Ideas Objects

Mobility on Track: the past and the future of railway in the Yucatan peninsula

By Hamid Alberto Abud Russell, Heidelberg University, Germany

Mobility in the Yucatan Peninsula is in a state of flux. The Mayan Train, the controversial project of current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promises to upend decades of neglect in terms of federal investment in the region’s infrastructure and bring about an era of unprecedented economic growth. The Tren Maya, as it is known in Spanish, would connect the largest cities of the region in an effort to improve communication and mobility between the Peninsula’s urban and cultural centres.

Image: Museo de los Ferrocarriles de Yucatán

Although public rail as a means of public transportation is currently non-existent, this was not always the case. Up until the end of the 1970s, a service existed between the cities of Campeche and Merida, two of the largest urban centres of the Yucatan Peninsula at the time. Nevertheless, as Mexico sought to emulate the United States’ development model, federal and local authorities invested in highways in a move to transfer the cost of transportation to the individual. The prevalence of this model saw the creation of a vacuum where public mobility stood, a void that was immediately filled by the rise of buses and colectivos,[1] both operated by private providers. The Tren Maya seeks to offer a public sector option to those who cannot afford to buy a car but who are disappointed by the limited and limiting options of the private sector.

Even if it is true that the train service will offer other mobility options to locals, most of its revenue will come from the influx of tourists to the Yucatan Peninsula. As currently planned, it will connect the major tourist cities of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum with the large archaeological sites of Calakmul and Palenque. Cities such as Campeche a Merida stand to benefit from the large influx of people who will no doubt stop to rest and recharge on their hours long journey. As the Train Maya’s income becomes ever more reliant on foreign tourists, the project risks to alienate locals both in terms of destinations and price, making the only public option a luxury that only wealthy locals will be able to afford.

Image: Museo de los Ferrocarriles de Yucatán

Those in charge of the Tren Maya stand to learn a lesson from Mexico’s past. The use of trains to transport commodities alienated people of the late 19th and early 20th century from what was then a revolutionary technology. The reintroduction of the train in the Yucatan Peninsula could either reinforce patterns of neoliberal alienation, favouring the economy that both relies on and is geared towards the foreign market, or it could mean a true shift in the region’s mobility paradigm.

For this purpose, it is imperative that we preserve and highlight the role that spaces like the Railways Museum of Yucatan (Museo de los Ferrocarriles de Yucatán) play in our ability to study the past of said processes. Their collection is a vivid reminder of the evolution of the train as a means of both public and commodity transportation and of the impact of market forces, rather than the needs of locals, on the shifts and balance between one and the other.

[1] Colectivo is a Spanish word that literally translates into English as collective. In the transportation sector, this refers to vans that serve as means of cheap public transportation that offer services to small villages or marginal communities in the Yucatan peninsula, whichare otherwise not serviced by larger bus companies.

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