Perspective on Mexico’s Tren Maya Railway – David Raby


“Stopping the Tren Maya has become the opposition’s last throw of the dice, which is why they will invent anything to discredit it. That’s also why defence of the Tren Maya is crucial for those of us building solidarity with Mexico’s Transformation.”

By David Raby

The Tren Maya is the greatest infrastructure project of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and probably the biggest new railway under construction in the world at present. It covers 1,550 km in Mexico’s neglected southeast in a great loop around the Yucatán peninsula.

The railway, which has been under construction for three years and is nearing completion (with inauguration scheduled for December this year), is being built in seven sections by consortia of public and private agencies, and when completed will be a fully public enterprise.

None of AMLO’s projects has been the object of more ferocious and tenacious criticism than the Tren Maya. Critics allege that it will destroy the sensitive environment of the region, that it rides roughshod over indigenous culture, that is deprives peasant communities of land and promotes uncontrolled neoliberal development. It is said to be a high-speed train for big business.

The Zapatistas (EZLN) declared (in the words of Subcomandante Moisés) that “The capitalist hydra” had arrived, “the beast will swallow in one mouthful entire villages, mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, men, women, boys and girls.” In July 2020 researchers from 65 Mexican and 26 international institutions signed “Observations on the Environmental Impact Assessments of the Mayan Train” claiming it would cause “serious and irreversible harm.” Prominent intellectuals said it would exploit migrant and native labour, favour intensive factory pig farms, genetically-modified soya and hothouse crops, drug trafficking and criminality: there was almost no evil which critics did not attribute to the railway.

The chorus of criticism has intensified again recently; on 23 May this year the Guardian carried an article by Louise Morris with the provocative title “‘A megaproject of death’: fury as Maya train nears completion in Mexico.”

So comprehensive are these denunciations that it seems inconceivable that anyone progressive could support the Tren Maya. But careful examination shows that these allegations are almost entirely false.

Most of the Yucatán is a low-lying limestone platform which naturally erodes to create sinkholes known as cenotes, with underground rivers and lakes where groundwater accumulates. It is indeed ecologically sensitive, but this did not prevent the ancient Maya from building great pyramids or the Spanish from developing colonial cities like Mérida and Campeche.

A cenote in Mexico. Photo credit: David Raby

Where this vulnerable environment has been wantonly destroyed is in the massive uncontrolled development of Cancún and the “Mayan riviera” stretching for some 150 km along the Caribbean coast. Fifty years of speculative investment has created the biggest tourist complex in Latin America, bringing abundant wealth to a handful of national and (mainly) transnational interests with no concern for Mayan or indeed Mexican culture. Tren Maya, with all of its associated public initiatives, is just the beginning of an attempt to reappropriate some of this wealth for the Mayan and Mexican people.

Cancún glass and concrete buildings. Photo credit: David Raby
The “manicured” urban layout of Cancún. Photo credit: David Raby.

As can be seen Cancún and the “riviera” consists of typical nondescript resort architecture, with privatised beaches, anonymous hotels and highways, poor to non-existent public transport, hidden or damaged cenotes and mangroves replaced by manicured lawns swallowing up scarce water supplies. Also, chronically deprived barrios for insecure and marginalised local workers.

I was able to observe the reality of the Tren Maya on a recent visit to the area facilitated by a Mexican colleague, Étienne von Bertrab of University College London, with his assistants and students who are studying the project. In an intensive ten-day field trip in May 2023 we were able to visit construction sites, tour the region and interact with local communities, government officials, NGOs, Yucatecan academics and ordinary people in cities and towns such as Mérida and Cancún.

What we found was a much more nuanced and balanced picture of a project which represents the first serious attempt in 50 years by federal authorities to counterbalance uncontrolled and destructive neoliberal development and generate an alternative based on collective interests, with publicly-owned infrastructure integrated with social, cultural and environmental initiatives to benefit local communities. How far it will succeed remains to be seen, but it deserves serious consideration and not hysterical denunciation.

Local people we spoke to had many questions and concerns about the railway, but most were optimistic about the benefits of the project; surveys indicate that a substantial majority of the region’s population favour the Train.

It is not possible here to make a detailed refutation of all the criticisms, but it should be emphasised that virtually all the problems attributed by opponents to the Tren Maya began long before. The best answer came from a Yucatecan woman anthropologist, Paloma Escalante Gonzalbo, writing three years ago about the pre-existing situation:

“…the ancestral territories were lost centuries ago, [the farming communities] produce less and less due to the droughts of recent years, they find themselves obliged to migrate to the tourist areas or elsewhere to find work…We find forests devastated by clandestine logging and poachers who even start fires to drive out the game…highways where heavy lorries travel at great speed and run down animals…The local inhabitants are clear about one thing: paradise hasn’t existed for many years, and we cannot go on doing nothing about the situation. If transformation is what the government is offering, then that’s what has to be our hope…”

To set the record straight we should list many of the positive features of the Tren Maya, as follows:

1) Most obviously, it’s a railway, and as such will take both passenger and goods traffic off the roads, reducing pollution. Almost 50% of the route will be electrified and the hybrid locomotives will use ultra-low-emission diesel on the rest of the track.

The Tren Maya railway. Photo credit: David Raby.

2) It will have many stations, 20 at the last count plus at least 14 paraderos (which we would call local stations) for a total of 34, thus serving tourists and local people as well as business travellers.

The route of the Tren Maya railway. Photo credit: David Raby.

3) Indeed it is misleading to call it a “high-speed train”: there will be only a few limited-stop express services, with a maximum speed of 170 km/hour, similar to fast inter-city trains in the UK and Europe but only about half the speed of the French TGV or similar high-speed lines elsewhere in Europe, Japan and China. Most services on Tren Maya will have frequent stops for both tourists and local people.

4) Local people will have cheaper, subsidised fares and will be able to use the train to get to work and for other needs.

5) Restaurant cars and cafeterias on the trains, and food offerings at the stations, will give priority to local cuisine.

6) Local independent businesses will be given preference in commercial concessions at and around the stations.

7) Both in construction and in operation of the completed railway, local people are being employed as far as possible, with skilled and well-paid jobs far superior to the precarious employment which predominates in the private tourist industry. We were very impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of those involved in construction, from both public agencies and private contracting companies.

We were able to visit three of the stations and/or paraderos being built, at Teya, Maxcanú and Calkiní, where work was going ahead despite the intense heat (and with appropriate protection for the workers):

Treya station. Photo credit: David Raby.
Calkini Station. Photo credit: David Raby.
Construction taking place in the Calkini station interior. Photo credit: David Raby.
The Calkini Station manager (right) of the Tren Maya line. Photo credit: David Raby.
David raby and others visit the construction site in Teya. Photo credit: David Raby

8) Locomotives and rolling stock are being manufactured at the Alstom plant in Hidalgo state, a landmark of Mexican industrial progress which neoliberals were running down having eliminated passenger services after privatising the railways.

9) The railway has scores of green underpasses for local fauna so that animals can cross without danger, unlike the slaughter which occurs on existing highways. Also in one coastal section with particularly vulnerable foundations, a long section of the track is elevated, supported by columns with very advanced technology.

An elevated section of the Tren Maya railway under construction. Photo credit: Étienne von Bertrab.

10) Approximately half the route uses the abandoned line of a former railway, the Ferrocarril del Sureste begun by the great President Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930s, which offered valuable service until it was abandoned by neoliberal governments.

11) The Tren Maya will be linked to other new and/or modernised railways – the Trans-Isthmian Corridor, a Pacific coastal route to the Guatemalan border, and a link to the industrial area of southern Veracruz – which will provide a complete publicly-owned modern rail network for the entire southeastern region. Much of the opposition comes from private interests wanting to continue exploitation of cheap labour and resources.

12) Reforestation is being undertaken on a massive scale by the Tren Maya, which is also linked to the current government’s Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) agroforestry scheme.

13) Multiple local urban improvement projects linked to the railway are being carried out by SEDATU, the federal Secretariat (Ministry) of Agricultural, Territorial and Urban Development. We visited some of these projects in the deprived southern area of Mérida city, including two small parks and a community centre.

SEDATU community centre. Photo credit: David Raby.
SEDATU park and community centre. Photo credit: David Raby.

The community centre offers many activities for local women, including embroidery and crochet; it also has computer facilities and courses for both women and men.

Interior of the SEDATU park community centre. Photo credit: David Raby.

Both here and elsewhere in Mexico these SEDATU installations are of high quality, and several have received architectural prizes.

14) Further improvements are being carried out by military engineers of SEDENA (the Ministry of Defence) which is involved in construction of some sections of the railway.

In Mérida SEDENA is developing “Turntable Park” (Parque de la Plancha) on the site of a turntable of the former Southeastern Railway.

Development of the “turntable park” in Merida. Photo credit: David Raby.
Turntable park housing. Photo credit: David Raby.

15) Archaeological surveys, excavations and restoration projects directed by INAH (the National Institute of Anthropology and History) are being carried out before construction on all sections of the railway, constituting the biggest research and restoration programme in Mayan archaeology ever seen.

All in all, the Tren Maya with its associated undertakings constitutes by far the biggest public investment ever in economic, social and cultural development for the Mexican southeast. It will not solve all the region’s problems, but it is a huge attempt to change direction from the chaotic and destructive neoliberal model which has prevailed for 50 years. The Tren Maya is a massive and ambitious undertaking in and of itself, but what is clear from careful examination is that the railway itself is just part of (and the beginning of) a comprehensive public development project for the Mexican Southeast as a whole.

Most of the railway’s critics live in central Mexico, the US or Europe, and as AMLO pointed out nearly three years ago, nine of the NGOs most active in opposition have received funds from US foundations. More recently, the most vigorous opposition in the form of legal writs (amparos) has come from the powerful hotel lobby in section 5 of the route (the Mayan Riviera).

It should also be pointed out that while much publicity is given to the opposition of the Zapatistas (EZLN), their indigenous support base is limited mainly to the highlands and adjacent areas of Chiapas. The population of the Yucatán peninsula most affected by the train are also indigenous, heirs to the great Mayan social revolt of the 19th century and the Socialist Party of the Southeast, active protagonists of the Mexican Revolution who from 1916 to 1924 carried out a remarkably advanced land reform with secular education and feminist reforms throughout the peninsula. Their leader was a bilingual Mayan worker named Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and a large town in the Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancún and the tourist coast, is named after him.

In President López Obrador’s press conference on 12 June a representative of the Maya Cruzob – cultural and political heirs of the 19th-century revolt and of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and the Socialist Party of the Southeast – spoke at length, in both Mayan and Spanish, in favour of the Tren Maya, while requesting the removal of neoliberal bureaucrats who were still perverting AMLO’s social and environmental reforms at local level. He also demanded implementation of a programme of Indigenous Justice which had been promised by the President.

AMLO listened attentively, and promised to implement the plan of Indigenous Justice not only in Quintana Roo but throughout the area of Tren Maya. In other words, what we have here is an advanced social and political project with active local indigenous support; indigenous identity does not correlate with either opposition to or support for Tren Maya, it is a question of political orientation.

Finally, the recently-inaugurated Morena Governor of Quintana Roo state, a young bilingual woman called Mara Lezama, has promised to launch an ambitious state programme of support for local communities and cooperatives to give them priority of access to commercial opportunities linked to the railway.

Politically the Mexican opposition has been losing ground steadily for two and a half years; its latest loss, with AMLO’s Morena Party taking control of Edomex (Mexico State, surrounding the capital and with 17 million inhabitants the most populous of all 32 states) confirms that next year’s presidential succession contest will be decided among rival Morena candidates. The opposition is using Lawfare – its control of the extremely corrupt judicial system – to hinder AMLO’s “4T” Transformation of the country, but given its electoral weakness and AMLO’s ongoing success on the economic, social, cultural and diplomatic fronts and the loyalty of the military, Lawfare is not as successful in Mexico as in some Latin American countries.

Stopping the Tren Maya has become the opposition’s last throw of the dice, which is why they will invent anything to discredit it. That’s also why defence of the Tren Maya is crucial for those of us building solidarity with Mexico’s Transformation: it has become the keystone of the material benefits of the 4T Transformation.

  • David Raby is a retired academic, writer and journalist in solidarity with progressive movements and governments in Latin America, and coordinator of the Mexico Solidarity Forum.
  • You can contact David for more information here; and follow him on Twitter here.
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Featured image: The Tren Maya railway. Photo credit: David Raby.

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