Are the trains on track to return to Mexico?

The sun has not yet risen as Algeria’s Aguilar Peña boards the bus for the 68 km journey from her home to Toluca in Mexico City, where she operates a street food stand. “At the moment, when the buses are not yet fully operational, I sometimes need three [hours]She says of the commute she has traveled daily for the past 40 years.

Aguilar Peña is one of the thousands of salespeople, hairdressers and other professionals who come to Mexico City from the surrounding state. They spend an average of 2.5 hours a day in traffic, or about 45 days a year (pre-pandemic), according to a 2017 report by the Mexican Universal Journal.

But a handful of passenger train projects are poised to make big changes in the lives of locals and travelers. Four are underway, and a dozen more are planned. The largest – and most controversial – is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Tren Maya, who would link the five southern states of the Yucatán Peninsula.

In total, López Obrador promises to add 1,200 miles of track to the country’s 16,600 by the end of his tenure in 2024. If completed, these new trains would mean life-changing shorter journeys and transportation. faster for the millions of post-pandemic tourists who are expected to travel across the country each year. The environment could also benefit from the thousands of polluting cars and buses that trains would pull off the roads for decades to come.

Yet many projects face multiple challenges, indicating that the path to a better transportation future may not be as close as cyclists hope.

A pandemic calms mariachis and tourism in Mexico City.

Surf the rails

Mexico’s most infamous president, Porforio Díaz, pushed for trains as a way to modernize the country during its 31-year seizure of power in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After a brief setback caused by the 1910 revolution, the development of Trains grew at a relatively steady pace, peaking in the 1950s when there were about 14,500 miles of track and ridership was at its highest.

At the same time, the promotion of highway travel by the Ford company and others north of the border was shifting south. “The idea of ​​the automobile came from the idea of ​​American comfort,” explains Teresa Márquez, historian and director of the National Center for Railway Heritage. American independence won over the inhabitants; The freedom to drive anywhere, anytime “has become the ultimate status symbol,” she says.

As a result, from 1980 to 1990, train ridership fell by 30 percent, from 23.6 million per year to 17 million. Rail companies said it was becoming increasingly difficult to profit from passenger travel, and in 1995 the government privatized what remained of the national railways. Passenger travel has stopped except for two tourist trains – the Copper Canyon’s El Chepe and Jalisco’s tequila train.

This photographer went on an adventure by train.

“Passenger trains are even rarer in Mexico than in the United States,” notes Tim Leffel, travel writer and long-time resident of Mexico, “which is a real shame, because there are so many beautiful landscapes out there. admire.”

Back on track

Decades later, interest in trains is fueling nostalgia and the economic opportunities they once represented, says Marquez. Since 2008, when the then president Felipe Calderon inaugurated the Mexico Valley commuter train system in Mexico City, train travel within the country has increased by an average of 20% per year.

In recent years, the Mexican Secretary of Communications and Transport (SCT) has prioritized “an integrated intercity train system” in the government’s development goals for 2013-2018, and Instituto Politécnico Nacional University added a railway engineer to its 2021 study programs.

The dozens of train projects in the process of being approved came from Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto, and López Obrador, as well as state governments trying to board the current boom.

Among the many projects proposed are light rails in Veracruz and Cancún, tracks along the coast of Baja california, and the Mexico-Queretaro rapid train which was almost built under the administration of Peña Nieto.

Three urban lines – the Guadalajara intercity tram and the Monterrey metro line (both completed), as well as the Mexico-Toluca rapid train – would cut travel times by up to two-thirds on some routes in and around the most large metropolis of the country. areas.

But for López Obrador, the Tren Maya and the Istmo de Tehuantepec transcontinental line, both slated for completion by 2023, are at the heart of Mexico’s train renaissance.

The Tren Maya meandered through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes and most fragile ecosystems, on trails originally developed for the Henquen trade, a type of agave exported for its fiber in the 19th century.

The current plan includes not only passenger service (at different price points for locals and visitors), but also hotel and tourist infrastructure along the route. The government’s “Sustainable Communities” program says the train will bring people and services to marginalized areas of one of Mexico’s poorest regions. Talks are underway between the Mexican and Guatemalan governments to extend service to Mexico’s southern border.

Meanwhile, the Istmo de Tehuantepec train is expected to cross Mexico from Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz to the port city of Salina Cruz in Oaxaca, connecting the two oceans and serving as a sort of land-based Panama Canal. An earlier version of this route was opened during Diaz’s reign, but it had been abandoned for 20 years until now.

A difficult path to travel

While these trains will likely increase tourism and development, as well as transportation in many Mexican cities, each project faces unique challenges, including funding, technical issues, derecho from via (land rights) and accusations of corruption. One of the most important issues today is the environment.

Statistically, trains are less damaging to the environment than cars or buses – US Department of Transportation reports that cars emit 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, while trains emit about a third. The Guadalajara metro alone should eliminate more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air by 2030.

“There is a certain scale where train travel is fundamental,” says Boris Graizbord, specialist in urban geography and the environment at the College of Mexico (Colmex). “You are not going to get on a plane to go to Puebla [from Mexico City], but you would take a train that would get you there in 35 minutes, instead of having to take the terrible and dirty highway that sometimes takes three hours.

But the generally accepted eco-friendliness of intercity trains does not translate into the Tren Maya. “Most independent opinions say [the Tren Maya] is going to have a very perverse effect on the environment, ”says Graizbord. “[The Yucatán] is a very vulnerable, very fragile region. The bedrock is not firm, the ground is karstic [limestone], in addition to the fact that it is a tropical forest, which is also very fragile and recovers with difficulty.

Additionally, critics are concerned about how the train will affect the region’s wildlife, the social fabric of the indigenous peoples who live there, and ancient sites on its way, among others.

Rogelio Jiménez, director of Fonatur, the department in charge of construction, disputes these claims. He says the Tren Maya will get cars off the road and air pollution for years to come. He cites the government’s environmental impact studies, the National Institute of History and Anthropologypreservation work on historic sites and mitigation measures such as the construction of wildlife corridors to help migrating animals. He argues that there are more than 40 government institutions working to ensure that this project brings jobs, healthcare and long-term investment to the region.

Jiménez relegates criticism to political jockey, but recent court decisions favored organizations and activists seeking to stop the construction of the train. At the time of going to press, several work stoppages had been put in place – awaiting review – for sections of track in the most vulnerable areas of the region.

Despite the challenges, if done right, these trains would be a huge improvement over the millions of cars and buses that pass through the high-traffic areas of Mexico. “With trains, the benefits outweigh the costs,” says Graizbord, the urban geographer. “It’s a positive sum game.”

(These travel diaries all deal with travel, by road and by train.)

To the south, the Tren Maya and the Istmo de Tehuantepec would open up areas along the northern Yucatán coast, close to parts of the region that writer Paul Theroux once called “a great crossroads of the world.” The ease of train travel on the peninsula can even reduce some of the pressure on crowded areas such as Cancun.

In the meantime, local and foreign cyclists eagerly await a day when they can choose from a myriad of trains to board.

“I hope that will happen,” says Aguilar Peña, the food seller, of the train boom in the country. “It would really make a difference.”

Lydia Carey is a Mexico-based freelance writer and author of Streets of Mexico City: La Roma. Follow her on Instagram.

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