Riding the Maya train

Mexico plans to spend over $5 billion to build a railway line on the Yucatan peninsula

A stone’s throw from the Mayan temples at Tulum, clinging to the rocks that plunge down to the Gulf of Mexico below and inhabited solely by dozens of iguanas dozing in the sun may seem like an unusual place for a high-speed railway.
Yet this park immersed in the luxuriant green forests of the coast – spied for the first time by the Spanish conquistadores on March 4, 1517 – will be one of the stops on the “Maya Train”, the railway line that will cross the Yucatan peninsula to connect some of its fabled archaeological sites to the popular international tourist resorts on the coast.
Construction work on this 1,500-kilometre-long railway line is slated to begin in 2019, lasting six years for an investment of about 100 billion Mexican pesos ($5.2 billion). This significant investment was made public recently by the new Mexican government, confirming a campaign promise made by President-elect Andrés Manuel Lòpez Obrador.
Obrador, who takes office on December 1, confirmed the plan after a September cabinet meeting of the new government. One of the top items on his “to do” list is to build a train link between the Yucatan’s main tourist attractions. Senator Jose Luis Pech Varguez from Obrador’s Morena party provided more details, confirming that the project is already in a development phase and that it has been entrusted to Fonatur, the National Tourism Fund.
The planned railway line will be “high speed” only in name, it emerges from Pech Varguez statements to the Mexican press, because it will not exceed speeds of 130 kilometres per hour. It will cross three states, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Chiapas, with the goal of making it easier for tourists to move around in one of Mexico’s most-visited areas by giving them an efficient way to travel from north to south, leaving from Cancun in Quintana Roo and ending in Palenche, Chiapas. The train will stop at Tulum, Carrillo Puerto, Bacalar and Calakmul, in the state of Campeche.
The Associated Press news agency has reported that the first section (connecting Cancun and Tulum with stops at Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos) will be completed in two years, while the rest of the project must still be planned.
The government has made up its mind to push ahead with the project, making good on the promise Obrador made in Cancun on June 26, when he launched the “Maya Train” in the middle of his election campaign.

Zocalo square, Mexico City

Rogello Ramìrez will handle the project at Fonatur. 
«I understand that they will make some adjustments to the route of the line and will define three stops», said Pech Varguez. «Two could be Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos, the third, perhaps Tulum on the Cancun-Tulum route».
Pech Varguez said the “Maya Train” will be funded partly by the government.
«The project involves government, private initiative and owners of the ejido land (communal farm land) where the railway line will be placed», adding that «the ejidos that own the land will participate as partners of the project».
Obrador vowed to support tourism in the entire region, not just the coast.
«We are going to support tourism in this region of the country, but there will be equity; so that the tourists who come to Cancun, to Playa del Carmen, can easily explore the Mundo Maya in the southern regions», he said.
Despite their immense appeal, many of the archaeological sites in the Yucatan are difficult to reach – unlike the seaside resorts such as Cancun, which boasts an international airport. That’s why the government wants to use this opportunity to create wealth and development by enticing the visitors on the coast to venture farther south.
Along with offering a huge development opportunity for the Yucatan economy, the idea of the “Maya Train” highlights the importance the new administration places on the decisive role of infrastructure works in terms of the country’s overall development. President-elect Obrador has reiterated his aim to double public spending, increasing investment to 4.1% of GDP, to be divided between infrastructure and social programmes. At the same time, he vows to abandon massive projects such as the Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de México, or Mexico’s new international airport, which was slated to have 140 million passengers per year and cost at least $13 billion, to focus instead on strategic infrastructure spread out across Mexico’s various states.  
This chosen path must be taken without missing a step if Obrador wants to close the gap of $544 billion that the Global Infrastructure Hub has calculated Mexico must spend to meet its infrastructure needs. This long journey could begin with the first stop on the “Maya Train”.