Friday, June 14, 2024

Mexico’s railroads have a colorful history

It’s too early to buy a ticket or get off the tracks, but that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel may indeed be an oncoming train. Or maybe a metaphor for a future Mexico.

Railroads in Mexico like in many other countries have a colorful history. A functioning system for both passengers and freight flourished until 1935 when the largely U.S.-owned rail network was nationalized.

On again, off again until 2000, when passenger service was essentially discontinued, it may be “on again” if a current scheme prospers.

My own history involving riding the rails in Mexico dates back several decades, A college friend and I decided to take the train, second class (about US $15 return), from Calexico to Mexico City. Four days outbound, three returning — “it’s downhill.”

There’s no need to describe the odyssey in detail: it’s been featured in countless movies, absent for us of course the bandidos galloping alongside, firing long barreled pistols in the air, stirrups a-flappin’ as they headed to the locomotive to stop the train and steal the gold bars from the baggage car, along with the passengers’ watches and wallets.

My romantic memories aside, a Mexican corrida, or sort of northern Mexico cowboy music, has enshrined in all Mexican memories Maquina 501, a moving lament of a fictional locomotive, and love, circa 1930.

The author's 501, a model of an imaginary locomotive.
The author’s 501, a model of an imaginary locomotive.

Fast forward to Guadalajara 2020. “It’s in a museum in New Mexico,” the artisan said of the locomotive, and the “501” I was about to purchase “was the inspiration for Levis jeans.” Neither is true, but my 501 is a magnificent machine, especially when considering the “real” 501 is imaginary. Immaculate to the last detail with engineer’s gauges and a flashing headlight for the end of the tunnel.

Flash to the future, circa 2025, as the Maya Train trundles north to the capital after a loop around Yucatán, whistle-stopping at Maya archaeological sites along the way.

It’s the dream of President López Obrador, letting contracts right and left, performing required environmental certifications himself, and just last week waving a starting flag, red in color.


Carlisle Johnson writes from his home in Guatemala.

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