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High-Speed Trains in Mexico: Are They Possible?

January 2015 was marked by a regrettable surprise for the city of Querétaro, Mexico. The construction of the high-speed passenger Mexico-Querétaro train was indefinitely suspended by then-president Enrique Peña Nieto, citing a sudden exit from the project by the Asian companies partnered to deliver it, led by China Railway, as his main reason to do so.

Combined with the general discomfort expressed by citizens living adjacent to the projected sites for the train stops, the ambitious undertaking was halted, with no plans of continuing its insight. Now, five years after the initial cancellation, talks of resuming the project under new management are surfacing.

Along with the controversial Tren Maya, which activists argue against because of the negative ecological and cultural impact in the Yucatan peninsula, high-speed passenger train projects in Mexico have been met with skeptical rejection by a large portion of the Mexican population.

Since the 20,000 kilometers of railways under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz were built more than a century ago, the total length of train tracks in Mexico has not increased much. When considering the use of those old tracks in modern train projects, a particular characteristic makes them unviable: the fact that they were constructed with cargo trains in mind, and feature only a single track, would reduce the frequency of service, ultimately defeating the purpose of installing passenger trains in the first place.

Are high-speed trains impossible in Mexico? Would their utility be limited and have no discernible impact whatsoever? Let us answer both of these questions from the get-go: not only are modern trains viable in Mexico, but an effective national train system would offer an excellent alternative that could reduce carbon emissions, divide air traffic evenly between international airports, and liberate freeways for cargo transportation.

A Long-Term Commitment

According to Roberto Remes Tello, General Coordinator for Public Spaces in Mexico City, 30 years ago, Mexico set its sights on a long-term land-based infrastructure goal: freeways. Six axes going from coast to coast were built, along with three more from the northern to the southern border. If the said project had concentrated on trains, said Remes Tello, the strategy would have involved the connection of all state capitals and important Mexican cities with two-way rails. With the completion of such a project, it would be possible to develop national technology that would reduce the country’s dependence on foreign contractors, allowing for the implementation of a Mexican-made nationwide high-speed train. Three decades ago, that project was set aside in favor of freeways, and if planning towards a project similar to that begins now, it will take around the same length of time to complete. But, if planning never begins, it can never happen.

High speed train driving along the rails through a train station tunnel at night. Motion Blur. Long Exposure. Edited, Composite Night Skyline. Odaiba, Tokyo, Japan, Asia

Is all the money, time, and effort worth it? What do Mexican people have to gain if they invest in trains? Implementing high-speed train tracks in all major cities would be a crucial step forward for green logistics. One of its primary purposes would be to offer an alternative for passengers looking to travel from one city to another by car. This would free up highways for truckers, reducing accidents and relieving the over-encumbered urban transportation systems.

With trains as an alternative, passengers needing to take a taxi to the airport could invest that same amount of money in commuting by train for a nearby out-of-town international airport, taking as much time to get there as it would take a taxi in Mexico City to get to the city airport. This could equally divide air traffic and free up the saturated airport system.

An investigation conducted by Alfonso Herrera García and Orlando Sánchez López in 2013 showed that railway transportation could replace airplanes in national trips that cover less than 500 kilometers, delaying the need for an expansion of Mexico City’s airport for up to 4 years, also cutting CO2 emissions annually by as much as 248 kilotons. Sadly, the ascertainable benefits of a railway project were ignored, and the Mexican government chose instead to approve a massive construction project for a new International Mexico City Airport, which was then abandoned in January of 2019.

Querétaro has changed its mind about the high-speed train project since back in 2015. Ricardo Torres Juárez, president of the National Housing Promotion and Development Chamber, suggests that “[the project] would be an important jump-start for many commercial sectors, including tourism, commerce, and industry.” Especially after the economic crisis brought about in the wake of COVID-19 that affected the tourism and retail sectors above all, a project that can facilitate mobility and economic reopening could be a breath of fresh air for thousands of working-class Mexicans around the country.

In no way is this ambitious project easy to complete. Still, the benefits that Querétaro will reap upon its completion could be the same that can help the nation-wide economy in a possible future of new and improved high-speed railway transportation.

With over eight decades working in logistics, Woodward has seen innovations, challenges, and essential changes in Mexican and global industries. Operating in air, sea, and land, we are a versatile company that welcomes transport innovations, especially those that could bring forth critical ecological benefits. Sustainable, fast, and effective transportation is essential for any future in logistics. Still, especially with current circumstances in mind, we have to quicken our step to get to a national transportation system that reduces emissions significantly to take care of our future and that of the entire world.