Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto’s vision of high-speed rail seems to be stuck on the tracks. Four months after he announced his first infrastructure project: A high-speed rail across the Yucatan Peninsula, from Merida to Punta Venado, the plan is moving in slow motion.
Pena Nieto’s original plan was to use existing rails and a modern, diesel powered train that can reach speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. The rail project would benefit the city of Merida and tourist areas in the state of Quintana Roo, carrying both passenger and cargo. In order to better serve tourists interested in visiting the Mayan archeological sites, the train’s schedule will be adjusted to coincide with the arrival of cruise ships.
There have also been proposals for high-speed rail in the rest of the country. The Secretariat of Communications and Transport proposed a route that would link Mexico City and Guadalajara, Jalisco. A trip that by car takes about 7 hours would take two hours.
Mexico’s long and complicated history with trains
Mexico has a long complicated history with trains. Before the turn of the century government of dictator Porfirio Diaz expanded Mexico’s rail system with foreign investment and ownership. During the revolution the trains became famous for transporting Federal soldiers and revolutionaries across the country. In 1938 president Lazaro Cardenas nationalized all railways into the entity: Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico.
Then the trains died, like they did just about everywhere else, except Europe. In the 1990’s Ferrocarriles Nacionales Mexicanos was one of those monster government corporations that was sectioned off and sold to the highest bidder. Also around that time, Mexico’s fancy new highway system that connected some cities like Mexico City and Acapulco were sold off as well. The tolls to travel on these “superhighways” can be very expensive. Having an affordable rail system connecting major cities in the country would be a huge benefit to many Mexicans. It would cut down on highway traffic and, depending on the type of locomotives used, could cut down on pollution.
At the moment freight trains move Mexican products all over the country, but there are only two main passenger lines that one could compare to what Peña Nieto is proposing in Yucatan. One line is the Copper Canyon train called, “Chepe” which connects Chihuahua City to Los Mochis, Sinaloa. The train crosses the spectacular copper canyon and is a favorite tourist attraction. The other is the Tequila Express, which is more of a novelty for tourists and travels a short distance from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to the town of Tequila, also in Jalisco; and it actually stops at the Herradura tequila distillery.
There is a new electric train that connects the suburban areas of Mexico City, Ferrocarril Suburbano de la Zona Metropolitana del Valle de Mexico, called El Suburbano. This train connects to Mexico City’s Metro system, one of the largest and busiest urban rail networks in Latin America. The Metro, which began operations in 1969 is quiet, clean and efficient and the fare is affordable to pretty much all Mexicans. El Metro is one of Mexico’s great success stories.
Pena Nieto’s high-speed rail scheme could very well follow the pattern of the Metro and the Suburbano. Besides the Merida-Punta Venado Trans-Peninsular Train project Pena Nieto has also expressed interest in creating a high-speed rail link from Mexico City to Toluca and another from Mexico City to Puebla. But the president should not stop there. High-speed rail should also be considered for service from Mexico City to nearby cities like Cuernavaca and San Miguel de Allende, both of which are popular with Mexicans and foreigners alike.
Unfortunately, unlike his government’s education reform plan, which is on the fast track to become reality, the high-speed rail scheme seems to be running at a snail’s pace.