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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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López Obrador presents vision for passenger rail service in Mexico

Spoiler alert: it involves the military.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexican President Andrés Manel López Obrador on Monday presented a glimpse of his vision for expanding passenger rail service in Mexico, and it includes the possibility of the military operating the trains. 

An executive order published early Monday morning that declares passenger train projects to be “national development priority areas” included a list of the first seven tracks in the planned passenger train system. 

The tracks connect Mexico City to important ports like Veracruz and Coatzacoalcos, as well as to three cities on the U.S.-Mexico border: Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juárez and Nogales. One line will connect the new Mexico City airport AIFA to the nearby city of Pachuca and another will link the Pacific port city of Manzanillo with inland cities Colima, Guadalajara and Irapuato.

The order establishes that passenger trains will have preference over cargo trains on designated routes and gives freight companies first rights to present bids on the projects. Interested parties have until Jan. 15, 2024, to present tenders. 

However, if none of the tenders are “viable,” the decree states, then the concessions will revert to Mexico’s army and navy. 

Such a move would not surprise security experts who have grown accustomed to such unorthodox decisions from the president. “We’ll see,” was all security analyst David Saucedo said when asked what he thought of the possibility.

The order also reveals López Obrador’s idyllic perception of Mexico’s railway history. 

“[T]he railroad in Mexico was crucial to the development at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries,” the president wrote. “[I]t promoted the integration of the national territory, reduced distances and facilitated the movement of people and goods.” 

It also includes not-so-subtle commentaries on Mexican history, hailing the legacy of President Lázaro Cárdenas for nationalizing the railroads in 1937, and reviling the leader who privatized them at the end of the century.

“[I]t was truly a disgrace when President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, continuator of Salinas’ policy, privatized the railways in Mexico [on] Mar. 2, 1995,” the text says.

Passenger train service has been at the heart of one of the most heated controversies of López Obrador’s presidency. Critics of the Maya Train, which is set to begin service on the Yucatán Peninsula in December, have said the project threatens area wildlife and water supplies and carries other environmental risks. 

López Obrador has involved the military in other travel and tourism services such as airports, airlines, hotels and museums.

A return to a nationwide passenger rail system is possible, said Jaime de Jesús Paredes Camacho, an engineering and law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University who focuses on railroads. However, since the railroads will remain nationalized, the government will have to ensure passenger service doesn't disrupt the movement of freight. 

“Today, cargo trains move very important supply chains of basic products like wheat, corn and sugar,” Paredes said. “So it’s really important that they keep this under control with state regulation and proper operations on the part of the concessionaires.” 

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