'Greatest Show on Earth' ends in May

Fate of 120-car-strong Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train fleet undetermined
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A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train en route to Hampton, Va., from Louisville, Ky., rolls through St. Albans, W.Va., in August 2011.
Chase Gunnoe
ELLENTON, Fla. — When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus drops its big top for the last time in May, the classic passenger cars and equipment it moves by rail will return to Florida to face an uncertain future.

In a late Saturday news release, managers with Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment say high operating costs and declining ticket sales are forcing them to stop both “Red” and “Blue” tours of the circus in May. The company’s Red unit will make its final performance in Providence, R.I., on May 7 and the Blue unit will finish up in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21.

Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications at Feld Entertainment, tells Trains News Wire that both the Red and Blue trainsets will be deadheaded to Florida at the end of their tours. Payne says a final disposition for the trains and associated equipment has yet to be determined.

The Red unit consists of 54 cars: 34 coaches and 20 flat cars. The Blue unit includes 35 coaches and 21 equipment flat cars. Each unit travels independently across North America.

In addition, the company has five equipment flat cars and three passenger coaches in storage, while six stock cars previously used to haul elephants and other animals are also in storage near the company’s headquarters in Palmetto, Fla.

The company owns and operates more than 120 railcars and is among the largest passenger car operators in North America. The cars operate under “RBBX” reporting marks.

Between 250 and 300 performers and other circus workers travel on each of the two circus trains for more than 40 weeks each year.

Both trains recently started their 2017 tours. The Red unit is in Orlando, Fla., and will be traveling to Jacksonville, Fla., for shows the week of Jan. 16, while the Blue unit will be leaving Miami on Sunday, Jan. 16 headed for Birmingham, Ala.

The Red unit will use CSX Transportation rails to get to Jacksonville, while the Blue unit will travel Florida East Coast rails once departing Miami.

The decision to eliminate both circus trains comes in the wake of the circus’ 2016 announcement to stop using elephants in shows. The elephant stock cars have been in storage in Florida since being removed from the train last summer.

The circus, which owners have billed the “Greatest Show on Earth,” has roots in Delevan, Wis., that date to 1875 with a traveling circus headlined by P.T. Barnum; and a separate circus started by Baraboo, Wis.’s Ringling Brothers in 1884. The Ringlings bought Barnum & Bailey in 1907 and officially merged the operations in 1919. The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., displays circus and railroad artifacts from the early years of circus entertainment.

On Sunday, Circus World Museum Executive Director Scott O'Donnell fielded a continuous steam of media queries. In an interview, he said the museum would welcome rolling stock from the current circus trains.

"This comes as an absolute surprise," he said about the decision to end the show. "It's not only the end of an American institution, it's also the end of an American brand that's been around longer than baseball, and around longer than Coca-Cola. They're all iconic American imagery."

— Jim Wrinn contributed to this report.

UPDATE: Comments from Circus World Museum executive director. Jan. 15, 2016, 6:37 p.m. Central time.
CORRECTION: The circus train cars' reporting marks are RBBX. The marks were incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this article. Jan. 15, 2016, 6:38 p.m. Central time.



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