There Goes the Circus Train for Good


I only caught the circus train once. That occurred on Nov. 5, 2011, during a railfanning excursion to Pittsburgh. We didn’t know it was there and happened to just see it.

It was sitting in Norfolk Southern’s Island Avenue Yard (shown above) so I made a few images and then we moved on. I haven’t seen it since.

on-photography-newNow, it turns out that is likely to be the only time that I photograph the circus train.

Citing diminished ticket sales and high operating costs, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced on Saturday (Jan.14) that it is ending its traveling circus shows in May.

Some railroad photographers treated the circus train like an NS heritage unit.

When it was on the move, social media would light up with reports of its sighting.

There are three circus trains still operating. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has two trains, named red and blue, that crisscross the country. James E. Strates Shows also has a train.

But it was the Ringling trains that were best known among railfans.

Although the circus train was a regular visitor in Northeast Ohio, catching it wasn’t always easy.

Typically, the train would load after the last performance in a given city and then depart for the next stop on the circuit.

Often, the circus train would pass through our area in the dark, which is one reason why I never made an effort to catch it.

I have a great interest in passenger trains, but the circus train just never had much appeal to me.

It operated with run-of-the-mill freight locomotives and being a very long train and I was never sure how to get an image that would show more than a few cars.

It would have been a nice catch, but was never very high on my “to do” or “wish” lists.

In looking at a couple chat lists to gauge the railfan community’s reaction to the news of the end of the Ringling circus, I found the expected anguished cries of “no, it can’t be” mixed among nostalgic memories of having seen the circus as a kid.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Ringling Bros circus. My hometown in east central Illinois was too small for Ringling to play.

I do have a memory of going to a smaller circus and being disappointed. Maybe that colored my attitude toward chasing the circus train in recent years.

I’ve never had any interest as an adult in seeing the circus and it is just one more thing whose time seems to have passed.

Will the circus train be missed? Maybe, but I wonder how many railfans saying “oh, no” have actually chased the circus train.

It seems to be a situation similar to the decline of passenger trains in the 1960s. The number of people decrying the loss of intercity rail passenger service was far greater than the number who rode the trains.

Losing something that has always been there tends to evoke an emotional response in many. And so it seems to be with the circus train.

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