Mexico aims to get trains on track

New president vows to spend billions for high-speed rail lines
2013-02-11T00:00:00Z Mexico aims to get trains on trackNick Miroff The Washington Post Arizona Daily Star
February 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PUEBLA, Mexico - Mexico's 19th-century leaders spent lavishly to bring the railroad to their young republic, eager to show the world they were building a modern, technologically advanced nation.

More than 100 years and a few upheavals later, with Mexico's economy barreling forward but its pride in need of a boost, new President Enrique Peña Nieto has outlined a grand vision to showcase the country's renewed prosperity and engineering might.

He'll make the trains run again.

Peña Nieto surprised many at his Dec. 1 inauguration when he announced a multibillion-dollar plan to restore passenger rail service in Mexico nearly 15 years after his own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) finished dismantling it.

His proposals start with the completion of a rail line across the Yucatan Peninsula linking the colonial city of Merida to the beach resorts of the Mayan Riviera. As soon as next year, cruise ship passengers and sunburned college kids may be swilling cold beers in air-conditioned cars while the scenery zips by at 110 mph, stopping at archaeological sites and jungle lodges.

Far more ambitious will be a $4.5 billion high-speed line between Mexico City and Queretaro, the booming manufacturing and aerospace hub 120 miles northwest of the capital. Long-term plans would extend the route to Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara, eventually filling sleek rail cars with business executives, tourists and families freed up from the country's clogged highways.

The 46-year-old Peña Nieto made his political reputation as governor of the state of Mexico by drafting to-do lists of major hard-hat projects and then checking them off, casting himself as a deeds-not-words leader who stuck to his electoral promises. Much of the infrastructure funding was raised by luring private capital, and Peña Nieto officials say they want the trains eventually to be run by private concessions, not a state agency.

But so far his plans to revive Mexico's railroad glory have been big on boldness and short on details. In an interview, Mexico's secretary of transportation and communications, Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, acknowledged that engineers were still drawing up feasibility studies and cost estimates for the Mexico City-Queretaro project, which envisions 100,000 daily passengers riding the rails between the cities by 2016 and construction underway within a year.

"Our productivity depends on this," Ruiz Esparza said. "The rest of the world has its eye on Mexico. This is critical to our competitiveness."

He and other Mexican officials describe the project as an environmentally minded solution to the country's growing traffic and pollution woes, and a way to ensure that foreign investment in Mexican industry keeps chugging along.

Mexico's existing railroad network was essentially completed more than a century ago, and today the system is a backbone of the $1 billion-a-day trade partnership between the United States and Mexico. Rail lines link deep-water ports on Mexico's Atlantic and Pacific coasts to assembly plants in the central and northern highlands, then feed directly into the United States, the world's most lucrative export market.

But with the exception of a few tourist trains, like the Tequila Express in the state of Jalisco and the Copper Canyon railway through the Sierra Madre, Mexico all but eliminated passenger rail service when it shut down the state-run Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico (National Railways of Mexico) in the 1990s, selling off the right of way to private concessions.

"Our country needs its trains back," said Narciso Nava, a lifelong railroad man.

The broader Mexican public seems to back that sentiment, but more pointed criticism of Pena Nieto's plans may come later, once the costs become clearer.

For now, the biggest worries come from the big freight operators that are joint ventures with U.S. railroad companies.

The north-south corridors of the country's existing rail network are already jammed with double-stacked cargo containers loaded with U.S.-bound cars, produce and steel.

The talk of adding passenger trains has spooked the companies that invested heavily to form joint ventures and secure government right-of-way concessions after the rail network was privatized.

The same manufacturing export boom that is driving much of Mexico's prosperity - and the desire to restore passenger rail service - could be hurt by having to share the tracks, operators say, with the unintended consequence of diverting more freight back onto Mexico's highways.

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