One could be excused for being cynical about the prospect of effective passenger train service in Mexico.
I have only taken a Mexican train once, and that was in 1996 from Guadalajara to Mexico City. The journey, which takes 45 minutes by airplane or 7 hours by bus, took us 16 hours and 45 minutes.
Despite traveling only an average of 20 mph for the 300-mile journey, the price at 48 pesos (US $8 at the exchange rate back then) made it an irresistible option for a cheap college student like myself.
That train has long since been mothballed, but an entirely new rail network, the Maya Train, is rapidly developing in Mexico’s southeast and connecting cities including Mérida, Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Chetumal, and Palenque.
Why is this project worth keeping an eye on?
1. The Maya Train has been extremely controversial
Countless warnings (and accompanying lawsuits) have been raised since before the project even began. Concerns regarding the destruction of the jungle, the damage to animal habitats, the encroachment on isolated Maya communities, the contamination of fresh water sources and potential destruction of undiscovered Maya ruins.
Each issue has ultimately been “resolved” (in many cases unsatisfactorily, and much to the dismay of many environmentalists). It’s difficult for me to weigh in on this point. This part of Mexico is clearly the most “untouched” and hence needs extra special attention. It also has some of the poorest areas in the country, and is desperately in need of more resources and investment. To help you make a thoughtful assessment for yourself, I would recommend reading up carefully on the project and trying to keep political biases out of the discussion.
2. The Maya Train is one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the world right now
The latest cost estimates for the over 1,500 km train is US $20 billion. Perhaps most impressively, the train is not being built one section at a time, but rather all seven sections with 34 stations at the same time with the first ones set to begin operation by the end of the year. The federal government claims that already over 114,000 jobs have been created for construction of the train.
3. The Maya Train is spurring additional investment in natural and cultural projects
A few examples include the new 2,249 hectare Parque Jaguar in Tulum, two new Maya Train route artifact museums near Mérida and improvements on many of the 26 archaeological sites along the train route. Some of the most impressive sites which are currently very difficult to access, like Calakmul in Campeche, will now be far easier to visit.
4. The Maya Train is connecting with other massive infrastructure projects in the country.
The train will connect with the Tulum airport, which is being built at the same time and will have the longest runway in the Yucatán peninsula. It is supposed to begin operations in December. The train route will also include a connection with the interoceanic freight and passenger railway project, which is yet another hugely ambitious infrastructure project on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
5. The Maya Train is a litmus test to see if Mexico has the political will and capability of completing such an ambitious project
The world has grown accustomed to seeing massive infrastructure projects carried out successfully in other parts of the world, but less so in Latin America and Mexico. A successful completion and operation of this Maya Train could open the world’s eyes to what Mexico can accomplish, and inspire more bold thinking, new proposals and investment.
The Mexican auto manufacturing industry was first to become a significant global player, the domestic airline industry is now booming. Are trains up next?