Are trains on track for a comeback in Mexico?

A rail boom is on the horizon, with dozens of new projects underway. But environmental, social, and economic pressures could complicate plans.

The sun has yet to rise as Algeria Aguilar Peña boards the bus for the 42-mile journey from her home in Toluca to Mexico City, where she operates a street food stand. “Right now, while the buses aren’t yet running completely, sometimes it takes me three [hours],” she says of the commute she has traveled daily for the last 40 years.

Aguilar Peña is one of the thousands of vendors, hairdressers, and other professionals who make their way into Mexico City from the surrounding state. They spend an average of 2.5 hours each day in traffic, or about 45 days out of the year (pre-pandemic), according to a 2017 report by Mexico’s Universal newspaper. 

But a handful of passenger train projects are poised to bring big changes to the lives of locals and travelers alike. Four are under way, with about a dozen more planned. The biggest—and most controversial—is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Tren Maya, which would connect the five southern states of the Yucatán Peninsula.

All told, López Obrador promises to add 1,200 miles of track to the country’s 16,600 by the end of his term in 2024. If completed, these new trains would mean life-changing shorter commutes and faster transportation for the millions of post-pandemic tourists who are expected to travel throughout the country each year. The environment, too, could benefit from the thousands of polluting cars and buses that trains would pull off the roads for decades to come.

Yet many projects face multiple challenges, signaling that the track toward a better transportation future may not be as close as riders hope.

A pandemic quiets mariachis and tourism in Mexico City.

Riding the rails

Mexico’s most infamous president, Porforio Díaz, pushed for trains as a way to modernize the country during his 31-year hold on power during the late 1800s and early 1900s. After a brief setback caused by the 1910 revolution, train development chugged along at a relatively brisk pace, peaking in the 1950s, when there were about 14,500 miles of track and ridership numbers were at their highest.

At the same time, the promotion of highway travel by the Ford company and others north of the border was creeping southward. “With the idea of the automobile came the idea of comfort the ‘American way,’” explains Teresa Márquez, historian and director of the National Center for Train Heritage. American-style independence appealed to locals; The freedom to drive anywhere, anytime “became the ultimate status symbol,” she says.

As a result, from 1980 to 1990 train ridership fell 30 percent, from 23.6 million a year to 17 million. Rail companies said it was becoming increasingly difficult to turn a profit from passenger travel, and by 1995, the government privatized what remained of the national railroads. Passenger travel screeched to a stop, with the exception of two tourist trains—the Copper Canyon’s El Chepe and Jalisco’s tequila train.

This photographer went on a train-hopping adventure.

“Passenger trains are even more scarce in Mexico than they are in the U.S.,” notes travel writer and longtime Mexico resident Tim Leffel, “which is a real shame, since there’s so much great scenery to take in.”

Back on track

Decades later, interest in trains is stoking nostalgia and the economic opportunities they once represented, says Márquez. Since 2008, when then-President Felipe Calderón inaugurated Mexico City’s Valley of Mexico Suburban commuter train system, rail travel in the country has ticked up an average of 20 percent annually.

In recent years, Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation (SCT) prioritized “an integrated, interurban train system” in the government’s 2013–2018 development goals, and Instituto Politécnico Nacional University added railroad engineer to its 2021 degree programs.

The dozens of train projects now making their way through the approval process have come from Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto, and López Obrador, as well as state governments trying to get on board the current boom.

Among the many proposed projects are light rails in Veracruz and Cancún, tracks down the coast of Baja California, and the Mexico-Queretaro fast train that almost got built during Peña Nieto’s administration.

Three urban lines—the Guadalajara cross-city light rail and the Monterrey metro line (both completed), plus the Mexico City-Toluca fast train—would cut travel times by as much as two thirds on some routes in and around the country’s biggest metropolitan areas.

But for López Obrador, the Tren Maya and the transcontinental Istmo de Tehuantepec line, both projected to be completed by 2023, are at the heart of Mexico’s train renaissance.

The Tren Maya would snake through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes and most fragile ecosystems, on tracks originally developed for the henquen trade, a type of agave exported for its fiber in the 19th century.

The current plan includes not only passenger service (at different price points for locals and visitors), but also hotel and tourism infrastructure along the route. The government’s “Sustainable Communities” program claims the train will bring people and services to marginalized areas throughout one of Mexico’s poorest regions. Talks are taking place between the Mexican and Guatemalan governments to extend service across Mexico’s southern border.

Meanwhile, the Istmo de Tehuantepec train is slated to cross Mexico from Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz to the port town of Salina Cruz in Oaxaca, connecting both oceans and serving as a kind of overland Panama Canal. An earlier version of this route opened during Diaz’s rule, but it had been abandoned for 20 years until now.

A difficult path ahead

While these trains will likely increase tourism and development, as well as improve transport throughout many Mexican cities, each project faces unique challenges, among them funding, technical problems, derecho de via (land rights), and accusations of corruption. One of the more prominent issues at the moment is environmental.

Statistically, trains are less damaging to the environment than cars or buses—the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that cars emit .96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, while trains emit about a third of that. The Guadalajara metro alone is expected to remove more than one million tons of carbon dioxide from the air by 2030.

“There is a certain scale where train travel is fundamental,” says Boris Graizbord, an urban geography and environmental specialist at the College of Mexico (Colmex). “You’re not going to hop on a plane to go to Puebla [from Mexico City], but you would take a train that got you there in 35 minutes, instead of having to get on the terrible, dirty highway that sometimes takes three hours.”

But the generally accepted eco-friendliness of interurban trains doesn’t translate to the Tren Maya. “Most of the independent opinions are saying [the Tren Maya] is going to have a very perverse effect on the environment,” says Graizbord. “[The Yucatán] is a very vulnerable region, very fragile. The bedrock isn’t firm, the soil is karstic [limestone], in addition to the fact that it’s a tropical forest, which is also very fragile and recuperates with difficulty.”

Additionally, detractors worry about how the train will affect the area’s wildlife, the social fabric of Indigenous people who live there, and the ancient sites in its path, among other issues.

Rogelio Jiménez, director of Fonatur, the department in charge of construction, disputes these claims. He says that the Tren Maya will take cars off the road and pollution out of the air for years to come. He cites the government’s environmental impact studies, the National History and Anthropology Institute’s work to preserve historical sites, and mitigations such as the building of wildlife corridors to help migrating animals. He argues there are 40-plus governmental institutions working to ensure this project brings employment, healthcare, and long-term investment to the region.

Jiménez relegates the criticism to political jockeying, but recent court decisions have favored the organizations and activists seeking to halt the train’s construction. At press time, several work stoppages had been put in place—pending revision—for sections of track in the region’s most vulnerable areas.

Despite the challenges, if done right, these trains would be a vast improvement on the millions of cars and buses that make their way through Mexico’s heavily trafficked regions. “With trains, the benefits outweigh the costs,” says Graizbord, the urban geographer. “It’s a positive sum game.”

(These travel books are all about the journey, by road and rail.)

In the south, the Tren Maya and Istmo de Tehuantepec would open up areas along the Yucatán’s northern coast, near parts of the region that writer Paul Theroux once called “a great crossroads of the world.” The ease of train travel on the peninsula may even lessen some of the pressure on over-crowded areas such as Cancún.

In the meantime, riders both locally and abroad are looking forward to a day when they can choose from a myriad of trains to hop on.

“I hope it happens,” says Aguilar Peña, the food vendor, about the country’s train boom. “It would really make a difference.”

Lydia Carey is a Mexico-based freelance writer and author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Follow her on Instagram.

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