Mayan Train’s fast track raising concerns in Mexico

|     Christopher Sherman     |

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Maps, renderings and charts paper the walls of a government conference room. They lay out in detail the plans for a rail line that could be Mexico’s biggest infrastructure project in a century.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has put the multibillion-dollar Mayan Train project on a fast track. He said it will provide an economic boon for the poor communities of Mexico’s long neglected southeast by bringing in more tourists and the hotels, restaurants and other businesses needed to serve them.

Yet, among the papers on that wall at Mexico’s tourism development agency is a chart showing that the Mayan Train is being pursued at a pace that outside observers say could threaten its feasibility, the environment and the people the President wants to help.

The chart in the Fonatur offices outlines planning, contracting and building times for 45 recent train projects in Canada, Australia, Britain and France. Those projects, which do not approach the Mayan Train’s length, averaged seven to 10 years to complete.

And there’s the rub: López Obrador is limited to a single six-year term and wants the trains running before he leaves office December 1, 2024. The chart said the nearly 950 miles of the Mayan Train will be finished in 4.8 years, with nearly all of the time savings coming from the planning and contracting phases.

Photo of a planned train through the Yucatan Peninsula. – AP

“Yes, we’ve skipped some steps, but we are forced to by the circumstances of the political terms,” said Rogelio Jiménez Pons, Director of Fonatur who said government planners are also working with international experts and the United Nations. “It’s a six-year term, so if you don’t get at least a year of operation for the project it’s at serious risk.”

López Obrador himself underlined that point by making one of his first presidential acts the cancelling of a partially built USD13 billion new airport for Mexico City that was begun by his predecessor.

The Mayan Train would circle the Yucatan Peninsula and drop a spur south to near the border with Guatemala. It would serve tourists and workers at Cancun and the glistening resorts of the Riviera Maya, but also haul cargo.

López Obrador said the project will fulfill his dream of helping the people of the southeast and will display a new brand of inclusive development and respect for the environment. “Not a single tree will be felled,” the President has said — a promise that strains credulity for a project that is intended to travel through jungle, even if it is along existing right of way.

An immediate question for many is whether planning and executing a megaproject can really be carried out so quickly. And what about its projected cost of USD6.3 billion to USD7.9 billion?

The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a public policy think tank, published a study last month predicting the cost would come in at four times that — USD25.3 billion.

Its report also urged not to rush the project without careful planning.

“There aren’t serious cost-benefit analysis studies, nor a study about demand, nor a serious study of bids that will really have a projection of this train,” said Ana Thaís Martínez, a researcher who wrote the study.

She also noted that Mexico’s other recent rail project, a 36-mile commuter line between Mexico City and Toluca, is already 90 per cent over its initial USD2 billion budget and remains unfinished after more than six years of construction. It was supposed to be completed by 2017.