Circus Train 4-3-17: Red Unit Chase from Petersburg to Lynchburg, VA

The Red Unit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus approaches the Petersburg Amtrak station behind two CSX units.

The Red Unit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus approaches the Petersburg Amtrak station behind two CSX units.

Monday, April 3rd of 2017, was a red-letter day for railfanning in my book. At the beginning of the year, news came out of Florida that Feld Entertainment, parent company of the last circus travelling by train in America, was shutting down both units of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey touring circuses, effective in May. Citing declining ticket sales and rising operating costs, Feld felt the shows were no longer financially viable, and made the difficult decision to bring an end to a 146-year-old American tradition. Thankfully, the railfan community stepped up with a plethora of information regarding the final moves of both the Red and Blue circus trains, both of which were reduced to east coast tour dates following the cancellation decision. I made darn sure I got time off from work to see both circus trains one more time, and the Red unit was first on my list.

The show wrapped up in Hampton, VA the previous night (see my blog post about the circus wagon loading) and would depart the CSX yard at Newport News for a long trip to Wilkes-Barre, PA. I spent the night at a hotel in Ashland, as the original route called for the train to travel north from Richmond to Alexandria, where it would transfer to Norfolk Southern and travel south to Manassas. However, the schedule changed somewhat last-minute and instead called for CSX to hand the train off to NS at Petersburg, VA, where the train would head west to Lynchburg, then NORTH to Manassas, where it would take the B-Line to the H-Line and exit Virginia for the last time in the wee hours of Tuesday the 4th.

After spending a morning at Ashland trying out different camera techniques, I drove south to the Petersburg Amtrak Station, to await the arrival of the circus train. The station agent was very friendly, and every time he passed by to load baggage or speak with other railroad employees, we would briefly discuss the progress of the circus train, which was, as always: slow. The train left Newport News just after 9am, following an Amtrak Regional train, and negotiated its way through the state capitol around noon. I had misjudged the exact routing of the train, and felt foolish that I missed some golden photo ops around the Richmond area, but hindsight is 20/20! Finally, after waiting for a few hours and passing the time with several Amtraks and enjoying the calm quiet of the Petersburg station, I heard the circus train sound off for the nearby grade crossing!

Usual practice for the circus train is to have the flatcars (loaded with wagons and vehicles) towards the end of the train so passengers in the coaches can get a smoother ride. However, to expedite interchange with NS, the flatcars were riding at the front of the train for this first leg on CSX. That way, at Petersburg, the engines could simply run around the train before proceeding west on the Norfolk and Blue Ridge districts, rather than performing any switching in the middle of a rather tight schedule.

Since I was told the area around the yards at Petersburg isn't entirely friendly to railfans, I moved a few miles away to the railroad location "Jack" on the ex-N&W mainline. While waiting for the circus train to finish its interchange to NS, an intermodal train sped by with a standard-cab dash 9 leading the way. These standard-cab GEs are getting rare, so seeing this was an extra cherry on top of the day's circus pie!

Not long after the intermodal train passed, I got word that the Red Unit was on the pull from Petersburg. Sure enough, the headlights appeared around the corner moments later, and I was fortunate enough to get the entire mile-long train in one image, both coming and going! Unfortunately I fumbled with my new camcorder a bit, so only a zoom video shot is available from this angle. My only real regret is that I didn't capture on pixels a gentleman who raised his beer bottle to me as he passed; what a way to live and travel!

The train had reached full track speed by the time it was done passing me at James, and now the "chase" part of the chase was really on! Zooming west on US 460, I could see the silver snake through the trees as I did my best to get ahead of it. Over the course of about 15 minutes, I eeked out a lead and, having already passed one planned spot, I spotted a group of railfans set up at a private grade crossing. I managed to park my truck and plant my tripod with only a few seconds to spare!

I would like to give a special shoutout to the fellow railfans I met at this location. As I scurried up to the photo line, one man told me the train was almost there, and put his finger over his lips. I nodded, gave him a thumbs up, and planted my tripod as quietly as I could. Nobody said a word as the train roared past, no sound but the clickety-clack of the wheels and the snippity-snap of the shutters as history rolled past our group. Once the EOT passed, everyone waited several seconds while those of us taking video recorded a little extra to edit at the end of our clips. We all then said our polite goodbyes, and briefly discussed that we might run into each other again down the road. Alas, it wasn't to be, but it was indeed very pleasing to have such a professional railfanning experience with others. Thank you, strangers!

Moving west, the next stop was Crewe, VA, both for me and for the train. I found a good spot on a small bridge over the east end of the yard, but the rain was starting to take a toll on my camera. Due to lower light from the clouds, the shutter speed on the camera automatically lengthened itself, causing a lot of motion blur. Still, I was able to nab some good shots as the train passed under the bridge, and even managed to get up-close-ish with the tail of the train as it was stopped in the yard.

I also managed to catch the train as it began to leave Crewe, but mostly only with my camcorder as that's all I had time to set up. The train was already beginning to move when I parked. I also got an image of a young local boy watching the circus train pass by, waving to the circus workers in the windows and vestibules. Truly a classic American scene, not to be repeated.

It was at this point that the skies began to open up, having threatened rain for the better half of the afternoon. I scrubbed one spot I had picked out online, as a local resident posted several signs insisting that no parking is to take place near his driveway (probably tired of railfans trying to capture the last of the N&W Color Position Light signals before they are removed from service due to the onset of PTC) and found a private crossing not too far away. Though I did my best to frame the train with the still-standing CPLs, I opted to actually watch and let my camcorder do the work as the train passed me just west of Burkeville, VA.

The circus train approaches through increasingly heavy rain, framed by soon-to-fall N&W CPL signals. Their replacements can be seen with signal heads turned 90 degrees. They will face the correct directions when placed into service.

The circus train approaches through increasingly heavy rain, framed by soon-to-fall N&W CPL signals. Their replacements can be seen with signal heads turned 90 degrees. They will face the correct directions when placed into service.

It was around this time that the going got very rough. Heavy rains made driving difficult, and I encountered many ruts in the road that, when full of water, would jerk the steering wheel to the right or left without warning. I had to slow my chase considerably, and began driving in a very tense manner. I decided the best thing to do would be to get way out ahead of the train for a bit, so I could get some driving out of the way and then relax for a few moments while awaiting the train. I'm not sure exactly how I stumbled upon it, but I found a "Railroad Lane" that led directly to the tracks, and offered a small open meadow for filming the circus train as it approached the crossing. Once again, the poor lighting let my stills camera down, but my camcorder captured a great scene!

My next, and ultimately last stop of the chase, was the Kemper Street Amtrak station in Lynchburg, VA.The train changed crews in Montview Yard, and then slowly crept past the station platform, illuminated only by lamp posts. It then stopped for a moment while waiting for the nightly Amtrak regional to clear the single track just north of Lynchburg, which gave me a good moment to ponder the historical significance of what I was seeing. This was the Red Unit's final fully-loaded run through the state of Virginia. Next time it came through would be the absolute last, having dropped most of its coaches at Oak Island Yard in New Jersey, slowly and sadly transporting the circus wagons and equipment back home to Florida. Though few museums and railroads have formally announced their acquisitions, most of the equipment was successfully sold at auction or donated, offering future generations a chance to at least get a glimpse of what a circus train was. My heart goes out to the cast and crew, who are not only losing their jobs, but their homes, their families and friends, and indeed their entire way of life. Many of the performers were born into circus life, growing up on the tour, joining the show at a young age, never knowing a "normal" life with a stationary house on a regular street, with travel being only an occasional treat. As the train jerked back to life and slowly continued its journey north, I was overcome with a profound sadness; one of the last circus trains, a tradition spanning nearly a century and a half, over.

My original plan was based around the circus train passing through Lynchburg around 4pm (according to it's schedule), giving me ample time through the evening to chase it up Norfolk Southern's Washington District on my way back home to Northern Virginia. However, as is always the case, the circus train feels no need to adhere to its own schedule, and moves with no sense of urgency whatsoever. As a result, I found myself in Lynchburg at 9pm, completely exhausted, nearly falling asleep at the wheel. Given that, I'd like to take this opportunity for a shoutout to my friend Chip, who graciously offered his guest room to me last-minute so I wouldn't have to spend the night asleep in my truck. Or worse, had I tried to drive home while so tired... could have been dangerous!

Of course, there is one more massive shoutout to give: All the wonderful people who called the circus (and the circus train) home! My heart goes out to those who are losing so much of their way of life. Cast and crew of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, please know that America loves you and treasures your legacy!

Thanks for reading, please enjoy the pictures above and the video below.