A circus train is a modern method of conveyance for circus troupes. One of the larger users of circus trains is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBB), 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 break the wagons' descent down the run. That system, first used in 1872, is still used today by the RBBBC, 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 sixty cars, including forty-five 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 tragic accidents over the years.
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 travel 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 are more than one mile (1.6 km) in length, and include living quarters for the performers and animal keepers. There are 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.
Another, the last operating carnival train in the United States, is operated in the east by Strates Shows.
Circus trains have always been enjoyed by the populace because of their unusual nature and photogenic qualities. Railfans monitor the annual movements of circus trains quite closely; weekends see pending train-runs of both RBBB Circus Trains, as well as the Strates Carnival train, posted on websites such as "Trainorders.com."
Famous cinematic portrayals of circus trains include 1941's Dumbo by Ben Sharpsteen, starring Verna Felton and Margaret Wright, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Charlton Heston, 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and 2011's Water for Elephants.
- Hammond Circus Train Wreck
- James Anthony Bailey
- Phineas Taylor Barnum
- Showmen's Rest
- The Greatest Show on Earth