Salina Cruz to Veracruz … Mexico offers an option

By Mike Jarrett

In December 2023 Mexico commissioned its new railroad spanning the shortest distance between the country’s Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coast. The service is designed to move passengers and cargo in a 3-hour ride from the port at Salina Cruz on Mexico’s Pacific coast to Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz.

The activation of this rail service presents a range of economic opportunities in Mexico’s southern region. Indeed, initiatives to attract investors and to stimulate industrial expansion in the region have been continuing.

The idea of linking both coasts dates back to the late 19th Century when Jose Porfirio took control of Mexico. By 1907 a railway line, Tren Interoceánico, was in operation, effectively opening the doors for international trade involving both the Pacific and the Gulf coasts.

This investment initially yielded great results as high volumes of cargo moved between both coasts. However, with the opening of the Panama Canal less than a decade later, cargo volumes moving across the Mexican hinterland fell significantly, 80% by one estimate. It soon got to the point of decline where it was no longer feasible to operate this service.

For more than a century this railroad facility remained broken and unused, until 2018 when Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador announced plans to resuscitate it. His stated intention was to compete for cargo being moved through the Panama Canal. Plans for the project, now re-named the Inter Oceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (CIIT) included the clearing of a century worth of vegetation and the laying of new tracks. Three (309 km) primary tracks, for a total of more than 1,000 km, were planned. Site works began in earnest by mid 2020 and the Mexican President was determined that nothing would halt or hinder its progress.

Military intervention

Indeed, in the third week of May 2023, military personnel physically took control of a 120 km. section of the railroad tracks (between Medias and Coatzacoalcos) that was then operated by a private group of companies, Grupo Mexico Transportes. This military takeover sent shockwaves through Mexico’s private sector, generating immediate assurances from the government that the move was in the public interest and only temporary. Despite the declared intentions to compensate the corporate group, the response was hardly comforting to the private sector, perhaps because it was not the first time that the government had been accused of seizing transportation infrastructure.

The Mexican government’s objective in offering compensation may have been to prevent progress on this major public works being stymied by the collective action of private sector interests. Notwithstanding, it had to deal with public protest including that emanating from indigenous communities seeking to protect the environment from exposure and degradation caused by tree removal. In other areas local families who, over many generations, had established settlements on or close to the old railroad tracks were reportedly forced to relocate, despite their protest.

Line Z

By the end of August, the first of the three lines was completed and freight operations began in September 2023. Referred to as Line Z, the upgraded railroad, inaugurated on December 22, 2023, can accommodate freight trains of up to 65 wagon lengths and double-stack trains hauling up to 260 containers. Line Z will also move bulk cargo including grains and chemical products.

The rehabilitation work included extensive repair to four railway stations and construction of two new ones. Passenger trains will have the capacity to accommodate up 400 passengers in three classes.

Given the high volume of cargo moved across the isthmus of Panama the CIIT can hardly be expected to provide any serious challenge to the volume of operations at the Panama Canal. However, to the extent that the Panama Canal is now subject to continuing issues related to Climate Change and the welfare of some 50% of Panama’s population that depend on the water of the Lago Gatún, the CIIT does offer an option for various regional economic sub-sectors, especially at this time when the weather has become as unpredictable as the weather. []

  • FIRST PUBLISHED: May 29, 2024

Mike Jarrett