had two of his partners, William Cameron Coup and Dan Costello, come up with a system to load the circus wagons on to railroad flat cars. Using a system of inclined planes, called runs, and crossover plates between cars, they developed a system of ropes and pulleys, along with a snubber post to get the wagons on and off of the flat cars. They used horses to pull the wagons up the run and then would hitch a second team to pull it down the run cars (flats). The off-loading was much the same as loading, but a snubber post was used to help brake the wagons' descent down the run. That system, first used in 1872, was used by the RBBBC until its closing, although through more modern methods.

When the circus switched to travel by train they began by using flatcars from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which turned out to be hazardous because the Pennsylvania Railroad's cars were in poor shape. In mid-season it was decided that they would buy their own cars, and when the P.T. Barnum Circus left Columbus, Ohio, it traveled on the first circus-owned train. It was made up of 60 cars, including 19–45 flatcars carrying about 100 wagons.

Circus trains have proven well-suited for the transportation of heavy equipment (tents, rolling wagons, vehicles and machinery) and animals (elephants, lions, tigers and horses), despite a few tragic accidents over the years.


Circus train of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, parked on the Grand Junction Railroad

in back of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts during a series of performances at the Boston Garden, October 1984.

(ArnoldReinhold, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circuses separately and together grew to dominate live entertainment through their frequent purchases of many other American circuses. In modern times, they traveled in two circus trains, the blue unit and the red unit, following an alternating two-year schedule to bring a new show to each location once a year. The RBBB circus trains were more than one mile (1.6 km) in length, and included living quarters for the performers and animal keepers. There were also special stock cars for the exotic animals and flatcars for the transportation of circus wagons, equipment, and even a bus used for local transportation at performance sites.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed its doors permanently in May 2017, and its train cars were either auctioned off or scrapped not too long after. In early 2018, Kirby Family Farm, located in Florida, purchased some of the cars and planned to turn them into dormitories for kids with special needs.

In 2023, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was revived, albeit without animal acts.

Strates Shows, a traveling carnival, has operated a carnival train since at least the 1930s and bills itself as "America's only railroad carnival".

In Germany, several circuses began using trains to move between locations in the 19th century. Smaller circus operations gradually switched to road transport in the second half of the 20th century, but Circus Krone moved by rail until 1999 and Circus Roncalli continues to do so in 2021. While the movements were and are made in dedicated trains, the necessary flatcars and boxcars were and are supplied by DB Cargo and its predecessor companies, or private car lessors - with the exception of a special rail car to transport big elephants, which was a private car of Circus Krone.


Famous cinematic portrayals of circus trains include 1941's Dumbo by Ben Sharpsteen, 1947's Fun and Fancy Free by Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts and Hamilton Luske, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille (see below), the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and 2011's Water for Elephants based on Sara Gruen's 2006 novel of the same name, by Francis Lawrence. A circus train is also a major location in Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.


RBBX 41307 after refurbishment at Tampa, FL.

(Attribution: Harvey Henkelmann, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)


Railcar Heritage of RBBX 41307 is as follows:

Built as former Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) stainless steel, 21-roomette sleeper No. 8267 ("Lewistown Inn") in 1949 by the Budd Company, using Pullman Plan No. 9513. Rebuilt in 1963 as a 64-seat coach with 12-seat smoking lounge, and renumbered PRR 1505. Became Penn Central (PC) 1505 in 1968. Sold to New Jersey Transit in 1976 and renumbered NJTR 5439. Traded to a private car owner in 1992, who in turn sold it to RBBB Circus. Rebuilt by RBBB at their Palmetto, FL railcar recycling center, and entered service on the "RED UNIT" Circus as "RBX 38", housing members of the Circus BAND. Renumbered ("House Car Number") 37 during 1995, with railroad reporting marks changed to RBBX 41307 during that year. Car would later (during the early 2000s) be placed into service on the Circus "BLUE UNIT," with "House Number" 186. As of the Close of the Circus in May 2017 this car is now owned by the Dearing Railroad, Columbus, GA.


The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 American drama film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, shot in Technicolor and released by Paramount Pictures. Set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film stars Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as trapeze artists competing for the center ring and Charlton Heston as the circus manager. James Stewart also stars as a mysterious clown who never removes his makeup, and Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame also play supporting roles.

In addition to the actors, the real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus' 1951 troupe appears in the film with its complement of 1,400 people, hundreds of animals and 60 railroad cars of equipment and tents. The actors learned their circus roles and participated in the acts. The film's storyline is supported by lavish production values, actual circus acts and documentary-style views into the complex logistics behind big-top circuses.

The film won two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story, and was nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Director and Best Film Editing. It also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama.