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Mexico reviving travel by train Billions poured into new Bullet, Suburban trains

Chris Hawley Republic Mexico City Bureau Jan. 6, 2006 12:00 AM

MEXICO CITY - High-speed bullet trains whooshing across the Mexican countryside. Electric commuter trains slicing through Mexico City. Gleaming new train stations and state-of-the-art switching systems.

It's all part of an ambitious, multibillion-dollar plan to revive train travel in Mexico, a business that was mostly abandoned in 2001 after decades of mismanagement and long, uncomfortable journeys in aging rail cars.

Now construction crews are tearing up streets along the weed-covered rails leading into Mexico City's crumbling Buenavista station, preparing the way for a new $5 billion commuter-rail system that officials are calling the Suburban Train.

And the government is about to open bidding on a $12 billion, 180-mph "Tren Bala," or bullet train, the western hemisphere's first, that will run 360 miles between Mexico City and Guadalajara, the country' second-largest city. There are also plans for a new cargo rail line that could cut 10 hours off the trip from the Pacific port of Manzanillo and Aguascalientes in central Mexico.

The government says it needs trains because Mexico's highways are becoming overloaded with cars, especially around Mexico City, the world's second-largest metropolis after Tokyo. Gridlock-weary chilangos, as Mexico City residents are known, are praising the idea.

But officials are also reaching out to Mexican patriotism, trumpeting the projects as signs of the country's progress.

"This signifies a great step toward modernity," President Vicente Fox said at a ceremony marking construction of the new suburban line. "It's part of a strategy for developing quality public transportation for the inhabitants of our cities."

Laying down tracks

The government has pledged to finish the first 15-mile section of the Suburban Train system by 2007 and the Bullet Train by 2011. Both projects are being funded by a combination of private investment and government bonds.

CAF, the Spanish company building the suburban line, will also operate it under a 30-year contract with the government. It's unclear who will run the bullet train, although it's likely to be a contractor as well. In Mexico, it's not unusual for foreign companies to manage airports and other government-owned enterprises.

Several countries have built high-speed rail lines. The most well-known are Japan's Shinkansen and France's TGV, but Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and South Korea also have them. Taiwan and China plan to build high-speed lines as well.

The United States has Amtrak's Acela train, which runs between Washington, New York and Boston. But it shares its track with conventional trains, which limits its speed.

"If Mexico were to pull this off, it would be the first true high-speed rail system in the Western Hemisphere," said William Vantuono, editor of Railway Age, a trade publication based in New York. "And as long as they can avoid a lot of political interference, their chances of doing this are pretty good."

The government has hired French company SYSTRA to plan the rail line and plans to begin awarding construction contracts within months.

The leading candidate in the 2006 presidential election, Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador, has an even more ambitious plan. He is promising to extend the bullet train, which he calls "the Eagle," north to Nuevo Laredo, on the border with Texas, and west to Mexicali and Tijuana. Travelers from Arizona could catch the train in Puerto Peasco or Hermosillo, Sonora.

Lpez Obrador is also promising a rail line to span the 150-mile Isthmus of Tehuantepec separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in southern Mexico. The line would be an alternative to the Panama Canal for companies shipping goods to Asia.

Old railroad lines

Railroads have played an important part in Mexico's history . The first train line was built in 1857 in downtown Mexico City. In the late 1800s, dictator Porfirio Daz made railway construction his first priority, in part to populate northern Mexico and discourage U.S. expansion.

During the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa seized rail lines and used the trains to move his troops.

Later, the railway workers' union became the prototype for the "charro unions," the corrupt labor groups that helped the Revolutionary Institutional Party rule Mexico for 71 years.

By the 1980s, Mexico's railroads were falling into disrepair. In the 1990s, the government sold all the lines to private companies.

Kansas City Southern now owns the lucrative trunk route from Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo. Ferromex, a company that is 26 percent owned by Union Pacific, controls the southeastern routes to the Yucatn Peninsula and the northwestern lines to Arizona and California.

The private companies discontinued the unprofitable passenger service, except in a few places like the Copper Canyon of northwestern Mexico. These days, most long-distance travel is done by bus or airplane.

But as Mexico's economic footing has improved in the past decade, the federal government has been spending millions of dollars on transportation projects. And increasingly, it has been looking to the rails.

Trains' next stop

Mexico's first project is the Suburban Train, which could eventually include 140 miles of track around Mexico City. The first 15-mile section runs from Buenavista to the northern suburb of Cuautitln. Fares will be about 90 cents, CAF has said.

The train is expected to move about 320,000 people a day and keep about 20,000 cars off the road, the government says. With a population of 18 million people, Mexico City has serious problems with traffic congestion and air pollution.

The city already has a well-regarded subway system, and last summer it launched the MetroBus, a fleet of articulated buses that serve a string of elevated stations running along Insurgentes Avenue.

Not everyone is happy with the suburban train project.

"This train is being built according to the whims of the government, and they're not taking into account people who live here," said Juan Luis Meja Rios of Mexico City's northern Atlampa neighborhood, as workers tore up a nearby railroad crossing.

Residents in Meja's apartment building are angry about bridges that the government plans to build over the tracks. They fear the retaining walls will block the light in their courtyard.

"No to the wall and the bridges of death!" say huge letters painted on the building.

The government says it's trying to minimize such intrusions by putting the train at the bottom of an 18-foot-deep trench. That will eliminate railroad crossings, paving the way for the bullet train.

Commuters, meanwhile, said they're all for the project. With about 3 million vehicles in the capital, rush hour is a daily ordeal of honking horns and crunching bumpers.By car, the trip from Buenavista to Cuautitln takes about three hours during rush hour, the government says. The train should cut the trip to 25 minutes.

"There are too many cars in this city, and it's only getting worse. I think it's a great that they're bringing back the trains," said Elpidio Herrera, as he waited for a bus near the old Buenavista station.

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