Opinion
Pancho Villa and friends ride the cowcatcher. Pancho Villa and friends ride the cowcatcher.

AMLO’s railway dreams: a shrewd calculation or another train wreck?

A love affair with trains is given new life under Mexico's president

Like millions all over the globe, Mexicans have a love affair with trains. Mexican President López Obrador, or AMLO, is no exception, with his at least temporarily stymied-by-environmental-concerns tourist train and a plan to unite northern Mexico with at least the center of the country via new rail routes.

The love affair runs deep through Mexican culture from the romantic ballad El Tren de la Ausencia (The Train of Absence), whose lyrics include the heartstrings-tugging lines, “I’m leaving on the train of absence, I have no return ticket.”

Of course there are heroics, too, as in Engine 501, the tragic ballad of brave brakeman Jesús García who left his mother on a Sunday only to perish trying to extinguish a fire on an explosives train.

The pre-Revolution brings us a now-iconic photo of Pancho Villa riding on the cowcatcher of a locomotive with some mustachioed, bandoliered “revolutionaries;” and the camera in 1917 captures the same Villa dynamiting a train.
The romance continues to the modern day, with the about-to-be-recalled-for-errors 100-peso bill featuring a powerful locomotive.

There is no passenger service in 2021, except for a fully priced tourist train through the Copper Canyon and an informal “Beast” informally carrying would-be immigrants to drop-off points near the U.S. border.

Historically, however, the love has not always been requited. The first concession in the 1830s for a line from the capital to Veracruz never produced a single chug, and repeated storm damage washouts in the late 20th century caused a U.S. concessionaire to abandon its right of way in the far southern area on the border with Guatemala.

The biggest train wreck of all occurred in 1935 when Mexico nationalized the largely U.S.-owned entire rail system, an event from which at least passenger service arguably never recovered. The days have passed on since I could take a passenger train from Mexicali to DF (and return) or an overnighter from DF to Oaxaca.

Enter AMLO. Whether from a disappointed childhood (“I wished for a train set at Christmas”) or a shrewd calculation that inexpensive labor-abundant Mexico could competitively build a new track system to relieve the pressure on the crumbling road infrastructure, AMLO has vowed to reverse the decline.

Only time will tell if his departure ticket is accompanied by a return coupon.

Carlisle Johnson writes from his home in Guatemala.

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