The Mayan Train has its origins in the Porfiriato

Some sections of the Mayan Train and most of the kilometers of the current railroad network have a common origin: the Porfiriato. Projected with similar objectives, different perspectives, and challenges, only time will tell about their impact

The Mayan Train has its origins in the Porfiriato
In Mexico, most railway tracks were built during the Porfiriato – Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 23/11/2019 13:29 Mexico City Dafne N. García López Actualizada 13:43
Guardando favorito...

Leer en español

The construction of railroads was planned in Mexico since the beginning of the Independence from Spain, as described by Víctor Manuel García in his dissertation Policies of the International Monetary Fund, correlation in the development of the economic policy in Mexico (2001).

Nevertheless, he continues, it was during the Porfiriato when most parts of the railway tracks the country has nowadays were installed to expand the communications network at a national level, reduce transportation costs of raw materials and products, as well as to improve exports prices.


Previously, communications were done through paths and simple tracks using wagons and horses. There was an insufficient network of rural roads, lengthy, winding, and insecure that limited and increased the costs of commercial exchanges, so population chose to supply themselves, instead of offering their products to other places and receiving new ones in exchange.

Railroads were one of the elements that contributed, along with foreign investment, to set the base of the Mexican economy, for they allowed the commercial exchange of goods, mobility of the population, to reduce transportation costs, and to exploit great mining regions; they also promoted the growth of agriculture.

Have you heard of Petra, the famous locomotive named after a Mexican revolutionary woman?

“It can be said that the installation of the railway network during the Porfiriato represented the backbone of the construction of a more solid economy, the creation of a small internal market, but a market in the end,” as asserts Víctor Manuel García in an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, “in addition of it having multiplying effects in many other productive sectors.”


The planning of the railways originally followed the routes of commercial ways. They went from the center to the Gulf, back then, Veracruz was the main port, and went all the way up to the north of the country.

Another point considered in the planning of the railways was Mexico’s geography and the historical circumstances of its commercial routes. They also took into account the interests of mining companies, American dealers, and raw materials exporters; to sum up, they looked to link the Mexican lines with the American lines to look for a free flow of manufactures from the U.S. and Mexico’s raw materials for the growing American industry.

Have you heard of the high costs of road cargo theft in Mexico?

It must be pointed out that from all the foreign investment, most part was used for the construction of railroads, mining, and metallurgy. The countries that invested the most in the construction of the railroads were the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, and the Netherlands, in that order.


According to information from Mexico Desconocido magazine, when the first concession was given in 1837, it marked the efforts to establish railroads in Mexico, but they failed due to internal political and armed struggles, foreign attacks, the existence of leaders and military men who halted all activities that threatened their interests.

In 1850, the first part of the 13.6 km railway tracks that united the Veracruz port with the “El Molino” plains, in direction of Río San Juan in the same state, were opened. Years later, they built railways that connected towns in Tlaxcala and Veracruz with Mexico City.

Have you heard of the dark side of the Revolution?

During Porfirio Díaz’s first term (1876-1880), the government granted concessions to Mexican individuals for the construction of the Yucatán lines. Later on, part of the Yucatán United Railroads, with local funding, were included in 1902 to other existing railroads in the peninsula. These lines remained isolated from the rest until 1959 with the extension of the branch from Mérida to Campeche and its connection with the Southeast Railroad.


Between 1914 and 1925, they installed 639.2 km of railway tracks, they took out 238.7 km, adjusted the planning and redesigned new routes. During the administration of Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928), they began the construction of the Sub-Pacific railroad that connected several points of the northern area of the country with the Pacific Ocean; by the early 1930s, there was 23,345 km of tracks.

President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) began the stage of government participation in railroads and in 1937 he nationalized them. From 1939 to 1951, 1,026 km were installed by the Federation and there were other constructions later.

Have you heard of the future of the Mayan Train?

In the 1980s, there was a modernization of tracks, telecommunications, and infrastructure, as well as the correction of pending tracks and the design of new ones. During the administration of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), railroads were privatized.


Effects in national wealth
The construction of railroads was very important for many places. As positive economic impact, Fernando Rosenzweig pointed out in his book Mexico’s Economical Development from 1877 to 1911 that, at the beginning of the 20th century, in the region that goes from Cofre de Perote, Veracruz, to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, a harvest that did not exist in the region was introduced: coffee.

In the Apan plains, which includes municipalities from Puebla, Tlaxcala, the State of Mexico, and south Hidalgo, big agave plantations were established to produce pulque.

On the other hand, as a negative impact, we can say that indigenous centers like Texcoco were affected; however, new towns emerged in the State of Mexico, Tlaxcala, and Hidalgo.

Did you know Mayan groups demand the halt of AMLO's Mayan Train?

Regarding the social cost of the construction of the first route, it fell mainly in indigenous communities that suffered from expropriation and usurpation of their lands in the places where the railroads were planned and there was special care of not passing through the land of rich or important people.

In other regions of the country where railway tracks were built, there were also opposite results, in some of them there were benefits for the increase of the production and commercialization of goods, but in others, it harmed both local and regional economies, such as the case of indigenous towns and communities.

AMLO’s project and the current network
It is possible to expect that the Mayan Train circuit, proposed by President López Obrador, will follow the route of the negative and positive effects of the construction of the previous railway network.

Nonetheless, this project has other challenges such as its implementation and other elements that in its time were not faced by the current network and that were not considered as relevant as today: the environmental impact to flora and fauna, the impact to indigenous communities, the national and international social rejection, the cultural impact, and the endorsement of tourism industry at a national and international level.

Another obstacle that must be faced by the López Obrador administration is the open opposition presented by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in a release read on January 2, 2019, by deputy commander Moisés, who said they will not allow “the destruction project of the Mayan Train.”

Did you know there are more than 1,700 vestiges in the Mayan Train route?

To such a statement, the President replied open to dialogue and to the EZLN’s right to express themselves, but he did not add much more on the matter. Both parts will have to reach an agreement that not only benefits the project but that also reduces as much as possible the possible fatal consequences predicted by experts and locals.

To calm the public eye and to guarantee the continuity of the project, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, director of the National Fund for Touristic Promotion (Fonatur), said at the beginning of May that the base of the Mayan Train will be the basic engineering of services to elaborate the designs that will allow knowing the general impression that it will cause in the areas, to then perform studies on environmental impact and to finally make a referendum with indigenous communities.

Some points of the current project
According to information of AMLO’s administration, the Mayan Train project looks for local economic revenue, the generation of works and distribution of income in the region while preserving natural areas, ecosystems, and the environment, in addition to touristic promotion and to safeguard local indigenous cultures.

With a length of approximately 1,525 km in the southern and southeastern region of Mexico, the plan includes the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, and plans to have ready 15 of the over 50 stations for 2023.

The government will use the tracks built during the Porfiriato and in the following presidential administrations, to add the new ones that will be needed. In each state, except in Quintana Roo, there are already tracks that will be used in the project.

Have you heard of the dangers of habitat fragmentation due to the Mayan train?

The project is divided into three sections: the jungle with 426 km, the Gulf with 653km, and the Caribbean with 446km. Its approximate cost is of MXN $120 to $150 billion with financing from public and private investments during the four years of its construction. Similar to what happened in the Porfiriato when most of the construction of railroads was with national and foreign direct investment.

Considering the fact that our country is the sixth most visited in the world with 39.3 million tourists, according to data of the barometer of the World Tourism Organization and quoted in the website of Mexico’s Tourism Ministry, the train would exploit one of the main regions of great cultural wealth in the world where the Mayan culture settle in the Yucatán Peninsula.


From the route planned from Cancún, Quintana Roo to Palenque, Chiapas, there are some tracks that were installed during the Porfiriato that connect Mérida, Maxconú, Campeche, Escárcega, Tenosique, and Palenque. They would be building the parts to connect Izamal, Chichén Itzá, Valladolid, and Cancún. The other route would go from Cancún to Escárcega, connecting Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Bacalar, Xpujil, and Calakmul, connecting with the first section to also arrive in Campeche.

From the touristic perspective, the idea of establishing a “touristic development pole” in the south and southeast of Mexico is not new. In the administration of Salinas de Gortari, there was the so-called “Mayan World project” that was later resumed by the administration of Felipe Calderón. Both projects have similarities, but they are elaborated in different contexts.

Did you know Senermex won the first bidding for the Mayan train?

The scientific collaborator of the Ruhr Universität Bochum in Germany, Hans Bouachard, writes in his essay “The Mayan World project: Concepts of the development between culture, national identity, and poverty” (2007) that the proposal was created in 1988 but carried out in 1992 through the Constitutive Convention of the Mayan World” by Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, pointing out as its objective the preservation of cultural heritage and the generation of income for local communities in the touristic sector.

It was resumed in 2012 only for Mexico with the promotion of the “2012 Mayan World Passport” with new investments for MXN $300 milli0on to open new museum and archeological sites in the Mexican “Mayan World” offering different services in the states of Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, and Yucatán.


Regarding the feasibility of the current Mayan Train project, the General Director of the Mexican Center of Environmental Law, A.C. (CEMDA), Gustavo Alanís Ortega, wrote on December 31, 2019 in EL UNIVERSAL that there are some fundamental requirements that must be considering: fulfilling the assessment process of environmental impact considered in the Federal Environmental Law for the timely and mannerly prevention, minimization, and mitigation of the effects.

Likewise, Alanís Ortega recommends that within this procedure should be included a referendum and a public collection of information within the same law, in addition to the fulfillment of several bylaws, regulations and national and international provisions for the López Obrador administration.

On the other hand, in statements made in this newspaper on January 29, 2019, Rogelio Jiménez Pons said that the first biddings for the construction of the Mayan Train would be ready for March 2019 for USD $3 billion. The sections included would be the ones from Palenque, Escárcega to the border with Yucatán and Chichén Itzá.

He also said that there are already negotiations being held with companies from Europe, Asia, and Canada that expressed their interest to participate in the project.

Some sections of the Mayan Train and most of the kilometers of the current railroad network have a common origin: the Porfiriato. Projected with similar objectives, different perspectives, and challenges, only time will tell about their impact and performance.

Did you know there will be a Mayan Train referendum in indigenous communities?


Guardando favorito...

Noticias según tus intereses

El Universal
Las Indispensables

Termina tu día bien informado con las notas más relevantes con este newsletter

Al registrarme acepto los términos y condiciones