Will the passenger rail dream come true this time in Mexico?

train 2On June 20, 2014, Mexico’s Communications and Transport Ministry (SCT) announced the winner of a public tender to construct the first section of a passenger rail line between Mexico City and the nearby city of Toluca in the State of Mexico.  What sounds like a “roundup” item from a construction industry bulletin, for us is like a lightning bolt to the heart, a thunderclap of excitement, daring us to dream beyond limits!  This is what it’s like to be really into public policy, so warn your children.  In any case, the Toluca tender could potentially represent much more than just a juicy government contract for the winner, and we are excited.

The exciting part is that we are inching tantalizingly closer to inter-city passenger rail service in Mexico, a transport option not available since the last remaining passenger lines were suspended in 1997.  When the state-run rail operator Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM) was privatized in 1998, it was sold off in pieces to private railroad operators which refurbished the infrastructure and relaunched the freight lines, but none of the passenger lines were considered worthy of rehabilitation.  And in truth, the service left much to be desired.  The overnight Pullman coach service from Mexico City to Guadalajara might have been fun as an adventure for kids or international travelers, but really, as a nuts-and-bolts transport system for getting people around the country, the FNM lines were slow, not very comfortable and subject to frequent breakdowns.  Faced with the cost of upgrading the passenger lines and competition from the country’s extensive network of comfortable, inexpensive bus lines, the new rail owners just said the hell with it.

Practically since the passenger trains were unplugged under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994 – 2000), plans have been floated to restart the system.  Numerous alternatives were proposed during the administrations of Vicente Fox (2000 – 2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006 – 2012), and the Calderón government was able to get a light rail line built to bring commuters from the periphery of Mexico City into the city center. The Buenavista – Cuautitlán commuter line, however, is a far cry from a national passenger rail network, and when the current Peña Nieto administration listed high-speed passenger rail lines among its grandiose plans for infrastructure development, many of us rolled our eyes.  But this time, a lot more detail was forthcoming on the proposed projects.  Diagrams of the routes and proposed stations were made available, and pre-feasibility and environmental impact studies were set in motion.  Currently, three projects are proposed: a line between Mexico City and the central industrial city of Querétaro, a line between Mexico City and the nearby industrial city of Toluca, and in the southeast of the country, a line between the Yucatán state capital Mérida and the coastal resort location of Punta Venado, south of Cancún.

The Toluca and Querétaro lines make a ton of sense because these are highly industrialized zones that require a high volume of travel back and forth from Mexico City for business purposes.  Right now most of the transport is by private auto, with a smaller percentage by bus.  The result is horrendous clogging of the key motorways going in and out of Mexico City every day, which greatly increases the time and aggravation required to make the trip, not to mention exacerbating the environmental impact.  The Toluca rail line would include a stop in the Santa Fe business district on the outskirts of Mexico City, which has undergone precipitous growth in recent years, causing all kinds of transit problems for workers needing to get out there from the capital.  Toluca is only about 40 miles from Mexico City, but Querétaro, some 115 miles north of the capital, is a significantly longer trip.  Currently the trip from Mexico City can easily take three hours, almost half of which can be spent sitting in standstill traffic trying to get out of the capital.  Presentations on the train project claim that with an average speed of 120 mph, the rail line will reduce travel time to one hour.

Imagine that instead of spending your first hour in the car breathing in truck exhaust and inching through standstill traffic in Cuautitlán, you could be unfolding the Financial Times, sipping a skinny macchiato and gazing out at the French countryside?  OK not the French countryside, but still, to us it’s no contest.  We fully expect that if this thing ever gets built, it will not be nearly as fast as the promos claim, and it will probably be more expensive to ride than currently projected.  But naysayers sobbed uncontrollably when Mexico City began implementing the Metrobus and Ecobici transport systems too, and now they are both going like gangbusters.  We say, it’s time to bring Mexico into the 20th century with inter-city passenger trains, and if we’re the only ones in the club car spilling Chassagne-Montrachet on our copy of the FinTimes, so be it.

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