By Deborah Van Hoewyk
In 1979, we took a train from the port of Vera Cruz to Jalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, to visit a friend. A beautiful trip; a train with old-fashioned charm, chugging slowly up the sides of the Sierra Madre Oriental. We saw coffee beans ripening among glossy green leaves, crossed deep gorges on spidery bridges, and ate gorditas we bought from women who boarded the train whenever it stopped. There might even have been a chicken crate or two overhead.
My friend was horrified: “NOBODY rides the train!”
So we went back down the mountains on a comfortable but boring bus. No coffee-bean landscapes or isolated villages untouched by automotive traffic. Although Mexican passenger trains hung on for another two decades, the bus had become the way to go.
Revolution and the railroad
Trains had come to Mexico in the latter 19th century; although the first concession to build a railway from Veracruz to Mexico City was issued in the 1830s, financial problems, concessions that failed, civil war, and foreign invasions kept it from completion until 1873. By bringing railroad construction under the aegis of the federal government, Porfirio Díaz greatly expanded the rail network during his presidency/dictatorship (1876-1911, with a couple of hiatuses), going from 640 to 24,720 kilometers, much of it built by foreign investors to facilitate their commercial interests.
The major impact of the early railroad was its provision of freight service, although most trains did carry passenger cars, and passengers represented about 30% of rail traffic up until the Mexican Revolution). Because the system was dominated by foreign investment, profits left the country; moreover, serving foreign interests meant that the railroad did not contribute to Mexican business or entrepreneurship.
In 1909, Porfirio Díaz addressed these problems by nationalizing train service under a company called Ferrocarilles Nacionales de México (FNM). When the Mexican Revolution started in 1910, the railroads played a key role in deployment for troops on both side—it was also a key target for attacks by competing Revolutionary factions, who destroyed track, bridges, and critical equipment. Post-revolutionary attention went to repair and maintenance of the existing system, with complete nationalization achieved serially in the period 1929-37.
Never again would the railroad serve as the heart of Mexico’s transportation strategy. In its boom years (1881-84), the rail system had added 5000 kilometers, while in the sixty years between 1935 and 1995 rail coverage expanded by only 3000 kilometers; in 1998, the total was 30,952 kilometers. To combat mounting losses, FNM was privatized into four separate companies in 1995; nearly all passenger service was suspended by 1998.
From rails to roads
In the 1920s, the government turned its attention to the road system, as the Revolution had initiated land reform and a campaign of agricultural modernization that required more flexible access to rural areas. Federal investment went to the roads and stayed there, with an agenda of stimulating agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing based on Mexican investment and economic capacity rather than foreign investment and imports. It’s been argued that the road system was a critical factor in Mexico’s post-Revolution transformation. When Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized foreign-owned oil companies in 1938, the government could keep the cost of gasoline at an artificial low, aiding the shift to automotive transportation as a matter of development strategy.
Creating the basic road system in Mexico took from 1925, early in the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, until 1959, when the Ministry of Communications and Public Works set up a division to deal with automotive traffic. Thirty-odd years of road-building was hardly a matter of money and cheap gas, however. It represented a political vision of a capitalist economy in which a tiny wealthy class was supposed generate economic growth that would reach the very small middle class and much larger bottom tiers of society, who would be served by road-based access. On the other hand, because the post-Revolution government was still working towards stability, the road-system project also required deep cooperation with regional and local stakeholders.
Anyone who’s driven from Huatulco to Oaxaca City can see the topographical obstacles, and if you’ve done it in the rainy season you can appreciate the climatic obstacles. Because cars were only for the rich for quite a while, any road system would have to accommodate more than its share of trucks and buses. It was a slow start for Calles, who seems to have concentrated on the administrative aspects, but Cárdenas managed to build some momentum, finishing the highway from Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo before 1940.
Of course, the vehicles that would travel these roads were mainly produced in the United States; there was a disruption in vehicle supply during World War II, when the U.S. turned to building military vehicles, a hint of how intertwined the U.S. and Mexican transportation systems truly were, and remain.
Once the WWII crisis receded, Mexico went back to building highways and encouraging local jurisdictions to develop a rural road network.
By 1998, despite economic and fiscal crises in the 1970s, Mexico had 323,761 kilometers of highways and byways, 30% of them paved, plus another 6,335 kilometers of expressways, most of them tollways—ten times as much road as rail. (Another 1,725 kms of expressways has been built since then, including the Arco Norte, much beloved by those who drive from the northland to destinations in Oaxaca state.)
Got roads? Get buses!
Buses seem to have started rolling right behind the bulldozers. The premier bus line in the state of Oaxaca, ADO (Autobuses de Oriente) opened with six Bentley Continental buses just in time for Christmas 1939; they ran east from Mexico City through Puebla and Jalapa to Veracruz. According to ADO’s corporate history, the beginning was plagued with difficulties—people did not yet realize they needed public transport, the roads were still few and dangerous, there were no terminals (they stopped at major hotels) or garages, the founding principals had to serve as their own drivers, baggage handlers, and mechanics. Each trip was an “aventura peligrosa.”
Nonetheless they persevered. In the 1940s, they switched to Spartan buses (made in Michigan) that carried 22 passengers and had Red Diamond engines capable of speeds of 120 km/h. They also started building their own terminals in the 40s and 50s, along with their own bus maintenance workshops. Always buying the best vehicles available at the time, today ADO runs Mercedes Benz buses with bodies by a Brazilian company, Marcopolo, and made in Mexico; the company is also test driving the Irizar Century coach by Scania.
Along with buses, ADO also acquires or aligns itself with bus companies. Should you tire of the sun-sand-sea combo in Huatulco, just go on up Chahue Boulevard to the sparkling ADO terminal on the north edge of La Crucecita. You can choose from ADO GL (luxury), OCC (first class), SUR (intermedio—lots of stops), and Ecobus and AU (directo economico). If your destination is Sam’s Club in Salina Cruz, it will cost you (in pesos) $154 for luxury, $134 for first class, $71 for intermedio, and $116 for directo economico.
You can go to Oaxaca City and San Juan Bautista Tuxtepec; Puebla; three stations in Mexico City; ten destinations in the Isthmus; Tapachula, Cintalapa, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Palenque. And depending on the class of service, you’ll be comfy and amused all the way—Mexico’s intercity bus system is considered one of the best in the world.
Worried about the safety of the buses on those death-defying mountain curves up and down to Oaxaca? Or those trailer trucks that come around blind corners at top speed down the middle of the road? Don’t be. While over 99% of transportation fatalities in Mexico are automotive, buses account for only 1.29% of those fatalities.
The bus system has not yet completely killed the passenger train, although the current system is devoted to short-run tourism (two companies run trains through the Copper Canyon). However, at his December 1 inauguration, President Enrique Peña Nieto presented a huge scheme to restore passenger rail service. It will cost billions of dollars before it’s done, but step one is to run a rail line from the Mayan Riviera to Merida. A later project is high-speed rail between D.F. and Queretaro, and then to Guadalajara, in support of business travel with tourism on the side. Smaller projects he mentioned are Mexico City-Toluca and Mexico City-Tlaxcala-Puebla.
Of course, engineers are still working on the feasibility studies and cost estimates—so the savvy traveler would do well to check the bus schedules for a while yet.