By MARK LORENZANA
After the collision of two trains on Jan. 7 on Line 3 of Mexico City’s Metro Collective Transportation System (STC), which caused the death of an 18-year-old student and injured dozens of others, at least 16 mishaps have been recorded in the Metro, according to a report by Mexican daily newspaper Reforma on Sunday, Jan. 29.
On average, every 31 hours, an incident occurred the past three weeks that caused the Metro service to be suspended.
Smoke on the platforms, flat tires, door failures, detached cables, the separation of a train car and objects thrown onto the tracks — such as cell phones, washing-machine blades and cans — are just some of the examples of these incidents.
On Monday, Jan. 23, passengers were forced to evacuate the Barranca del Muerto station on Line 7 due to a short circuit on the platform, with 30 people suffering smoke inhalation, 15 of whom had to be rushed to a hospital.
Passengers of the Metro, who were interviewed by Reforma, acknowledged that they now travel in fear after the Line 3 accident.
“I can’t stop thinking that it could have been me, this is my route and exactly the time I use the Metro,” said Juan Barrientos, a student from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who uses that line daily. The lone casualty in the Line 3 crash on Jan. 7, Yaretzi Adriana Hernández, was an art student, also from the UNAM.
On Friday, Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office (FGJ) reported that it is investigating seven of the mishaps, including the crash, and said that “there could be malicious acts behind the incidents, with sabotage in mind.”
Six of these incidents occurred after Jan. 12, when Mexico City Governor Claudia Sheinbaum announced the deployment of 6,000 members of the Mexican National Guard (GN) to all Metro stations, due to “extraordinary circumstances.”
Just hours after the deployment of the GN, Viviana Salgado, a housewife, was arrested by elements of the Citizen Security Secretariat (SSC) of the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office, who accused her of having thrown the blades of a washing machine onto the tracks of the Line 9 Centro Médico station. She was detained and charged for damage of public property. Salgado was eventually released, however, and the charges against her were dropped.
In addition to Viviana, three other people have been arrested in separate incidents for allegedly throwing objects onto the train tracks. All have been released without being charged.
The entire STC traverses 226 kilometers of tracks throughout Mexico City, and carries an average of 4.6 million passengers daily.
According to Bernard Navarro of UNAM’s Economic Research Institute, the Metro was conceived in the 1960s as an efficient mass-transport system for Mexico City, a cheaper and faster option for citizens, especially those who couldn’t afford to buy their own cars.
For Navarro, one of the secondary effects of the expansion of the Metro through the years is the change in the value of residential land in neighborhoods with a station nearby, as well as increased commercial development near a Metro terminal.
“During the construction of the Metro lines, the formal land market was activated in the surroundings of each station, and the sign of this impact varied with the income level of the inhabitants in these areas,” said Navarro. “In low-income areas in which the Metro was built, urban land was offered at higher prices on the grounds that the Metro would improve the accessibility of the area. In high-income areas, on the contrary, urban land was offered at lower prices, and the presence of the Metro was essentially ignored,” he said.
There has been an increase, however, in Metro accidents since Sheinbaum took office as head of government in the capital five years ago. The crash on Jan. 7 was the fourth tragedy under her watch, and she has come under fire from critics.
And the recent Metro accidents under Sheinbaum’s administration — the deadliest of which was the May 2021 collapse of a rail overpass on Line 12 that killed 26 people and injured 65 — may already be casting a negative light on the Mexico City governor.
A January survey by business-focused Mexican daily newspaper El Financiero, which was conducted on the day of the Jan. 7 crash, showed a drop in Sheinbaum’s approval ratings by five percentage points to 41 percent since December of last year.
“The Metro is possibly the Achilles heel of Claudia Sheinbaum’s presidential aspirations,” said Jorge Bravo, a political scientist at the UNAM, in an interview with Reuters. Bravo explained that the STC is seen by many as a litmus test for Sheinbaum’s leadership, especially since she is considered the frontrunner as official presidential candidate for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) leftist ruling party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena).
“The problems on the metro didn’t start with Claudia Sheinbaum,” said Bravo. “But if she has cut back on investment, especially in maintenance and renovation, well, it’s not surprising that it’s blowing up on her.”
Sheinbaum has denied accusations from critics that her government had slashed the budget for the STC.
“There has been a lot of information that isn’t real, that the budget has been cut,” Sheinbaum said at a press conference this month, adding that the subway’s budget had increased from about $775 million in 2018 to nearly $1 billion this year. “We are carrying out very important works in the Metro.”
But Mariana Campos, coordinator of the public expenditure and accountability program at Mexican research firm Mexico Evalúa, said Sheinbaum did not take into account factors like inflation. “You’re comparing pears and apples and strawberries,” she said.
A recent study by Mexico Evalúa found out that government spending on the subway actually dropped by 13 percent in the first nine months of last year, compared to the same period in 2021. Likewise, spending on maintenance dropped by 7 percent, according to the study.