The Ghost Train

Back in 2003, when I was having fun backpacking through Mexico, I took a train ride. Not many Mexicans, other than metro systems, will ever take a train ride in Mexico. There used to be quite a few lines, and the train is a big symbol of the Revolution.

But all but two of the passenger lines have closed down, unless someone can think of a third. I’ve excluded the Suburbano, although that is technically a passenger rail system. It feels more like a fancy extension of the metro though.

There’s the Tequila Express, a tourist favourite, from Guadalajara to Amatitan. And the Chepe Train, which runs from the Pacific Coast at Los Mochis, through the Copper Canyon and on to Chihuahua. This was the train ride I took. And the train that featured in one of Televisa’s Bicentenario series of video.

I stayed in Los Mochis for all of ten hours, yet in that short period of time it became my least favourite place in all of Mexico. Hot, sweaty, dirty and my hotel room was infested with cockroaches, and had a non functioning air conditioning system. I slept for all of one hour. Maybe if I’d spent longer in the city, at a nicer hotel, I’d have a more favourable impression. Then again, maybe not.

So I was pretty weary when I got to the train station for the start of my epic 13 hour journey on the Chepe Train to Creel, in the heart of the Copper Canyon. But the most spectacular electrical storm  in the still pitch black sky that entertained us while waiting to board helped wake me up a little.

I can’t recommend the train ride enough though. Adjectives, comparatives and superlatives fail to do the ride justice. Whenever I am asked about my favourite places in Mexico, the Copper Canyon is near the top of the list, and the train ride plays a big part in putting it there. The photo below is one I took with my old nikon Coolpix 880 when the locomotive made a stop at Divisadero.

Not all that long ago, once at Chihuahua, you could change trains and take a ride all the way down to Veracruz. That ended in the very late 90’s I believe. Shame. I like rail travel. It’s more comfortable than air travel, more convenient for domestic journeys and it’s easier to appreciate the scenery.

An expensive high speed passenger rail service was proposed a few years back, with the idea of linking up Mexico City and Guadalajara, with a 2 hour journey time between them, and then adding Monterrey and other cities to the network. It hasn’t happened so far, and I severely doubt it will happen at all.

The cost at the time was quoted at 250 billion pesos (22-ish billion dollars) which would have put a strain on the public purse even then, pre economic crisis. It’s safe to say the cost will have risen since then, the final cost will exceed the quote as is normal in massive projects like this, and government income from oil revenues aren’t going upwards at the moment. And are unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

So we are left with those two lines and memories of days gone by. And the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, with season four being the one of interest. Rick Stein managed to do the whole Los Mochis to Veracruz trip, and the programme can still be found on the Pirate Bay if you can’t find it on video or DVD. I couldn’t, having quickly checked Amazon US and UK. I can though share with you an audio programme that recreates that journey.

Add Comment

  • I do recall when the railroad in Mexico would take you just about anywhere. My memories are of a trip from Juarez to Torreón with the train swaying back at forth all through the night Such trip are no longer available but there may be some light at the end of that railroad tunnel. The trains go back and forth past our town quite often hauling freight from the port of Lazaro Cardenas and probably as far as into the United States. Maybe once this freight hauling becomes more profitable passenger service will be an option?

    • The freight side of the business has always been profitable and busy I believe. In fact I think the suspension of passenger service was very much to the benefit of the freight side of the business.

      I am going to try and upload this video. I just watched it today – really, really good.

  • I can’t see a high-speed rail system between large cities happening anytime soon either. Fares would have to be fairly high to justify the construction and with flights already relatively cheap, a train would be competing with a small market. Unless you could make the fare really cheap and compete with the bus lines…

    • Fares would, I suspect, have to be heavily state subsidized to make the high speed rail network a viable proposition – not viable financially, obviously, but viable as in its use.

      The initial outlay needed is just so vast, that I can’t see it happening. A certain Mr Slim did once mention his interest at investing though, so you never know…

  • I took that train route in the early 1980s, and it was not a tourist train so much at that time. It was simply another Mexican passenger train. Got on in Los Mochis, got off at Divisadero and spent the night at the hotel perched on the very rim of the Copper Canyon. Leaving my hotel room and walking, say, four steps directly ahead would have sent me sailing over the canyon rim. There was a rickety wood fence that maybe came to my waist. The outdoor lights at night were nonexistent. Only one other room at the hotel was occupied.

    My hotel at Los Mochis wasn´t bad, and my then-wife and I had the best plates of barbecued shrimp I´ve ever enjoyed in my life. My memory of Los Mochis is far better than yours.

    Then we continued on via the same train the following day from Divisadero to Chihuahua, and then another train a couple days later to Ciudad Juaréz. It was a safe city in those days.

    • Your memories of Los Mochis are from so long ago though. There are Ukranians who look back fondly at communism, you know. 🙂 I’m pulling your leg, of course. I stayed too briefly in Los Mochis to offer an sort of expert view.

      I nearly stopped at Divisadero to stay. But the two attractive chicks I’d met were going on to Creel, and that was all the convincing I needed. It turned out to be a good call.

      I bussed it from Creel to Chihuahua, and then caught another to C. Juarez. This was much later than your trip. Twas 2003 to be exact. But it wasn’t considered an overly dangerous city even back then, unless you were one of the hundreds of local girls being murdered at the time. I don’t think that was ever resolved, was it? In fact it could well be continuing, but bludgeoned to media irrelevance by the drug battles that are on going.

Leave a Reply