What’s the Deal with the “Mayan Train”?

Perhaps one of Mexico’s largest publicity stunts to date, the Mayan Train is an ambitious project. Announced in September 2018 by Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador (AMLO), the rail infrastructure behemoth comes with an impressive $7.7 billion price tag.

The benefits of the new train line (as extolled by the government) include:

  • connecting remote villages
  • helping commuters
  • encouraging tourism

Arguably, it’s that last one that’s the biggest driver behind the project. In fact, the national tourism promoter, Fonatur (National Fund for Tourism Development), will reportedly operate the train when it’s completed.

Where will the train go, anyways?

With over 900 miles of track, the “Mayan Train” will connect multiple Mayan ruins – hence its name. A vague loop shape, the train line will link central Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula.

Proposed stations include many of Mexico’s famous archaeological sites:

  • Palenque
  • Chichen Itza
  • Coba
  • Tulum
  • Calakmul
  • …and more!
The Mayan Train Route. The dashed yellow line to Cancun was the route in the original plan, and has now been replaced by the purple route. Image: Fonatur

Work officially kicked off on December 16th 2018 in Palenque, with a Mayan ritual attended by the president AMLO himself. The ceremony asked Mother Earth for permission to build the project (apparently, she gave her assent).

This is a big deal. What’s the impact?

The construction will reportedly use pre-existing train lines where possible (leftovers from a previous ill-fated rail project – oh the irony), but much of the Mayan Train will be new build.

The proposed route has the train cutting through jungles, beaches, and Mayan villages. Construction crews may even unearth Mayan ruin sites previously unknown to archaeologists!

Yes, of course, there will be studies to determine the environmental impact. But where existing train lines are rehabilitated for use, the permitting process is more lenient (naturally).

The current plan calls for new track to be built straight through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. If you think this sounds like a bad idea, scientists agree with you and have already raised concerns regarding construction of the line as well as operating it in this environmentally sensitive area.

But don’t worry! AMLO has declared that the new train line will parallel existing electrical towers all the way through the reserve. It’s basically going to be built on top of already-cleared, bare ground. (Uh-huh.)

Add to that, the Mexican government is promising to use zero-emission hydrogen trains rather than dirty ol’ diesel. (Keep in mind, the president doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the environment…in general.) When it comes to people, more than 200 communities will supposedly have to be “reorganized” to accommodate the new train line. So, basically residents will get kicked out to make way for the project. It’s unclear whether they’ll have any say in whether they can dispute the routing, or where and how they’ll be resettled if (when) the train does displace them.

What will it cost to build and where’s the money coming from?

With a budget of $7.7 billion USD, president AMLO says he can complete this expensive, multi-year project by 2023.

To pay for everything, funding is being funneled from existing government projects and programs. The money from cash cows, like Mexican Grand Prix for example, will go towards the train. This budget-repurposing hasn’t made the train popular within the Mexican government.   In fact, b udget concerns have already begun, and the planned route has already changed to reduce the amount of new track needed. At approximately $5M USD/km of track, saving 50 kilometers adds up to a lot of savings.

What do Mexican people think of this “Mayan Train” thing?

Before starting the Mayan Train project, the president held a national consultation to gauge public support. A whole 1% of the population showed up to vote on the Mayan Train, and it was approved. Huzzah!

Despite the positive results of the “vote” there is plenty of opposition to the project. One of the loudest is the EZLN Zapatista anarcho-socialist group, also known as the National Liberation Zapatista Army. This Mayan group is vehemently opposed to the project and they say they’re not afraid to resort to violence to stop it. Not shockingly, they’re concerned about a major construction project going through their villages and communities without their consent. Scientists as well have publicly cautioned against going ahead with construction in sensitive areas, like the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, without proper studies.

What does it mean for Xcalak?

With stations proposed for Felipe Carillo Puerto and Bacalar, the train can get visitors close to getting to Xcalak before they hop on a bus for the final leg of their journey. A convenient train line also means that tourism will likely spread from the northern Yucatan (Cancun, Tulum) down to the south.

The government anticipates 3 million people a year will ride the Mayan Train (the number of people who currently visit Tulum every year), and these people need infrastructure.

More development could be a good thing for remote villages – it can lead to a higher standard of living, access to more resources, and local income from tourism. So, is the Mayan Train a worthwhile infrastructure project or an ill-conceived fantasy? We’ll know soon enough. Or at least by 2023.

Want to know the best way to get to Xcalak? You need this post!