A Look At The Mayan Train Project in Mexico
If you live in Mexico or have traveled to Mexico, especially to the Yucatan Peninsula, in the past few years, you have undoubtedly heard about the Tren Maya. It’s a daily topic in the news and it’s on everyone’s lips. You are unlikely to find a topic as divisive as the Mayan Train Project with both sides lobbying squarely for (President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, contractors and stakeholders) or against it (environmentalists, archeologists and sociologists).
It’s been frustrating to keep up with all the changes to this ambitious project and it seems until the railcars are running on the tracks, nothing is set in stone. Here is what we know right now.
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What is the Mayan Train and where will it be built?
The Mayan Train (Tren Maya), is a new touristic attraction now being built on the Yucatan Peninsula, in southern and southeastern Mexico. The Mayan Train project was announced in September 2018 by Mexico’s then-President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Despite much opposition, AMLO was able to push through and construction officially began in 2020.
Watch this video to see more.
The train’s route, which is approximately 1,500 km long, will pass through 40 municipalities and 181 towns in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The route for the Tren Maya has been divided into seven sections: Jungle One, Gulf One, Gulf Two, Gulf Three, Caribbean One, Caribbean Two, and Jungle Two. Throughout these seven sections, there will be 21 main stations and 14 stops (paraderos).
What will the Mayan Train be like?
The Maya Train is a high-speed, diesel-electric rail service that will travel around the Yucatan Peninsula. The Tren Maya is designed for a top speed of 160 km/hour for passenger travel and 100 km/hour for freight/cargo. The Mayan Train project will cover tourism services, transport for local passengers, and cargo transportation. Railcars will be adapted to accommodate these distinct purposes.
The tourist class and long-distance cars will have rooms for overnight stays and restaurants with typical food from the southeast region of Mexico. Thirty-one of the forty-two trains will be used for basic passenger service, eight will be especially for touristic purposes, and three for long-distance travel.
The passenger locomotives will be divided into three categories: Xiinbal (Walking), Janal (Eat), and P’atal (Stay). Each category will cater to different passenger needs, including local transit passengers, tourists, and long-distance travelers.
The three levels of the Mayan Train passenger service are detailed as follows:
The basic passenger service will have panoramic windows to admire the scenery, standard seats, business class seats and a cafeteria.
Service with different seating configurations and restaurants with food and beverages typical to the regions through which the Mayan Train passes. There will be tables for two and four people.
Designed for long distances and to enjoy the tourist and cultural sites along the route. The rail cars will feature reclining seats and sleeping cabins with a private bathroom, shower and intercom.
How much will the Mayan Train tickets cost?
Ticket prices have not yet been published but are expected to be based in part on the distance traveled. It has been suggested that there will be different fares for local passengers and national and foreign tourists, depending on the type of service and route.
Approximate prices for locals will be 50 pesos for each section at the Xiinbal service level. For tourists, the fare is expected to be higher. For example, the section between Cancun and Playa del Carmen may cost visitors as much as $800 to 1,000 pesos for the trip.
What is the route that the Mayan Train will follow?
Forty-two trains with a total of 219 cars will encircle the Yucatan peninsula. The path has been divided into three main regions: Selva (Jungle), Caribe (Caribbean) and Golfo (Gulf). Traversing these three sections there are seven distinct stretches of track with 21 Stations and another 14 Stops (paraderos).
The Mayan Train route is as follows:
Section 1 Jungle (Selva) One
Jungle One: Palenque – Escárcega (228 kilometers)
Stations (Palenque, Boca del Cerro, El Triunfo) and Stops (Tenosique, Candelaria)
Section 2 Gulf (Golfo) One
Gulf One: Escarcega – Calkiní (235 kilometers)
Stations (Escárcega, Edzná, San Francisco de Campeche) and Stops (Carrillo Puerto)
Section 3 Gulf (Golfo) Two
Gulf Two: Calkiní – Izamal (172 kilometers)
Stations (Mérida, Teya, Izamal) and Stops (Mexcanú, Tixkokob).
Section 4 Gulf (Golfo)Three
Gulf Three: Izamal – Cancun Airport (257 kilometers)
Stations (Chichén Itzá, Valladolid, Nuevo Xcán) and Stops (Xibalbá, Leona Vicario)
Section 5 Caribbean (Caribe) One
Gulf Three: Cancun Airport – Tulum Airport (121 kilometers)
Stations (Cancún Airport, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Tulum Airport) and Stops (Xcaret, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal)
Section 6 Caribbean (Caribe) Two
Caribbean Two: Tulum Airport – Bacalar (254 kilometers)
Stations (Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Bacalar, Chetumal Airport) and Stops (Limones)
Section 7 Jungle (Selva) Two
Jungle Two: Bacalar – Escarcega (287 kilometers)
Stations (Xpujil) and Paraderos (Conhuas, Centenario)
Each stop will provide passengers with the opportunity to explore the local area, visit historical and cultural landmarks, and experience the local cuisine and way of life. Proponents claim the train is designed to be a sustainable and eco-friendly way to explore the diverse and rich culture of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
Along the route, passengers will be able to reach 46 important archaeological sites including Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Calakmul, Uxmal, Edzná, and Palenque. The train will pass through 28 rural communities, 18 destinations designated as Indigenous Paradises, 14 Pueblos Magicos, and 6 sites that have been named World Heritage Sites.
Watch this video to see more.
What benefits might the Tren Maya bring?
Proponents of the Mayan Train project claim that once completed, the train could bring many benefits to the Yucatan Peninsula, including:
The Mayan Train is expected to attract more tourists to the region, boosting local economies and creating new jobs.
The train lines will connect many cities and tourist destinations in the region, making it easier for all people to travel and explore the Yucatan Peninsula.
Preservation of cultural heritage
The Mayan Train may help to promote the preservation of cultural heritage and support sustainable tourism in the region. As of January 2021, workers and archeologists had uncovered thousands of ancient artifacts and structures.
The construction of the train will also lead to the improvement of existing infrastructure and the development of new infrastructure in the region.
Access to new markets
The Maya Train project could provide access to new markets for local businesses, helping to spur economic growth in the region.
Objections to the Maya Train Project in Mexico
While the Tren Maya has the potential to bring many benefits to the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayan Train project has definitely been met with strong resistance. Environmentalists argue that the construction of the train will have permanent negative impacts on the environment that can never be abated.
Here are some of the important issues to consider.
Irreparable Environmental Damage
Deforestation, destruction of wildlife habitats, and the pollution of waterways vital to the regions where the train has been built have already been documented. The stretch of tracks planned above the Sac Actun aquifer is of grave concern.
Displacement of indigenous communities
Some fear that the construction of the train will lead to the displacement of indigenous communities and the loss of their traditional lands. Not all indigenous people welcome attention from outsiders and may not benefit from the increased interaction.
Lack of planning
Train lines have been haphazardly initiated only to be changed and rerouted time and again. Lack of proper planning and inadequate site evaluation have already led to the unnecessary destruction of jungles and roadways and the disruption of traffic.
Lack of transparency
From the beginning, there have been concerns about the lack of transparency in the planning and development and indeed the grand purpose of the Maya Train project. Many feel that the government has not consulted adequately with local communities and other stakeholders.
Unproven financial viability
There are concerns about the financial viability of the project and whether it will be able to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining in the long term. A definitive pricing scheme has yet to be released which leaves many unanswered questions.
Diminished social equality
Some worry that the Maya Train project will exacerbate existing social inequalities and tensions between different communities in the region.
Destroy cultural heritage
There are concerns that the increased access the Mayan Train will bring, could inadvertently harm important cultural heritage sites and damage the cultural identity of the indigenous peoples in the region.
How will the Mayan Train affect the Riviera Maya?
Frequent travelers to this region hope that the train will offer a faster and more affordable means of transportation up and down the Riviera Maya corridor, particularly from the airport in Cancun to destinations such as Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal and Tulum.
When it appeared as if sections of the Tren Maya would run straight down the middle of 307, it seemed possible that the train might offer a viable means of local transportation, perhaps alleviating traffic on 307. When the train was rerouted several kilometers into the jungle it left most of us scratching our heads about whether this train would offer any kind of convenient transport between the towns from Cancun to Tulum.
At the moment, the tracks are run so far inland that travelers will need to take a taxi to actually access the cities and sites that the train is supposed to connect. What the taxi rates will be to and from the stations and paraderos is anyone’s guess and may negate any cost savings the train offers.
Undoubtedly, the most troubling effect of the Mayan Train may be the destruction of the Riviera Maya’s most significant treasures; its elaborate underground water system and cenotes. We have yet to see any plans that do NOT include running the tracks over the top of the Sac Actun water system, the longest contiguous underground river system in the world. There have been some plans to elevate the tracks in delicate areas. We have heard of the tracks being designed with a “cushion” to absorb the vibrations of the railcars.
There have been many several stop-work orders and injunctions to halt the progress of this stretch of track (Section 5) until a suitable solution can be found but ultimately, the train will go forward and we are left crossing our fingers about the long-term effects.
When will the Mayan Train be completed?
The Maya Train is expected to begin testing in July 2023. AMLO asserts that the project will be completed prior to the end of his term in 2024. Considering the starts and stops and rerouting issues, that completion date at best feels a little ambitious, at worst reckless.
The estimated total cost of this ambitious project, including 30 years of operations and maintenance (but not including electrification), is over 320 billion pesos.
While AMLO promises that the Mayan Train will bring economic development and promote tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula, there are valid concerns about its potential negative impact on the environment and local communities. The lack of transparency and public participation in the decision-making process has also raised doubts about the project’s true motives and benefits.
It remains to be seen whether the Tren Maya will fulfill its promises or become another example of a poorly planned and executed infrastructure project that only benefits a select few. Until then, it is crucial to approach this project with a healthy dose of skepticism and continue to monitor its progress carefully.
Regardless of how I personally feel about the Mayan Train project (its true purpose and who will benefit from it) at this point, so much damage has been done and so much money has been spent, if it is NOT completed and NOT a success, what a waste and a shame that would be. I hope the powers that be can put their agendas and their egos aside and figure out a way to finish the path of the train with the appropriate caution and consideration.
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