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The Maya Train

Whether the proposed “Maya Train” from Palenque to Yucatan to Quintana Roo is President López Obrador’s (known as AMLO) crowning achievement or his biggest boondoggle is a long time from being decided. Proponents and opponents are already lining up to bless or curse the iron wheels. Here are some facts so you can make up your own mind.

What is the Maya Train?

The “Mayan Train” will run from Palenque in Chiapas to El Triunfo, Tabasco, Campeche, Campeche, up to Mérida, Izamal (Yucatan), Cancun, Quintana Roo. Then it descends to include some areas in central Yucatan, Bacalar, Q. Roo, Calakmul, and Candelaria. In all five states will have a section of rail running through them. There will be 18 stations. 1,500 kilometers of track are planned. 

Guatemala knows a good thing when it sees it and has expressed interest in opening a station at Puerto Barrios, their Caribbean seaport. Since relations between Mexico and Guatemala are seldom warmer than frosty, it will be interesting to see if it comes to pass. It would mean a lot more track to add in Guatemala. 

Fonatur expects $150 Billion Pesos

The National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur) estimates at least 150 billion pesos, about $6.8 billion US dollars depending on the exchange rate, which has plummeted since the project began. They expect this to come from shopping centers, warehouses, and other developments. I’m sure they are including some money generated by tourists.  

Originally the train was touted as a mode of transportation for local people to get their goods to market. However, it seems to me that it is more likely to serve well-heeled tourists than the huarache-clad local farmer.

Train Tracks in Tequila Mexico

When There’s Money To Be Made

The financial eagles/vultures will flock. BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, Santander, and Bancomer have all expressed interest in helping fund this project.

A Mexican think tank, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (Imco) claims the cost will be more like 480 billion pesos to 1.6 trillion. In USD, that’s $21.8 billion to $83 trillion. They’re basing that on a review of 23 rail projects in different countries including Mexico’s unfinished passenger train between CDMX to Toluca. 

The People Want This Train – Or They Don’t

AMLO presents himself as a man of the people with his simple demeanor, flying commercial aircraft, and fighting corruption. He stated that if the people did not want the train, then he would not build it. His pollsters found nearly 90% support for the train. Indigenous groups whose land and villages will be affected most by the construction overwhelmingly expressed disdain for the project. One leader said succinctly, “There’s nothing Mayan about it.” 

Environmental Damage Almost Guaranteed

The aquafer and underground water and cave systems in Yucatan are fragile. Trains are heavy. Heavy equipment to build tracks tear up the land. Two particular water cave systems, Sac Actún and Dos Ojos system in Tulum are right in the way of the bulldozers. 

Jaguars are great tourist attractions, from a distance. But when this train is built, it will bifurcate their trails and territories. Without being able to travel where they have lived for centuries, their food supply will be reduced and they’ll have to fight others for new territory for food and mates. I’ve seen problems like this in Texas and several solutions proposed. None are perfect. 

Oh, and let’s not forget the poo problem. When people go potty on the nice train bathroom, where will it end up? Dumped on the rails as Mexican trains (and as I recall US trains too)  used to do? Captured in containers to be dumped in already overtaxed reservoirs in the Cancun Corridor?

And to add fuel to the fire, AMLO scrapped plans to run the train on renewable energy. Instead he opted for dirty diesel. I say “dirty” because Pemex does not refine ULSD in sufficient quantities.

A Bit of Nostalgia

I am a big train fan. I’ve ridden most of the Mexican trains in their heyday. At one time, Mexican train systems were highly respected by the international railroading community. Many a time I would go down to the Mexico City Buenavista train station and take the next one, no matter where it was headed. The rides were smooth, food was good and they ran on time. Many old-timers remember catching the Aguila Azteca train in San Antonio, TX, falling asleep to the rocking, rolling wheels and awakening in San Miguel de Allende.

The Train Museum in Yucatan
The Train Museum in Yucatan

Alas corruption and greed destroyed the Mexican train system. Will that be the fate of the Tren Maya as well? I so hope not. 

“Mexico” Mike Nelson has been writing about Mexico for forty years. He currently offers road logs (guidebooks) for drivers and personalized trip-planning from his website, https://www.mexicomike.com 

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