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What is a Circus Train?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

A circus train is a specialized train for transporting workers, equipment, and livestock. In the 1800s, traveling circuses began using the rail network to move their shows from one community to the next. Since that time, the circus train has become a colorful and iconic image of the circus world. In the 21st century, some circuses still use the brilliantly arrayed trains for transport. These trains have captured the popular imagination and often appear in movies and other portrayals of circus life.

Circuses and carnivals have been performing in Europe and America since the 18th century. Shortly after the transcontinental railroad across the United States was completed in 1869, circuses began employing rail for their traveling shows. Early train cars turned out to be ill-suited for the specialized needs of the circus, so the larger companies began building their own cars. These included flatcars that could hold cages and wagons, as well as sleeper cars that provided rolling homes for circus personnel. Similar designs are used for the circus trains of modern times.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Rail companies charged circuses by the car, not by weight or length. For this reason, it was more economical to have fewer, larger cars. The circus train includes some of the longest cars on the rails, up to 26 meters (85 feet) in length. In addition to the flatcars and sleepers, specialized cars carry elephants, lions, and other livestock in relative comfort. These are known in rail and circus parlance as stock cars.

The circus train has become such a popular feature of circuses that it has its own fan following. Trainspotters in the United States keep track of the progress of circus trains and alert fellow fans through websites. The Ringling Brothers Circus has two trains, the red unit and the blue unit, which transport the circus around the country on alternate years. Another popular circus train travels up and down the East Coast of the U.S. This mile-long train visits 16 locations during its seven-month circuit and is observed by many delighted fans along the way.

Films and media about the circus often include images of the circus train. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 epic The Greatest Show on Earth includes a circus train crash, a disaster that was all too real in the early days of circus trains. The third Indiana Jones film, 1989’s Last Crusade, opens with a battle aboard a running circus train. Like many directors, Steven Spielberg found the specialized train to be a unique spectacle, a perfect setting for the adventures of his daredevil hero.

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