Since the idea of the Maya Train first started being thrown around in early 2018, the project has been polarizing. That said, the notion of boarding a train in Palenque and getting off in Cancún or Calakmul sure is romantic. But the thrust of criticism towards the Mayan Train have never had to do with its allure — but rather its impact and viability.
Unless you have been under a rock for several years, the Maya Train (also known as the Mayan Train or, locally, Tren Maya) is a rail project that intends to connect México’s southeast. This is in an effort to promote tourism and industry and provide connectivity across the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. The project is slated to be completed late in 2023, though engineers working on the project interviewed by Yucatán Magazine say this deadline is virtually impossible.
But this reality seems completely lost on a wide array of domestic and international outlets (especially lately) that, for some reason or another, have thrown all skepticism to the wind and essentially see the project’s success as a done deal.
In a very real way, López Obrador’s over-selling of the project with unrealistic promises, such as “Not a single tree will be felled,” served him up on a silver platter for opposition politicians and sincere environmentalists. Similarly, the president’s claims that the people of southeastern Mexico were all on board and that the Maya want the Maya Train has turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, to put it lightly.
But it is not just that AMLO oversold the public on the Maya Train. The involvement of the armed forces in the project and plans to have them operate the rail network, as well as a series of hotels, would be laughable if they did not sound so misguided. Who the heck wants to stay in a hotel run by the Mexican military anyway? Promises that profits will go to the armed forces sound like nothing but pandering.
On the other hand, the Maya Train has created over 100,000 badly needed jobs in the region, even though most of these are temporary. It is also true that overall, México’s southeast has historically been ignored by the federal government and that the Maya Train represents an extremely ambitious investment in one of the country’s most underdeveloped regions.
There are other issues, such as a lack of transparency regarding fund allocation and the fact that the president has declared the project an issue of national security to skirt the rulings of judges that would halt construction. But these concerns are beside the point.
I doubt I am alone when I say that I sincerely hope it succeeds, even though I am extremely skeptical. For starters, the ever-ballooning cost of the project, which has already surpassed 3 billion dollars, would seem like an incredible waste if the project were to be abandoned or fail completely.
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The first scenario sounds unlikely, as the president’s party, Morena, will almost surely win next year’s elections. Regardless of who ends up in the president’s chair (most likely Ebrard or Sheinbaum), either would unlikely bail on Maya Tain. This would give the project another six years to deliver on its ambitious promises and actually build those state-of-the-art stations the government has been flaunting for years but are still nothing more than computer renders.
The other danger is that the Maya Train simply turns into a white elephant before collapsing under its own weight. Under this scenario, it’s easy to imagine AMLO and his successor taking a victory lap on a 20-mile stretch of rail only to look for others to blame when the project fails to return its investment.
Either way, the failure of the Maya Train would be catastrophic both in economic terms and environmental. Much as the damage has already been made. In short, it would be the worst of both worlds.
Like many Mexicans, I have little faith in the project but continue to hope that there is something I have overlooked or that my ideological perspective is somehow skewing reality.
This country has been through so much, and such a massive waste would be an abysmal embarrassment and financial catastrophe. An actual train is set to be tested on its tracks in July. I hope these tests succeed and that in a few years, I will eat my words and get to enjoy making my way through Yucatán’s jungles and beaches in style and comfort.