Railroads in Mexico: recounting the history behind their development

23/06/2021

For the different governments of the 19th century, the transportation revolution brought about by the arrival of the railroad meant a symbol of economic progress and modernity. In fact, practically all over the world, the class in power tried to promote its construction, some with more fortune than others, and for this purpose, they set themselves the task of attracting capital, national or foreign, by granting concessions, which in some countries were granted for up to 99 years, including generous subsidies per kilometer built, land or tax exemptions, etcetera.

In fact, the development of this means of transportation had different impacts on each nation and its construction depended not only on the degree of political and economic stability but also on the morphology of the territories. In Mexico, the railroad era arrived late, despite the fact that there were railroad initiatives as early as the 1830s. 

In effect, the first concession was granted to the Spanish merchant Francisco de Arrillaga on August 22, 1837, and its purpose was to connect the capital of the Republic with the port of Veracruz by rail. However, it was not until 1850 when President Ignacio Comonfort inaugurated the first 13.6 kilometers of the Veracruz to Molino section and seven years later the four kilometers that separated Mexico City from Villa de Guadalupe.

Other projects followed these first ones, but because they were so ambitious, they were never completed. For example, in the period from 1837 to 1876, attractive concessions were granted with minor results that only reached 679.8 kilometers of track, of which 470.7 corresponded to the Mexican Railroad Company, which ran from Mexico to Veracruz with its branch to Puebla. 

In summary, this stage could be considered as the first regarding the railroad development of Mexico. It is framed in a context of political and economic instability and is distinguished by the fact that the concessionaires, most of them national, did not comply with their commitments, arguing that the geography was abrupt, that the resources of the shareholders and even the support of the State were insufficient to bring these projects to a successful conclusion.

Indeed, the great railroad expansion in our country began after the end of Porfirio Diaz's first presidential term. It was in 1880 when concessions were authorized to companies incorporated in the American Union, among which the following stand out - the Mexican Central Railroad, which laid 1,970 kilometers of tracks between the capital and Ciudad Juarez, and the Mexican National Railroad, which laid its tracks between Mexico City and Nuevo Laredo. Thus, by 1884 it was possible to travel from Mexico City to Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin, Texas.

Beginning in 1888, the mileage of railroads grew exponentially thanks to the benefits of the Porfirian government, which granted concessions freely and without any regulation that would allow it to follow a uniform system. In fact, by 1898, the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works counted a total of twelve thousand 172 kilometers of railroads under federal jurisdiction. This situation caused imbalances in the State's finances and unequal competition among the concessionary companies.

Faced with this situation, the Mexican government implemented a new policy for tendering railroads that included, among other measures, the issuance of a legal framework based on the Railroad Law, issued on April 29, 1899. Based on this law, the construction of seven lines that would serve to strengthen and unify the national railroad network was established as a priority. However, these lines were not built during this period and only a few were completed well into the 1950s.

In effect, in the last ten years of the Porfirian regime, a series of events modified the nineteenth-century railroad structure: at that time, competition for trade and markets was unleashed between the National and Central companies, which led to the bankruptcy of the latter. The only way to prevent foreign capital from forming a monopoly with the most important railroad systems in the country was for the State to acquire control of the Central and to have the same rights and obligations as any other shareholder.

From the union of the Central and Nacional -in addition to half a dozen other minor lines-, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM) was created in March 1908, which operated 10,624 kilometers of the 19,280 kilometers built during the Porfiriato. Outside the FNM company were the tracks of the: Mexicano (Mexico-Veracruz), Sudpacífico de México; Unidos de Yucatán, among others that continued in private hands.

During the Mexican Revolution, the growth of the railroad network was interrupted, due, among other things, to the fact that since the first confrontations between the federal army and the revolutionaries, this means of transportation was used and suffered damages that were repaired in a provisional manner, thus affecting the cargo and passenger service. Another factor that had a negative impact on the development of the network during this period was the seizure of several lines by the Mexican State, represented in the second half of the 1910s by Venustiano Carranza.

However, once the armed struggle ended, the State began to promote railroad reconstruction, but the debt contracted since the Porfiriato and the accumulation of overdue and unpaid obligations during the period of seizure prevented it. Pressure from creditors resulted in an agreement between President Alvaro Obregón and the International Committee of Bankers, in which the railroad debt was acknowledged. 

When Plutarco Elías Calles came to power in 1924, he found that payments on the debt were suspended and that a new agreement was necessary to reach an agreement with the creditors. The Pani amendment was the document that resulted from the negotiations, and it stipulated that FNM would be returned to private hands, although the State would continue to be a shareholder.

In summary, at the end of the 1920s and despite the international financial crash of 1929, a total of 22,345 kilometers of track were registered. Furthermore, in the second half of the 1930s, under the mandate of President Lázaro Cárdenas, a nationalist policy was implemented based on the Six-Year Plan which, among its objectives, proposed to expand State intervention in the economy to guarantee the growth of the nation and the equitable distribution of wealth. 

In terms of railroads, this implied maintaining and extending the railroad network in order to complete Mexico's geographic integration, as had been established since the Porfiriato. Thus, in 1936, the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (SCOP) was commissioned to project and lay the Sonora-Baja California and Southeastern Railroad tracks, among others. A year later, President Cárdenas expropriated FNM's assets for public utility.

During the 1940s, the railroad regained its status as the most widely used means of communication for the movement of cargo and passengers. In fact, transportation needs increased due to the development of the national economy and also as a consequence of World War II. In November 1942, the governments of Mexico and the United States initiated a joint plan to modernize the FNM network, which came to fruition four years later when the railroad rehabilitation program was put into effect. This included: installation of heavier rails, improvement of ballast, track replacement, construction of warehouses and terminals, modernization of workshops, and, of course, acquisition of traction and hauling equipment.

However, in the following decades, that is, from 1950 to 1980, the railroads lost the fight against the motor carriers and the governments had to participate directly and indirectly, to a greater or lesser extent, in the financial rescue of their respective companies. Another factor that had a negative impact was that the Mexican State did not manage, during this period, to concentrate the railroad network in a single entity. On the one hand, there were the FNM, then the SCOP railroads, and finally, those still in the hands of private investors.

Despite the efforts made to nationalize, rehabilitate and modernize the railroad system, little progress was made and it was not until 1983 when President Miguel de la Madrid ordered the execution of a Program for the Modernization of the National Railroad System, which gave way to the consolidation of the railroads in the FNM company, which by 1987 had a total extension of nearly 26 thousand kilometers of railroads, becoming the backbone of the Mexican transportation system.

In May 1992, at the height of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's presidency, a team of specialists from the World Bank recommended the privatization of the railroads. Finally, in 1995, the Senate of the Republic approved President Ernesto Zedillo's initiative to initiate the process proposed by his predecessor, which concluded at the end of 1997, but that is another story.

By Bonilla Galindo, M. I. (2021). Los ferrocarriles en México: un recuento de su desarrollo. Glifos, (26), 10-15. Retrieved from https://revistas.inah.gob.mx/index.php/glifos/article/view/16637. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Mexico License via National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.