Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Interesting Train Facts

Here's an article from Don Strack on Utahrails.net. It's mostly about the train cars, and the 1994 Blue Unit derailment. I find it fascinating that Ringling reconstructs the passenger cars themselves, and was gratifited to see the steps they took after the 1994 derailment to prevent future problems.

This article also helped me to determine that the car I live in is likely a 1949 Budd sleeper car.


A total of 104 former Union Pacific cars were sold to RBBB, either directly in 1972 and 1999, or in other years after service on another railroad. Some cars never entered service and have been used by Ringling solely as a source for parts. Prior to the purchase of large numbers of former Union Pacific cars, Ringling Bros. used a combination of retired U.S. Army hospital cars for the Red train, and retired New York Central and Rock Island cars for the Blue train when it was started in 1970 (at least 15 ex Rock Island cars were sold to Ringling Bros. in 1968, including cars 754-760, 820-823, and 864-867; all were scrapped by RBBB during 1990). In 1972, Union Pacific found that it had a large surplus of passenger cars, after the startup of Amtrak in mid 1971, and Amtrak's purchase of more than 100 cars from Union Pacific in late 1971.

A feature that many remember about the Ringling Bros. circus train of the 1960s and 1970s, was the "tunnel" cars. These were former baggage cars with their interiors stippped and their ends removed, and were used to transport circus equipment, such as wagons and animal cages. (No former Union Pacific cars are known to have rebuilt as tunnel cars). Due to the limited space inside the tunnel cars, they were replaced by long flat cars similar to the cars used by railroads to move highway trailers and intermodal shipping containers.

The following comes from a summary written by Rhett Coates for the Circus Train group at Yahoo in May 2005:

Railroad equipment is purchased from many sources, including Amtrak. Heritage-type coaches are re-built from the frame up at the show's Palmetto, Florida Railroad Recycling Center (which also has an adjacent show-creation site for the Walt Disney On Ice tours), and thus the FRA / Amtrak inspections allow the passenger cars to be in use beyond the rebuild dates. The Palmetto Recycling Center is along the old SAL Railroad, just under a mile east of the SAL / ACL [CSX] diamond in downtown Palmetto, and north of the Manatee River from Bradenton, where the Tropicana Juice Trains originate.

Circus Flatcars, of the 90-ft. variety, are re-conditioned with chain-binder hookups for wagons, buses, jeeps and other highway vehicles, and the show also employs custom-built (prototype "kit-bashed") bi-levels for transfer cages and automobiles. Some flatcars were former GTW frame-flats formerly used by the automotive industry, and some were former TTX bi-levels, cut down so that they fit through the Penn Station [Amtrak] tunnel under New York City. Also, ten of the show's 90-foot flatcars were the very first prototype TOFC flats built by ACF in the late 1960s. Two "container cars" on each show train are for carrying concessions materials, and were also prototype "kit-bash" cars, using former TOFC and frame flats, with two 40-ft. container permanently mounted and with center-doors added.

"RBBX" reporting marks (with five-digit numbers) are the Circus Fleet's FRA permanent markings, and this began in late 1994/early 1995. "House Numbers" are also on the coaches [smaller numbers in yellow circle decals], and these allow train residents to find their "homes" each night when returning from the arenas in which the shows perform. Sometimes the coaches are split up into varying configurations, when certain spotting locations in the cities they play are arranged differently, so the House Numbers can come in real handy, especially for new employees!

RBBB began using the RBX reporting mark at some time after 1975.

RBX numbers (similar to today's "house numbers" on the RBBX cars) were subject to change if a car's position within either the red train or the blue train changed for any reason, as cars were either added or removed from the trains, or if cars were swapped between the trains from one season to another. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the trains continued to grow in length; an example is the red train, which was 42 cars in 1985, and today [2011] is 59 cars.

These changes make the use of RBX numbers a problem for car identifcation, due to the potential RBX number change from season to season as the train consist was adjusted.

RBX reporting mark changed to RBBX in 1995.

This was the most visible change stemming from actions taken following the wreck of the RBBB blue train in January 1994 at Lakeland, Florida (see below). Having its own reporting mark in the nationwide AAR database (known as UMLER, an acronym for Universal Machine Listing Equipment Register) allows Ringling Bros. to provide documentation of inspections and maintenance performed by AAR-member railroads, and by its own mechanics for AAR-applicable items while traveling the national rail network.

January 1994 wreck at Lakeland, Florida

On Thursday January 13, 1994, a broken wheel caused the derailment of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train (Blue unit; 53 cars). Sixteen cars derailed, five cars turned on their sides, of which four were retired.

  • RBX 91, ex UP 5466, repaired and returned to service as RBBX 40008
  • RBX 93, ex UP 6320
  • RBX 94, ex UP 5555
  • RBX 95, ex UP 5594
  • RBX 96, ex UP 5478

Of the sixteen derailed cars, two were placed back on the rails and sent to Orlando. To return the track to full service within 24 hours, the other fourteen cars were removed from the track and vicinity to allow the repair of the tracks. The route was a major route through central Florida for CSX freight trains, and Amtrak passenger trains. CSX officials said crew members inspected the train shortly before the crash. Someone had called CSX to report a piece of train dragging on a track. CSX said an immediate walk-through inspection found no problems. (Orlando Sentinel, January 15, 1994)

Killed in the train accident was Theodore ''Ted'' Svertesky, a 39-year-old elephant trainer who was found dead in a sleeper car. Svertesky was in charge of Romeo and Juliet, year-old Asian elephants who headline the show. He also headed the Ringling Elephant Farm, a research and breeding facility near Gainesville. The second victim was identified as Ceslee Conkling, 28, from Fort Worth, Texas, who worked as a clown. Conkling was missing for four hours before her body was found at about 2 p.m. None of the 60 circus animals, including lions, tigers and elephants, was hurt. They were traveling in cages at the front and rear of the 53-car train, which broke in the middle. The crash occurred shortly after 9:15 a.m. at a fork in the tracks near U.S. Highway 92 and Fish Hatchery Road on Lakeland's northeast side. The train was rolling at 38 mph when the 22nd through 37th cars - 13 passenger coaches and three flat cars - jumped the tracks, CSX Transportation officials said. CSX owns the rails and three locomotives that pulled the train. The circus owns the cars. (Orlando Sentinel, January 14, 1994)

The NTSB report was issued on February 15, 1995 (RAR-95-01):

Background synopsis: On January 13, 1994, a northbound Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBB&BC) train derailed about 9:08 a.m., eastern standard time, while passing through Lakeland, Florida, on CSX Transportation railroad en route to Orlando, Florida. A witness observed the train go by and saw two pieces of a wheel fly off a passenger car and land in nearby woods. The train continued 2.7 miles, across five grade crossings, with the broken wheel. When it reached the Park Spur turnout, 15 other passenger cars and 3 freight cars derailed, Of the 16 derailed passenger cars, 5 turned on their sides; the rest remained upright. Two circus employees were killed, and 15 received minor injuries.

The post-accident investigation found that the wheel broke from the fatigue failure of a thermally damaged wheel due to fatigue cracking initiated at a stress raiser associated with a stamped character on the wheel rim.

The railroads have long understood the criticality of identifying overheated thermally damaged wheels. However, it is still practically impossible to detect a thermally damaged wheel outside a laboratory. The cracked and thermally damaged wheel was not detected before failure despite the fact that the RBB&BC train was inspected at Tampa by CSXT and RBB&BC personnel, passed a defect detector 18 miles from the derailment point, passed an observant maintenance-of-way gang that paused to inspect the train as it passed by, and was stopped and inspected by the train crew 10 miles from the point of derailment. The Safety Board concludes that thermal damage and cracking in the wheel could not be detected by routine railroad field inspection currently in practice.

Recommendation: The NTSB recommends that the FRA prohibit the replacement of any tread-braked passenger railroad car with rim-stamped straight-plate wheels.

FRA's report for Congress for 1995 included the following:

Lakeland, FL - Circus Train Derailment

On February 14 , the NTSB reported that a damaged wheel caused the January 1994 derailment of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train in Lakeland, FL. The accident killed two circus employees and injured 15 others.

The 53-car train was en route from Tampa to Orlando when a wheel broke apart. The train traveled almost three miles before 16 cars derailed, with five landing on their sides. The Board found that the wheel had been thermally damaged before the train left Tampa.

The wheel that failed was stamped with a serial number on its outer rim. It also had a straight-plate design that is more susceptible to thermal damage than a curved-plate wheel, which is much more widely used on freight cars. The combination of a thermally damaged straight-plate wheel and a fatigue crack stemming from the “rim-stamp” led to the failure of the wheel and the consequent derailment of the train.

In its report, the Board called on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the industry to prevent future use of rim-stamped wheels like the one that failed on the circus train. The Board also recommended that railroads refuse to haul any cars with such wheels until proper inspection procedures can be implemented.

Noting that many of the circus train cars had been adapted for use as living quarters for employees, the Board found that one of the fatalities might have been prevented if large appliances and equipment in these cars had been better secured. The Board urged the circus company to implement plans for improving safety aboard its rail cars.

Actions taken by RBB&BC include the elimination of rim-stamped car wheels, installing more fire extinguishers, installing an integrated fire alarm system, using non-combustible materials for interior walls for new construction, installing a "push-to-talk" communication system throughout the train, providing three egress points for cars with passageways, and two egress points for each stateroom, securing all appliances, installing a crash tool box in every car, redesigning the car interiors to reduce sharp edges and corners, redesigning interior cabinets with recessed cabinet handles and door latches that lock automatically, and accelerate an existing program to convert all cars to a centralized 480-volt electrical system that would eliminate non-standard electrical appliances. (See FRA letter to RBB&BC, and the RBB&BC response, FRA R-95-6 and R-95-7.)

The most visible change by RBB&BC was the inauguration in late 1994 or early 1995, of its RBBX reporting mark. Having its own reporting mark in the nationwide AAR database would allow Ringling Bros. to provide documentation of inspections and maintenance performed by AAR-member railroads, and by its own mechanics for AAR-applicable items while traveling the national rail network. At the same time, although it is not a "carrier for hire," Ringling Bros. adopted most, if not all of the safety and inspection guidelines required by Amtrak for private rail cars to travel as part of Amtrak trains.

About the Circus Train

An excellent article by Rhett Coates, about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train was published in the February 2011 issue of Trains magazine.

The color of the "Globes" at the ends of the cars indicate which train it is. A red globe indicates the Red Unit, and a blue globe indicates the Blue Unit. The Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey banner is red on all the cars. There is also the Gold Unit, a smaller one-ring tent show started in 2001, transported by truck to smaller locations that do not have rail access.

For the 1960 season, Ringling Bros. returned to the use of trains to transport its show. The circus tried highway transportation for three years (1957, 1958, 1959) after it closed its tent show in July 1956, but "highway problems, flat tires and too many traffic lights" forced the circus to abandon its bus-and-truck convoys and return to using its famous circus train. A New York Times news item in late January 1960 stated that "The cars were being made to sparkle with new silver and red paint this week in Sarasota, Florida." The new show was to open in Montgomery, Alabama on February 5th, and would arrive in New York on March 31st. (New York Times, January 30, 1960) The last tent show was on July 16, 1956. (New York Times, April 24, 1967)

In late 1960, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they would establish a permanent winter home in Venice, Florida. The 15-car circus train arrived in late December 1960, and performers and circus workers unloaded all of the animals and equipment for the first time. For the previous 33 years, the circus had returned at the end of each season to its winter home in Sarasota, Florida, 18 miles north of Venice. The circus moved its headquarters from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota in 1927. (New York Times, January 8, 1961) (The circus' rail car restoration center is located in Palmetto, Florida, 36 miles north of Venice.)

On March 28, 1968, Irvin Feld announced that a second company of the circus would begin in 1969:

A second company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is being planned for early 1969, it was announced yesterday by Irvin Feld, president and chief executive officer of the 97-year old show, which he and his brother Israel and Roy M. Hofheinz bought last year for about $10-million.

The new show will be "as lavish, elaborate and exciting" as the present company, Mr. Feld said. He added that the introduction of the duplicate company had been prompted by "the more than 100 arenas in the United States now capable of housing the show that are constantly calling us for a circus engagement each season."

"Even though we currently run our season for 10 and a half months," he went on, "we can only manage to cover about half that number." The new show will have the same type of acts and production numbers in a three-ring arrangement. The present circus employs about 350 people and uses a 25-car train to transport animals, personnel and equipment.

The circus is now said to be operating in the black, though only a decade ago the Ringlings were losing $1-million a year. In 1956, the tents were pulled up for the last time in Pittsburgh and the following year the circus became an indoor show. The elimination of canvas, portable grandstands and galley cars proved dramatically economical. (New York Times, March 29, 1968)

The following comes from a summary provided by Rhett Coates to Trainorders.com on June 11, 2002.

In 1969, the late Irvin Feld, then new owner of RBBB Combined Shows, sent out the show's first-ever two-year tour with the first American tour of the late animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. The nucleus of that 1969 edition was Circus Williams, brought over from Germany in its entirety, personnel and all, which filled out much of that show. Gunther's legacy was, as most know, electrifying, showing a new kind of animal training which never used fear, but only "positive reinforcement" to get animals to do "tricks" (which they already did in the wild anyway), but on cue.

Meanwhile, other Circus acts which were ready for touring with RBBB waited another year, and emerged in 1970 in a second edition of RBBB, which Feld entitled "The Blue Unit," and the previous 1969 show was dubbed "The Red Unit." This continues to this day, allowing the company to play twice as many cities (up to 90) each year, and also to stay longer in each town (a week or two average). Feld was questioned by the surviving Ringling family as to his reasoning for doing this, saying "You can't do that! Which show will be better?" Feld's reply was pure Barnum. "Both shows will be better," he said. The reasoning being that each year the other edition would emerge with a better show that the previous tour, so indeed, both shows would be better. Feld's son Kenneth now owns and runs the two shows, based out of Vienna, Virginia, and also produces eight Disney On Ice shows, as well as Sigfreid & Roy's magic show in Las Vegas.

Feld purchased equipment from Rock Island and New York Central to supply housing for the newer Blue Unit, and the Red Unit continued on "Hospital Fleet" cars, acquired from the government in the 1940s, but they were getting old.

Red Unit (which began in 1969) takes all of the odd-numbered editions of The Greatest Show On Earth on a two-year tour, beginning every odd-numbered year. The Blue Unit (which began in 1970) takes all of the even-numbered edition of The Greatest Show On Earth on the same two-year tour, beginning every even-numbered year.

Union Pacific Railroad's separation from their own passenger service allowed Feld to purchase a major portion of that company's Armour yellow passenger cars in 1972, replacing the older "Hospital Cars" RBBB had used since the late 1940s. Six-axle baggage cars became transportation for the animals, and coaches were gutted out and rebuilt as "sleepers." As of 2002, RBBB's fleet includes at least 80 former UP cars, the rest filled out from purchases of Heritage Fleet equipment from Amtrak, Auto Train, CSX predecessors B&O, C&O, SAL, RF&P, and many more. Both units also contain cars from N&W and PRR.

The flat cars are 89-footers, many from GTW, SP, and a few from TTX, acquired with wreck damage, but rebuilt by RBBB to their own specs. RBBB also has the very first ten 89-foot TOFC flats ACF built in the late 1960s, numbers 1-5 and five more which had no numbers. These were the ACF prototype TOFC flats.

Ever since the horrible wreck of the Blue Unit near Lakeland, Florida on January 13, 1994, in which two died and many were injured, (they lost at least 14 coaches in seconds in a massive pile-up when a wheel set fractured from within, due to a design flaw, then split a switch on CSX) RBBB has made major strides in updating their fleet, now to the point officials at the FRA say the trains are two of the best-maintained in the railroad industry, and rates them each for 60 mph.

(Some of the lost coaches from that Lakeland crash were destroyed when CSX's contractors shoved them off the right-of-way in the process of getting the line re-opened. One was the Wabash "National Colors," which could easily have been re-railed, but the bulldozers managed to bend the car badly during the clearing process.)

As of 2002, RBBB has 54 cars on the Red unit, 57 on the Blue Unit, and at least 50 more in a "recycling" process in their large railroad shop in Palmetto, Florida, just across the Manatee River from Bradenton.

There are over 300 people aboard, all the animals, and lots of cars, trucks, jeeps, buses, wagons, etc. Personnel include a hundred performers, as well as almost a hundred Teamsters (Local 688, St. Louis) which include animal handlers, wardrobe, backstage crew, vehicle maintenance, and railroad car maintenance. There are also electrical staff, which operate the special effects, lighting, and audio for the productions themselves, and a large contingent of concessions sales staff, which not only sell all the programs, toys and cotton candy, but also staff the trains' dining cars, which the show personnel on both units call the "Pie Car."

These two shows also have their own live bands which play music live during the shows. There are also school teachers and tutors for the many children on board, as well as people who hand out the twice-weekly mail, cut hair, paint, etc. There is an office staff to coordinate all these others, and a priest who goes back and forth between both units and other American Circuses during the year.

This is why they have those two mile-long trains, as it's necessary to carry all these people and all that equipment. The show has determined they would never be able to truck such massive productions. The entire shows are aboard their respective trains; rail service is much cheaper to use for such a massive enterprise, and it's also a lot cheaper to house 300+ people free in rail cars than to put them in hotels every night for 11 months.