Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador inaugurated the first part of the controversial Maya Train on Friday. Billed as an ambitious effort to boost tourism, the rail system will eventually connect archaeological and tourist destinations in a rough loop through five states.
The newly completed section runs between Campeche and Cancún, carrying up to 231 passengers across 290 miles and stopping at 14 train stations. (Eventually, the system will cover 950 miles and stop at 20 stations.) It opened to passengers on Saturday after a roughly five-hour delay.
Though the first section of what is frequently called Obrador’s “pet project” was, according to the president’s speech at the inauguration, “done in record time,” the full construction has gone grossly over budget, with estimates of $8.3 billion in 2020 rising to $28 billion more recently.
The Maya Train has been a subject of debate from the beginning, with the government’s rush to complete the project before the end of Obrador’s term earning serious criticism from environmentalists, archaeologists and activists. In 2021, for example, the Obrador administration passed a decree that forces automatic approval for public works deemed to be “in the national interest” or to “involve national security,” allowing the project to move forward while skipping certain regulatory measures.
“These [railway lines] are artificial borders for species like jaguars,” Aarón Hernández Siller, who works with the environmental NGO CEMDA, tells the Guardian’s Thomas Graham. “And they are so wide—more than 60 meters [roughly 197 feet]—that they are a border for certain seeds and spores, too.”
In August, the Mexican environmental organization CartoCrítica released satellite data showing that almost 16,500 acres had been deforested, much of it reportedly in violation of Mexican federal regulations. The Maya Train also endangers hundreds of freshwater caves called cenotes.
“The more we pollute the center of the peninsula, the more we pollute the ocean. It’s already harming the coral reefs, the algae, all this oxygen production,” cave diver Bernadette Carrión tells BBC News’ Will Grant. The cenotes have “naturally filtered, purified water,” she adds, but “once it gets polluted, no life will be sustained here.”
Six UNESCO World Heritage sites and thousands of archaeological sites are also located along the train route. Already, the construction has uncovered a number of artifacts: In 2021, for example, researchers found a Maya canoe that dates to between 830 and 950 C.E. near Chichén Itzá. It will eventually go on display in one of three government-funded museums set to open in the next two years, according to the Art Newspaper’s Gabriella Angeleti.
In addition to environmental and archaeological damage, critics also cite safety concerns. Certain sections of the Maya Train are built over structurally fragile ground.
“We’re talking about an underground that’s like a Swiss cheese,” Hernández Siller tells the Guardian. “Putting trains of hundreds if not thousands of tons on top—it could collapse the caves underneath.”
General Óscar Lozano Águila, the director of the Maya Train, isn’t worried. “If you ask me as a soldier, as a technician or as a simple systems operator, my answer would be the same: Every Mexican and every international tourist travelling on our train will be safe,” he tells BBC News.
Local opinion on the project is divided. Some are happy with the compensation they received and hopeful that the initiative will boost the economy, while others see it as a takeover of their ancestral lands.
“The president has an idea of development that is from the mid-20th century,” Ana Esther Ceceña, an economist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, tells the Guardian. “There is no way to build a train like this without bulldozing the local ways of life.”
The government argues that the train will strengthen local communities, and a 2020 analysis from the United Nations Human Settlements Program predicted that it will create 715,000 new jobs by 2030.
For better or for worse, the Maya Train has, as the Guardian puts it, “proved unstoppable.” Authorities say it will be finished by the end of February 2024.