A render of the planned Tren Maya. Photo: Gobierno de México


While the construction of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) favored megaproject the Tren Maya has been plagued by numerous issues throughout its controversial construction, perhaps no part of the project has faced as many challenges as the railway’s Section 5 South from Tulum to Cancún – a portion of the train’s track that’s now officially been rerouted for the fifth time since 2021, the Mexican government announced on Monday, Feb. 13.

The Mexican government’s Monday-morning announcement revealed that 42.1 kilometers of Section 5 South track will now be compromised of elevated viaducts, standing in stark contrast to the Environmental Impact Statement (MIA) approved by the Secretariat of of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) in June 2022, which initially approved 67.7 kilometers of ground-level tracks only marked by pedestrian and vehicular crossings.

“The project will not be visible due to the existing vegetation and infrastructure that acts as a visual barrier, and the project will be installed at ground level and will not require any infrastructure that gives it greater height, with which it could become more visible,” the National Fund for Tourism Promotion (Fonatur) promised in the 2022 MIA.

The Semarnat has dictated that no changes may be made to the construction plans laid out by the MIA without prior notice and approval; however, the federal government’s preemptive Feb. 13 announcement has completely ignored the Semarnat’s established standards for construction changes in what’s become a demonstrated pattern by the government to continue building the Tren Maya, no matter what judicial suspensions or legal blockages are levied onto the project.

According to the López Obrador administration, the new viaducts – which include 17.5-meter high girders and a 290-meter long cable-stayed bridge — will help the Tren Maya’s path to avoid the area’s historic Garra de Jaguar cave, while also claiming that the still-unapproved by the Semarnat route changes are justified under the Semarnat’s initiative to protect the surrounding Yucatán Peninsula’s natural caves, cenotes, soil, flora and fauna.

“Section 5 South extends for 67.7 kilometers. More than 60 percent of the road will be an elevated viaduct to protect the karstic soil, cenotes, caverns and underground rivers in the area,” detailed Fonatur Director Javier May at the time.

“The elevated viaduct will be supported on columns and hermetic piles installed under strict security measures that will prevent spillage of materials and prevent contamination of the aquifer mantle,” added the Fonatur leader.

Though the changes are purported by the federal government to diminish the train’s environmental destruction, the true extent of the reroute’s damage is unknown without a corresponding – and theoretically, legally necessary – MIA.

In fact, the Tren Maya has been widely criticized by environmental experts and climate activists for what some have said is an act of “ecocide” against the Yucatán Peninsula

According to a column in Mexican daily newspaper Reforma by journalist Sergio Sarmiento, even if the Tren Maya completely halted all construction today, it would take more than 20 years for all of the cleared vegetation to grow back to its former state.

Likewise, Sarmiento also pointed out the low chance of the tourism-based passenger train to recoup its climbing construction costs, especially when considering that the Tren Maya’s close proximity and often parallel routes to the area’s highways are often filled with low-cost buses, transportation options that are more likely to appeal to the Tren Maya’s target audience than the train itself.

While the ultimate environmental and financial impact of the Tren Maya is yet to be determined, Sarmiento concisely summed up the project’s anticipated outcome at his column’s conclusion.

“In the end, the government will have in its hands a train that will require a heavy subsidy simply to function, as is happening with the Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA),” surmised Sarmiento. “We will have destroyed thousands of hectares of vegetation, and endangered a complex ecosystem, simply to fulfill a whim, not to build a project that adds value to the Yucatán Peninsula or to our country.”

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