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The following is Ringling's Bio., followed by my interview:

Alex sees to it that the 57-car Ringling Bros.® train transporting the 136th Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth® safely covers over 20,000 miles and arrives at over 80 cities – on time – during the course of the show’s two-year tour. His duties are plentiful and his patience legendary, as any frequent traveler can appreciate, in an environment where last-minute adjustments to plans are a given!

TrainMaster.jpg Trainmaster

Alex Kettles, Trainmaster

As the man responsible for transporting the 136 th Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®, Trainmaster Alex Kettles is all business. For over six years he was a conductor with CSX, yet he never considered a career on the rails a possibility before that. However, when Alex joined The Greatest Show On Earth® in 2005, he knew he’d found his calling.

“I love to travel,” Alex professes. It’s a good thing too, because in the course of the 136 th Edition’s two-year tour, he will log more than 20,000 miles, seeing to it that his entertaining entourage gets from city to city – safely and on time. Alex also finds himself managing what might be described as a self-contained city or – at least – “a very long and narrow apartment complex,” with some 250 residents from more than 15 nations, including 10 pachyderm passengers!

The 57-car Ringling Bros.® train consists of stock cars for the animals, which are placed at the front where the ride is smoothest, followed by passenger coaches for the performers and flat cars for the equipment wagons, which contain everything from lights and rigging to costumes and clown props. It is among Alex’s many duties to communicate with the host railroads that provide locomotives to pull the Ringling Bros.-owned cars, to coordinate stops where animals can stretch their legs and to deal with rail yards where last-minute adjustments to plans are a given. He has also learned to be very flexible, as it can take from 24 to 48 hours – and sometimes longer – to get to the next location, depending on congestion on the tracks.

“There’s never anything boring about it,” Alex says of his job. He has squeezed between five-ton female elephants to fix a switch that operates their water pump and has watched hundreds of people turn out to wave as the train passes through their town in the middle of the night. He has traveled through remote and beautiful areas of the country that few people ever get to see and has adjusted satellite dishes, pointing every which way, to pick up news from performers’ far-flung homes.


After reading the bio. of Alex Kettles, above, I had a few questions for Alex as we met in the Pie Car at 10:30 a.m. on July 20, 2006 in Los Angeles.

Alex has worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey as the Trainmaster of the Blue Unit for about a year.  He was an Conductor for CSX out of Cincinnati for six years.  He found out about the job by searching the Internet.  He interviewed for this job Sept. 28, 2005.  He spent a month training on the Red Unit before taking over the Blue Unit.

Alex says his job description is not the traditional Trainmaster job description.  He mentioned that this is a unique train that carries animals, people and freight.  He has additional responsibilities that a traditional Trainmaster does not have, such as air conditioning in the residential coaches, water and electrical systems.  He compliments his staff for their many abilities beyond their job descriptions, such as welder and handyman who can also change wheels on a train car!

He works with dispatchers on the various roads and uses the railroad atlas to find ways to get from venue to venue.  Dealing with locomotive crews who might arrive to take the train to the next city and say they are not qualified to pull such a train, need some on-the-job training.  They soon realize that Alex has the knowledge and experience and they cease complaining and get the job done.  Many crews want to back the train to get it through a wye, but the Circus train cannot be backed, except in special circumstances.

Alex needs to call for power soon after arrival in the city previous to the one where he needs power.  He is also helped by the railroad managers at the home office and the train has been to these cities many times so routines are already established.

He must be prepared to make on-the-spot decisions.  He related one instance when, after the train was spotted, the switch was spiked, unbenounced to them.  This was discovered when they were loaded and ready to pull out for the next city.

Getting the train buttoned up for travel is unlike any other train.  Bicycles and dishes have to be brought in.  Three-hundred people have to be accounted for and those who drive need to get off from their compartment and get to their car.  He compliments Porter T. Graham for her help with personnel issues as to who should be on and who should be off the train when they move.

Even though the Red Unit (32 coaches) may have been in a town last year, the Blue Unit is longer (35 coaches) and may have new issues when spotting the cars.

The Blue Unit has 4 stocks (animal cars), 35 coaches, 2 concession cars, and 18 flatcars, 2 with ramps, for a total of 59 cars! 

The locomotives lead the train, followed by the animal cars, the most stable area on the train.  I asked why this was the most stable and Alex explained that the stocks and coaches have no slack and they have to be in front.  The concession cars and flat cars are converted auto carriers, and have slack, so they must be at the end.  There are rare exceptions to the 'no-backing' rule.  Some instances, when the power can be run around at the spotting point, and when the next venue is 30 miles or less, and the train is not run over 30 mph, then the train can be backed.

The four animal cars have 3 attendants who ride in these cars when they move, including a Cossack who rides with their horses.  In my earlier report I mentioned how the animal cars are equipped with misters and that the animals are exercised on long moves.  Alex mentioned that when they crossed hot states, the water for the animals was getting warm so they added foam insulation to the onboard water tanks.

The heavier cars have 6 axels (see my pictures) and ligher ones are four-axel.  The refurbishing shops are in Palmetto, Florida.

Security is handled by the Railroad Police, security assessments are done regularly, and the train staff all have radios and cell phones.  Experience has shown in which cities they need to hire additional local security officers.

Medical needs are served by onboard personnel or they are taken to a local hospital (noted on each cities log pages) by company vehicle or taxi.  Of course, 911 is called for majoy medical issues.

Operating a "Town Without A ZIP Code" is a big job, especially when the 'town' has between 250 and 300 residents plus animals!

Not all circus personnel stay on the train, some own trailers which you might notice when you go to the circus.

Don't miss the Animal Walk, from the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus train to the arena, when the Circus comes to your town.  The animal walk in Anaheim is tentatively scheduled for 2 pm Monday, July 24, 2006, near the corner of Douglass and Cerritos Streets, north of the Anaheim Pond.  Take the kids and enjoy!

In the future, for the time of the Animal Walk in Los Angeles or Anaheim, California, e-mail me and I will find out the time for you:


Local transportation for Circus Train residents.


While some perform, others 'clean house.'


The Feld Ent. bus used to transport workers and performers from the train coaches to the arena.


Additonal coach rented to transport personnel to and from the arena.

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Performers returning to the train from the arena.

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New concession cars (2) each with 2 intermodal containers and 3 side doors per flat car.



Shop Car



One of two generator cars.


Trainmaster, Alex Kettles, goes back to work.

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