News: CJ Exclusives

NCDOT circus train sits alone in Nash County

Images of circus attractions remain visible on the rail cars NCDOT bought and stored in Nash County. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Images of circus attractions remain visible on the rail cars NCDOT bought and stored in Nash County. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

Editor’s note: This story was updated Monday afternoon with comment from the Spring Hope mayor.

P.T. Barnum once said there’s a sucker born every minute.

Step right up, North Carolina.

Part of a train once owned by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is sitting on an abandoned rail line in Nash County woods. 

The N.C. Department of Transportation bought the circus train about three years ago, and before Carolina Journal got a tip about the train’s location, few people seemed to know it existed.

Markings on the train cars — deep into the woods and not easily visible from any road — indicate it’s part of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” There’s no locomotive. 

Markings on rail cars deep in Nash County wood show the NCDOT-owned train once belonged to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

The cars, nine in all, sit on tracks about 4,000 feet from the town limits of Spring Hope. Ringling Bros. closed in 2017. 

NCDOT spokeswoman Katie Trout told CJ as part of a Strategic Transportation Initiative in 2017, NCDOT bought the nine rail cars for $383,000. The cars rest on state-owned track due to limited space at the active rail facilities in Raleigh.

After buying the circus train, NCDOT applied for and was awarded a $77 million federal grant to purchase new rail cars.

“At this time, NCDOT is evaluating its rail fleet and will make recommendations on the department’s rail fleet future needs, including the disposition of nine rail cars purchased in 2017. The assessment should be complete by the end of this calendar year,” Trout told CJ.

Spring Hope Mayor Buddy Gwaltney said the train has become the talk of the town, though he isn’t sure why it’s there. He first heard about the lonesome train last week.

“We haven’t seen any elephants or giraffes running around … monkeys swinging in the trees yet, but we’ve got our eyes open,” he joked.


  • Bogtrotter

    Does NCDOT have that much stuff that they have to move? I realize that “free” federal money ($77 million) is hard to pass-up, but do we have the requisite talent in our bureaucracy to be in competition with the private sector?

    • L Eric

      The private sector GM Government bailed out Motors (they never paid it back either) lobbied hard in the 1960’s to remove the mail from our private passenger rail system. Which bankrupted the system from coast to coast. The result was underfunded cut back Amtrak. Funny thing is demand and ridership for passenger rail is growing. Nothing they can do discourages business and demand. 77 million is nothing compared to the hundreds of billions for ports, airports and roads. Or the end less wars for oil. Trains tickets and railroad fuel used to be taxed to build airports and highways.

      • Bogtrotter

        “NC invests in rail to meet the growing demand for passenger rail.”
        Are you saying that NC spent more than $77 million on passenger rail service in NC? Where can I buy tickets?

  • This story sounds a little suspect. I didn’t realize our State was in the Railroad business. I see there is a NC Railroad Company that is privately owned but their rail cars and locomotives are owned by the NCDOT. Does the NCRR collect all income generated or do they have a Partnership with the State?

    Were the 9 Circus cars purchased with the intent of giving them to the NCRR under the table…for their personal collection or use?

    This story really needs to be investigated further. I find it hard to believe that our State purchased rail cars that they felt were needed but then had no where to keep them but hidden on old tracks near Spring Hope.

    Then they received a $77 million grant to replace old rail cars and will make a decision on the disposition of the Circus cars. I feel that NCDOT needs to reimburse the State $383k for the Circus cars out of the $77 million grant funds and then if they do sell the circus cars I hope someone will be tracking the funds received.

    Thanks to Carolina Journal for investigating this story and publishing their findings. Now let’s find out why the circus cars were really purchased only to be hidden for 3 years.

    There is more to this story.

    • L Eric

      Sorry but you don’t know much about your excellent state rail program. The state owns the tracks which are leased to the Norfolk Southern. The lease payments are used to maintain and improve the service. Other states use this type of money to pay interest on highway and airport bonds. NC invests in rail to meet the growing demand for passenger rail. With a anti rail Trump government one never knows if there will be money for that nasty comfortable fun thing called a passenger train. These vehicles today to build take a long time and are difficult to get funding for. With the new FLU out break . Wait until the public realizes what germ machines airplanes are with their recycled air!

      • Can you give me the Source that that identified Trump’s Administration as anti rail? I would be very interested in reading that Article.