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Making Tracks

November 30, 2020

A couple of months ago, my friend Ixchel introduced me to the old train route that used to pass through San Juan Tlacotenco, a village sited close to a thousand feet above our town of Tepoztlan. We’re always looking for new places for a hike, and this extended loop proved fascinating to both of us. The railroad never made it to Tepoz, only to San Juan, but it ran until the 1990s, when the rails and sleepers were torn up. The trackway, though, was preserved as a rough road half-paved with small pieces of limestone that had once kept the sleepers in place. It passes through San Juan, on past the village cemetery, and still further to the city of Cuernavaca 17 kilometres away. Or, in the other direction, goes 94 km to Mexico City.

A section of the trackway blasted through an outcrop of volcanic rock.

Because trains can’t climb a steep gradient, train tracks have to be laid in extensive loops in mountainous areas. As a result, to walk, cycle or drive (yes, it’s drivable) along the route means you’re never quite sure what’s around the next bend. Our first couple of expeditions were pleasant strolls between trees arching above us. Later on, we decided to drive the parts we’d already walked, parking the aging Ford Explorer I use once we found a decent space for reversing, and continuing on foot to enjoy open sky, with vistas reaching for miles to the south and west, amid baking hot afternoon sunshine. 

A vista of distant mountains, and a loop in the modern intercity highway to Mexico City.

As we walked, it was hard not to notice how the railroad engineers of the late 1800s had addressed the variable terrain. In places, we’d be on high embankments, while in others, we’d be walking across small bridges that spanned gullies and stream-beds. And a lot of the time, we’d be walking through gaps blasted out of the original rock. There are no big wooden trestle bridges, as you see in old movies, but a lot of earth had to be piled up and packed tight in certain places.

Perhaps passengers of long ago noticed nothing of this construction, noting only the occasional panorama of hills and plains. But for pedestrians today, it’s easy to grasp. At some points where rock was blasted with dynamite, modest overhangs still provide shelter for snakes, bugs and things that we prefer not to disturb. In others, we can look 10 or 15 metres down an almost sheer drop, or into a gap where a stream long ago carved out a groove in the hillside. It’s plain that, with no trains passing through, trees have not had to be cut back radically, though the road seems to be maintained for the occasional vehicles that pass along it. If you’re in a car, and another one comes along, it can be hairy trying to find a space at the side that doesn’t give way to a drop-off, or to reverse until a wider piece of trackway opens up.

But I’m lastingly impressed by the sheer physical ingenuity and labour involved in cutting a way along the extensive hillsides. I’m also impressed by the huge quantities of explosives that were called for, and the amount of earth and rock to be moved.

Surveyors had to identify the optimal route, noting the obstacles along the way. Yes, there were steam-driven machines in the 1870s, and the construction trains themselves could carry cranes and boilers to generate steam power. Still, a lot of what was done had to be managed with muscle power by gangs of men. 

In one spot, I was impressed at the way chunks of blasted rock had been used to line the outside of an embankment preventing earth being washed away in the rainy season. At other points, we’d barely notice a very low parapet of a bridge (trains, being on rails, can’t drive off the sides) that told us the bushes to the sides masked a drop off. 

Rocks, many now tumbled, protect the side of an embankment.

The route that was cut had to be wide enough for at least one train, apparently only a few sections hosting double tracks. I described the San Juan train station a couple of posts ago, but I don’t doubt there were others, all needing staff. There would have been a signalling system, and a need for crews to cut back vegetation each year during and after the rainy season; and of course, at times, a need to repair whole sections of track that washed away. 

But mostly, the thing had to be built right in the first place. Putting in track in an area where soils were loose, or rocks were fractured, could lead to disaster.

I assume these skills still exist, but that they did so in the 1870s and 1880s is remarkable. Reliable infrastructure never comes cheap, and to observe how much had been constructed in just this one area clarified the efforts made under the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz to modernise Mexico. To see how it had been essentially abandoned after a century also gave pause for thought. 

Today, there are places along this walking route from which you can see the four-lane highway that has replaced the trains. That, too, needed huge investment, but it lacks the flexibility of a railroad. For me, there’s no romance in either giant trucks or intercity buses. 

Rail travel helped define the later part of the Industrial Revolution and the events of the 20th Century. As I mentioned in the recent piece on the surviving San Juan train station, I grew up with trains as a kid, and was ten or twelve years old before anyone I knew had flown on a jetliner. Trains are still preferred over air travel in the UK and Europe, since they’ll take you city centre to city centre, and without the same need for extreme security as occurs in airports. 

But Mexico before the 1970s had few cities over a hundred thousand population, and trains therefore linked a lot of smaller places, bringing about growth in population as well as encouraging manufacturing or larger farming operations as the chance to ship out goods and food presented itself. That huge effort is commemorated by people who maintain train museums in the cities of Puebla and Cuautla, but it isn’t well appreciated by the general population. 

People who can recall Mexican passenger trains tell me they were slow and uncomfortable, and they’re rarely missed. There are some commuter and tourist trains around, and a new line, the Maya Train, is being built in the south of the country. But buses are the main way we mostly travel between cities, and aircraft replace these for longer hauls. 

Whatever – I’m glad at least this segment of the old rail system is left for people to explore and to expand on with a little imagination. And I do wonder if, with all his egotism and other faults, any Mexican leader has yet equalled what old Porfirio Diaz accomplished a century and more ago.