ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Mexico 2019 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS

After asking the public's opinion in a referendum—and Mother Earth's permission in a Mayan ritual—President López Obrador has commenced one of the flagship projects of his administration.

Tren Maya, or the Mayan Train, was one of the 35 megaprojects that Andrés Manuel López Obrador capitalized on during his presidential campaign. The project was mainly announced as a game changer for the nation's tourism, but it will also contribute to the Yucatán peninsula's transportation by carrying local passengers and freight.

President López Obrador has always been a big believer in the efficacy of railroads and high-speed trains. He spoke about the benefits of bullet trains back in 2006 when he ran for president for the first time and reaffirmed his confidence in trains as the best means of transportation for Mexico by calling them the engines of development.

The proposed Tren Maya involves over 1,525km of tracks across the Yucatán Peninsula, connecting the beach resort city of Cancún, in Quintana Roo, to the small city of Escárcega in Campeche via two different northern and southern routes. A third track, meanwhile, links Escárcega to Palenque in Chiapas, which is known as an old Mayan settlement.

The idea is that the Tren Maya route with its 15 strategically placed stations will make Mexico's—mostly Mayan—archaeological sites more accessible to international and local visitors and breath life into the region's economy.

All this obviously will not be possible without investment. According to official estimations, the project's final bill will not exceed MXN150 billion (roughly USD7.65 billion), which will be paid using a pool of revenue coming from tourism tax levies, the

National Fund for Tourism Development, and PPPs.
However, more pessimistic estimations point at final costs as high as MXN480 billion (roughly USD24.5 billion). This rings a rather worrying bell as the previous governments have had to give up on similar ambitious railroad projects in the past when costs ballooned up—namely, a USD-3.75 billion contract for a high-speed railroad that was awarded to a Chinese company was canceled in 2014.

Enrique Peña Nieto, López Obrador's predecessor, too, spoke of a railway linking Cancún to Mérida, but had to let go of the idea in 2015, when austerity measures kicked in. Tren Maya has also been criticized by some as a politically charged promise that has not been thought through. The project's potential impact on the region's ecosystem and the lives of indigenous people living along the tracks has caused some concern.

In response to critics, López Obrador has famously promised that not even a single tree will be cut down due to the construction work. When the public were given a chance to express their opinion thorough a national public consultation in November 2018, a unanimous majority of 89% gave President López Obrador's proposal a thumbs up, though the voter turnout was low (approximately 1%). The low turnout cannot be held against the plan however. If president López Obrador's current approval rate of 66%— according to an opinion poll by El Financiero—is anything to go by, it seems that the plan does have the public's overall support for the time being.

In any case, the project was officially inaugurated on December 16, 2018, barely a fortnight after the president was inaugurated himself. The launching ceremony included a traditional Mayan ritual as a sign of respect for the indigenous people whose name is attached to the project.

During the event, López Obrador said—in a half leftist, half folksy tone—that the project had to be viewed as a well-placed investment in a region which has been neglected by many. Though there are still uncertainties on the horizon, it is certain that the project will bring about some investment in real estate across the Yucatán Peninsula.

If the megaproject proceeds according to plan, the first high-speed train routes will become operational in four years' time, which will trigger the construction of malls, food and beverage establishments, and hotels in the region. Head of the National Tourism Promotion Fund (FONATUR), Rogelio Jiménez Pons, believes that the new railway's knock-on effect on real estate investment will be “significant," while “hundreds of thousands of jobs" will be created for the locals in the process.