TULUM, Mexico – As the year draws to a close, Mexico stands at the crossroads of progress and controversy, with the ambitious Maya train project poised to either redefine transportation infrastructure for the nation’s southeastern states or potentially trigger an ecological catastrophe. This ambitious 1,500km rail project, intended to weave together five states in the region, has ignited fierce debates and stirred up both hope and concern.
Activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have meticulously documented what they claim is the significant environmental toll of the project. Allegations range from rampant deforestation to the destruction of intricate cave systems and natural reservoirs. Semarnat, the environmental authority controlled by the federal government, vehemently denies these allegations, fostering a clash between ecological concerns and development aspirations.
However, supporters of the Maya train assert that its primary objective of establishing a secure and affordable transportation network in a long-neglected region cannot be overlooked. Moreover, the project aims to redistribute the wealth of tourism across the Yucatán Peninsula, providing an opportunity for economic revitalization in areas that have long been marginalized.
In a nation where passenger railway projects have lain dormant for over a decade, the Maya train signifies a monumental stride. Beyond the bustling metropolises, the southeast relies predominantly on highways to connect its tourism hubs. Consequently, numerous communities lack even the most basic transportation services, further amplifying the project’s significance.
The genesis of the Maya train project was marked by an auspicious collaboration between the federal government and UNESCO, aimed at safeguarding natural resources and preserving archaeological sites. Additionally, UN-Habitat lent its support to the project, predicting that the railway could elevate 100,000 individuals out of poverty.
Nonetheless, the landscape shifted dramatically over time. President López Obrador gradually escalated the involvement of the armed forces, introduced alterations to the initial blueprint, and reduced private sector participation in his flagship initiative. The most pivotal transition is set to transpire by year-end when the army assumes complete control over Mexico’s largest and most expensive railway endeavor. This military oversight encompasses operation, maintenance, and revenue management, marking a symbolic transfer of power from the national tourism board, Fonatur, to the armed forces.
An injection of 360 billion pesos from the federal budget, devoid of private investments, has propelled the rail project’s progress. The sprawling network spans seven segments, weaving through Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo states. Impressive strides have already been made, with over 50% of the work completed by the close of the first quarter.
Notably, a substantial portion of the route, comprising at least three segments spanning over 700km, will be double-tracked and electrified. These stretches will encompass a constellation of 20 stations and 14 stops, transforming into vibrant hubs for economic and multimodal transport activities. Complementary developments include the construction of a 3.2 billion-peso international airport in Tulum, a strategic move by the defense ministry Sedena.
The Maya train’s intricate web of stretches includes:
- Stretch 1 – 227km from Palenque-Escárcega (Chiapas-Tambasco-Campeche)
- Stretch 2 – 219km from Escárcega-Calkiní (Campeche-Yucatán)
- Stretch 3 – 157km from Calkiní-Izamal (Yucatán)
- Stretch 4 – 239km from Izamal-Cancún (Yucatán-Quintana Roo)
- Stretch 5, north – 111km from Cancún-Playa del Carmen (Quintana Roo)
- Stretch 5, south –67km from Playa del Carmen-Tulum (Quintana Roo)
- Stretch 6 – 256km from Tulum-Chetumal (Quintana Roo)
- Stretch 7 – 256km from Bacalar-Escárcega (Quintana Roo-Campeche)
Collaborative efforts have driven the realization of these segments, with three distinct consortiums undertaking the construction of the initial three stretches. Mexican infrastructure giant ICA is at the helm of the fourth, while the defense ministry steers the rest, all under the watchful gaze of Fonatur.
International players have also contributed to the project’s momentum. Canada’s Bombardier and France’s Alstom secured a substantial 37 billion-peso contract in 2021, tasked with providing the Maya train with essential rolling stock. Spain’s Renfe Operadora, Ingeniería y Economía del Transporte (Ineco), and Germany’s DB Engineering and Consulting GmbH, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, are also pivotal players. The latter won a 120 million-peso contract in 2020, assuming the role of the train’s shadow operator.
Regrettably, a shroud of opacity cloaks the status of these critical contracts, leaving the public in the dark. The shadows of controversy and protest loom large over the Maya train, epitomized by a recent act of vandalism at the Deutsche Bahn office in Berlin. This protest was a direct response to the company’s involvement in the project, symbolizing the project’s polarizing impact that has even reached foreign shores.
Echoing this sentiment, the International Rights of Nature Tribunal delivered a sobering verdict, underscoring the railway’s potential to jeopardize indigenous rights and ecological balance. Convening in Yucatán, the tribunal deliberated extensively, visiting crucial natural sites and engaging with the voices of opposition, such as Sélvame del Tren. Despite these concerns, the federal government maintains its unwavering commitment to the project, emphasizing its resolute adherence to a timely course of construction.
Throughout the project’s three-year construction journey, Mexican NGOs have intermittently attempted to halt progress, invoking legal measures. However, the federal government has adroitly sidestepped these obstacles through a strategic presidential decree, designating the Maya train and other signature projects as matters of national security. This classification grants Fonatur the authority to override injunctions, leading to an overarching narrative of state-driven determination.
Critics of the rail project have underscored significant gaps in its inception and planning, contending that crucial studies, permits, and environmental impact statements were conspicuously absent. This rings especially true for the latter segments (5, 6, and 7), where construction commenced before the approval of Semarnat’s environmental impact statements. Racing against time, Fonatur has undertaken a formidable endeavor, aiming to present a functional train network by the close of December. The looming departure of President López Obrador in September 2024 adds an additional layer of urgency to this timeline, as constitutional constraints limit the president to a single term.
Amidst these debates, the fifth stretch of the Maya train emerges as a focal point of environmental contention. A sudden deviation from the original route, prompted by lobbying from the hotel industry, led the rail line through the jungle instead of the existing Cancún-Tulum highway. While this alteration may have appeased economic interests, it has incurred the wrath of activists residing in Quintana Roo. Their claims of deforestation and irrevocable damage to the fragile cave system underscore the complex intersection between development aspirations and ecological preservation.
In response, Fonatur has offered assurances of safeguarding these natural assets through an elevated viaduct, covering a substantial 75% of the Cancún-Tulum stretch. As the Maya train hurtles towards its anticipated completion, its legacy remains shrouded in both hope and trepidation, encapsulating the intricate dance between progress and environmental stewardship.