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Mexico’s Main Lines

Rail Travel in the Land of the Aztecs


THE CULIACAN RIVER BRIDGE, built by the Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico

THE CULIACAN RIVER BRIDGE, built by the Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico. This rail bridge is situated near Culiacan Junction on the west coast of Mexico. The railroad is a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Company of USA, and controls 1,355 miles of 4 ft 8½-in. gauge track.

THE railways of Mexico are considerable in extent, conquer mountainous country, and afford spectacular views. They are triumphs of engineering, and play a vital part in the economic development of the country. They operate some of the most up-to-date and luxurious trains in the world. Built principally by American and British engineers with Mexican labour, and with the aid of American and British capital, they are now operated almost entirely by Mexicans.

So closely related is the story of the railways with that of the modern history of Mexico that few countries have been so profoundly influenced by the invention of the steam locomotive. Mexico is a big country. The area is 768,900 square miles - over six times that of the British Isles - and the population is 16,552,000. The railways have made travel cheap, comfort-able and safe. Mexico is not a “new” country; it is the Egypt of the American continent, which had a culture of its own that was destroyed by a handful of Spanish adventurers who knew about gunpowder.

So high are the mountains that it is easy for the traveller to take a train from the heat of the sub-tropical coast zones to the heights, and to indulge in winter sports. These mountains account for the existence of Mexico; but for them North and South America would be two continents separated by the sea. The highest peak, Orizaba, known to the Aztecs as Citlaltepetl (“Star Mountain”), is an extinct volcano which rises to 18,200 ft. The great table-land of the interior lies at an average height of 6,000 ft above the sea, and is broken by various ravines up which the railways climb. The railway mileage of the country is nearly 15,000, and the lines extend from the United States, the Northern boundary of Mexico, to

Guatemala, in the south-east. The Gulf of Mexico borders the country on the east, and the Pacific Ocean on the west and the south. The land runs in the shape of a horn from the north to the south with a twist to the east. A good part of it lies south of the Tropic of Cancer.

Comprising a route mileage of more than 8,400, the organization known as the National Railways of Mexico is the most extensive railway system in the country, the various lines reaching from the United States to Guatemala and extending from coast to coast. For scenery, the British-owned Mexican Railway from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, the capital, is said to be unsurpassed by any railway in the world, and claims the description of “the rail trip of a thousand wonders”.

Development of the railways owes much to the vision of a remarkable man, Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915), called “the Strong Man of Mexico”, the Dictator who died in his bed in Paris at the ripe age of 85. President Diaz will share with Cortes, the Spaniard who conquered Mexico in 1519-21, a place in the history of the country. In 1821 Mexico was proclaimed an independent monarchy, and threw off allegiance to Spain. Since the country then included California, Texas, and Utah, it was much bigger than it is now. After an amazing period, which included a war with the United States, and expeditions of Spanish, British and French troops, the Emperor Maximilian, who had been set up by Napoleon III as part of the French emperor’s dream of a Franco-American Empire, was defeated and deposed. He was shot at Queretaro on June 19, 1867, and his twenty-seven years old empress, Charlotte, who was in Europe trying to get aid for her husband, went mad with grief when she heard the news.

President Diaz, who ruled the country  - except for a short interval - from 1876 to 1911, was quick to realize the possibilities of railways. In the ‘seventies Mexico was a land of horsemen for what may be termed “passenger transport”, and of pack mules, burros (donkeys), and cargadores (human burden-bearers) for goods traffic.

The cargadore is still an important factor in the transport system of Mexico. When it comes to carrying a 150-lb load over a mountain trail he is better than a mule. His lineage goes far back beyond Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, and he is able to average six miles an hour for a short journey; he will undertake journeys of 200 miles, and he has been known to carry a load of 500 lb for short distances. He usually has the load in a frame and bears the weight by means of a leather band which covers his forehead. He is descended from the runners who established rapid communication in the days of the Aztecs. It is said that some of the earlier railways were built on the plateau so as not to upset the vested interests of the cargadore, and to give him work in humping material from the coast to the railways.

Building the First Line

Diaz saw that the railways would establish rapid transport for troops. Under his rule railways spread rapidly. For the first time since her independence Mexico had a settled Government, and not until old age defeated Diaz did disorder reappear. He helped to increase the railway mileage from 350 to more than 13,000 miles before he had to flee for his life. He gave a settled Government which attracted foreign capital, but he also saw to it that the railways were not controlled by foreign trusts.

The Mexican Railway is one of the most interesting, not only in Mexico, but also in the world. It runs from the port of Vera Cruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, to the capital, Mexico City, which has a population of about 1,000,000, and lies 7,349 ft above the sea. It is the oldest city in North America. The distance from Vera Cruz is 264 miles, and the journey is a continuous panorama, the line having to climb up to a height of 8,320 ft at Acocotla, the summit. Vera Cruz is so named because Cortes landed there on Good Friday, 1519, calling it La villa rica de la Vera Cruz, “the rich town of the True Cross”.

The first concession for building twenty miles of line from the port to the San Juan River was granted in 1842, but by 1849 only three miles had been laid, and it was not until 1854 that this section was completed. It was the first line in Mexico. The greater part of the railway was built in the ‘sixties, and it was opened for traffic on January 1, 1873. The gauge of this main line is the standard one of 4 ft 8½-in, and the locomotives use oil as fuel. On the mountain section the line has been electrified since 1924.

The route followed is that which Cortes took when he landed at Vera Cruz and started with his 500 Spaniards for Montezuma’s capital. Leaving Vera Cruz, the line proceeds through tropical country, passing plantations of tobacco, sugar-cane, and bananas, and rising steadily from sea-level to 1,560 ft at Paso del Macho (“Mule Pass”), forty-eight miles from the start. Here the oil-burning locomotive is taken off, and is replaced by an electric locomotive.

A train of fuel oil tanks on the line between San Luis Potosi and the port of Tampico

IN CENTRAL MEXICO. A train of fuel oil tanks hauled by an oil-fired locomotive, on the line between San Luis Potosi and the port of Tampico. Oil fuel is widely used in Mexico, and the railways have a large number of oil-burning locomotives in operation.

During the journey the snow-clad peak of Orizaba has dominated the horizon, and, after the changing of the locomotives, the traveller notices the cooler air of the mountains. The train crosses the San Alejo Bridge, 318 ft long; then the 220 ft bridge at Chiquihuite (“Basket”) is passed. The train crosses over another bridge, spanning the Atoyac River near the falls, which are of great beauty during the rainy season, and reaches Atoyac Station (fifty-four miles). Gradients of 1 in 25 have to be tackled soon after this station as the train climbs up to Cordoba (sixty-six miles; 2,704 ft), a town founded in 1618, and now the centre of a coffee-growing district.

At Fortin (seventy-one miles) the line is 3,309 ft above the sea, and soon turns sharp to the right to enter the Metlac Ravine, which is one of the most spectacular points of the line. The river winds in the depths of the ravine, and the railway has been cut into the side of the hill. The line can be seen on the other side of the ravine as the train enters this section. The line passes through five short tunnels to gain a higher level, and then passes over the Metlac Bridge, which is 350 ft long, has a curve of 325 ft radius on a gradient of 1 in 33, and is 92 ft above the river. It is supported by eight cast-iron and masonry-enclosed pillars. This bridge is considered the most difficult on the line, and flagmen guide the train across it.

An Electrified Section

After a time the view widens. The train passes through a number of short tunnels, to emerge upon an extensive table-land with a vista of mountains and valleys. After passing Sumidero the train reaches Orizaba, eighty-two miles from Vera Cruz, and 4,005 ft above sea-level.

Orizaba, with 50,000 inhabitants, is one of the most important manufacturing towns in the country, and enjoys a delightful climate, as it is situated between the tropical lowlands and the summit of the plateau. The Aztec name for it was Ahuaialixapan, meaning “Joyful Waters”, because of the many streams from the luxuriantly vegetated shoulders of the mountains. One of these torrents, the Orizaba, plunges through a ravine in the town. This stream was utilized by the Spanish in 1553 to work a flour mill, which was one of the first to be built in America. Just below the town, in the valley of Tuxpango, the waterfall is employed to generate electricity, which is used by the Mexican Railway to operate the mountain section of the line. The workshops of the line are in this town.

From Orizaba the line runs parallel with the Rio Blanco, crossing three tributaries of the river, and winds its way up through the Infiernillo (“Little Hell”) Canyon to Maltrata (ninety-five and a half miles), achieving a height of 5,560 ft by tunnels and bridges. Beyond Maltrata the line twists and turns in all directions as it makes its way upwards. Looking back from the observation platform at the rear of the train, the passenger can see as many as six sets of track in the valley below.

From Alta Luz (ninety-nine miles), where the gradient in places is as steep as 1 in 22, the view of the plains is magnificent. The train passes over Wimmer Bridge, 90 ft long and built over a chasm, and gains Boca del Monte (“Mouth of the Mountain”), 108 miles, at an altitude of 7,924 ft. This station lies on the eastern edge of the great central plateau of Mexico. The stiffest part of the climb is now over, the line having ascended more than 5,000 ft in less than forty-two miles. At Esperanza (112 miles; 8,050 ft), the electric locomotive is uncoupled and replaced by a steam engine; for, although the station is not the summit-level, the gradients from here are easier. Fine views are afforded of the Peak of Orizaba (18,200 ft), one of the highest mountains in North America, the highest being Mount McKinley (over 22,000 ft), in Alaska, and Mount Logan (19,850 ft) in Yukon.


THE PRINCIPAL RAILWAYS OF MEXICO are shown on this map. The main groups are: the Mexican Railway, comprising 321½ miles of standard gauge, and over 108 miles of narrow-gauge track; the National Railways with a route mileage of over 8,400, and the Southern Pacific, owning 1,355 miles. There are also many smaller companies, owning important local systems. The first line in Mexico was built from the port of Vera Cruz to the San Juan River - a distance of twenty miles - and completed in 1854. The railways were constructed chiefly by American and British enterprise, but are now owned mainly by Mexican companies.

From Esperanza the line passes through the plateau, with fields of corn and of the maguey plant much in evidence. This plant, the American aloe or pulque plant, provides the native drink of pulque. After the summit of the line at Acocotla (169 miles; 8,320 ft), the track drops to the junction station of Apizaco (177 miles; 7,920 ft) Apizaco is the junction for Puebla, as explained later.

From Ometusco (222 miles) a line branches off to Pachuca, a centre for one of the richest silver mining districts in the world. At Teotihuacan (236 miles) the Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl are seen. The capital is approached through Guadaloupe, where there is a famous shrine. The Mexico City terminus of the line is at Buena Vista Station, 264 miles from Vera Cruz, the administration offices of the company being in the station building.

A Startling Event

Before the electrification of the mountain section, “Fairlie” locomotives were employed on this line. The early locomotives were wood-burners and weighed 30 tons. The weight of the later types of coal-burning “Fairlies” increased to 138 tons and these big “double-enders” were of the 0-6-0 + 0-6-0 type. For just over half a century “Fairlies” worked this steep section.

One engine caused a great commotion. It was run into the siding at the top of a climb and the crew left it for a meal, when it moved off so quietly that they did not hear it until it had gathered speed. The driver and firemen then turned, and were horrified to see that it was running away. They set off in pursuit, but were too late, as it dashed over the points on to the main line. The only thing that could be done was to telegraph all down the hill, warning everybody. Trains were hurriedly shunted into sidings out of the way of the truant. Everybody waited for the crash to come when the engine would shoot off the track and over the precipice. But it never came. Although the locomotive reached a speed of sixty miles an hour, it kept on the rails and finally came to a stop thirty miles away on an adverse gradient, having rounded all the twists and turns.

On the principal bridges of the mountain section a guide is added to the train crew, and any possibility of a train approaching at an excessive speed is checked by the necessity of stopping the train before the bridge to pick up the guide. The maxi-mum weight of trains on this section is 900 tons.

TRAIN No. 1. The through express from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas

TRAIN No. 1. The through express from Mexico City to Laredo, Texas. There are two trains which daily depart in either direction on the journey of just over eight hundred miles. The above picture also clearly shows a power-reverse gear fitted to a 4-6-2 express engine. The power cylinder can be seen above the rear driving axle.

There are two expresses daily in either direction between Mexico City and Vera Cruz. The daylight service expresses have reclining-chair saloon observation cars, and the night expresses have drawing-room sleeping cars. The trains take less than twelve hours for the journey. The sixteen tunnels are from 40 to 430 ft in length, the track is well ballasted, and the line is kept in first-class order throughout.

Vera Cruz in the old days was not a health resort. One American who arrived by railway from Mexico City had heard such tales of yellow fever that he was horrified when he ventured forth in the morning and saw red flags flying from various establishments, because he thought they meant that “yellow jack” was rife. He found later that the flags indicated that a fresh supply of pulque had just arrived by rail from the plateau, for the railway taps a part of the country celebrated for its brew of this liquor. In 1914, when US Marines were landed to deal with local trouble, the Americans cleaned up the port. When they left the city authorities made efforts to continue this good work and the place is now considerably healthier.

A branch goes north from the main line at Cordoba to Coscomatepec, but the gauge is only 2 ft. The trains have to climb up from Cordoba, 2,704 ft, to about 5,000 ft in the twenty miles of the line by a gradient as steep as 1 in 30 on one section. Two trains daily make the climb in about two hours, and the pedlars of fruit, flowers and sweets who offer their wares to the passengers at the lower stations take short cuts up the hills and meet the train at the higher stations, cutting prices as they ascend until they are sold out.

From San Marcos, 151 miles along the main line from Vera Cruz, a 3 ft gauge line fifty-six miles long goes to Ixcaquixtla. The most important branch of standard gauge leaves the main line at Apizaco (177 miles from Vera Cruz), and runs to Puebla, twenty-nine miles south. Puebla, with 100,000 inhabitants, is one of the oldest cities in Mexico, and has more than sixty churches. It lies in a lovely valley at the foot of the two snow-capped volcanoes of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl. From Santa Ana, on this branch, a tramway about six miles long used to run to Tlaxcala, but this line is now operated by motor traction. Tlaxcala was the former capital of a nation which preserved its independence until the coming of the Spaniards. Puebla is regarded as the key to Mexico City, and has had a stormy history.

AT ESPERANZA STATION, a junction on the lines of the Mexican Railway

AT ESPERANZA STATION, a junction on the lines of the Mexican Railway, 112 miles from Vera Cruz. The train is headed by one of the powerful electric locomotives with overhead collectors which are used on this system. Trains for Mexico City change over from electricity to steam at Esperanza.

The next branch from the main line is at Munoz. From Munoz a 2 ft 6-in line strikes out to the north-east for a distance of thirty-three miles. From Ometusco, 222 miles from Vera Cruz, a standard gauge line runs north to Pachuca, a distance of twenty-nine miles. The Spanish discovered silver in the neighbourhood of Pachuca in 1534, and the area has produced silver for four centuries. In the eighteenth century a muleteer turned miner became so rich that he lent the King of Spain a large sum and gave him several warships. For this the muleteer was made a noble. This man, Pedro Jose Romero de Terreros, was created Conde de Regia, founded the national pawn-shop  - El Monte de Piedad - which freed poor people from usury. At one time the line continued from Pachuca to the great port of Tampico, but this section is not now in use.

The total length of track and sidings owned by the company is over 300 miles standard gauge and 108 miles narrow gauge. Ten locomotives are narrow gauge and seventy-one are standard gauge. Of the standard gauge engines, twelve are electric, six are “Fairlies”, thirty-six goods, and seventeen passenger. There are eighty-nine coaches of standard gauge and nineteen of narrow gauge, 1,085 standard gauge and 158 narrow gauge wagons. Thirty-eight of the standard gauge wagons are for carrying pulque, all except one having a capacity of twenty-seven tons.

Another route from Vera Cruz to Mexico City is provided by the Inter-oceanic Railways of Mexico, which is operated by the National Railways of Mexico. The National Railways operate 6,931 miles of standard gauge track and 1,568 miles of narrow gauge. This system, the most important and extensive in the country, is composed of a number of railways which were formerly separately owned. The company was formed in 1908 to amalgamate the National Railroad of Mexico and the Mexican Central Railway, and took over certain railways entirely, and operated others. According to the latest information, the lines acquired and their lengths are as follows :

National Railroad .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1492·6 miles

Central Railway . .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3586·7 miles

International Railroad .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 1130·8 miles

Vera Cruz & Isthmus Railway .. .. .. .. ..340·5 miles

Pan-American Railroad  .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..285·7 miles

Hidalgo Railroad.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..131·7 miles

Miscellaneous leased or private lines . ..146·5 miles

Total mileage .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 7114·5 miles

Lines such as the Inter-oceanic, and the Tehuantepec National Railway, 188 miles of main track, which the National Railways operate but do not own, are not shown in the totals.

About one-third of the track is laid with 75-lb rails, and 56-lb, 70-lb, and 85-lb rails amount in all to about another third. Of the remaining third 80-lb rails are most numerous.

Out of the 34,455 persons on the books of the company all except fifteen are Mexicans. Twelve of the foreigners are employed in foreign agencies, another is Vice-President and Assistant Treasurer in New York, while the remaining two are classified as “other officers”. Receipts show that in 1934 the company had the largest net income in its history, passenger receipts being up by 20 per cent and goods receipts by over 30 per cent. The tonnage of goods hauled in the year was 9,450,155. Mineral products accounted for over 3,152,000 tons, and agricultural products for over 2,076,000 tons of this big total.

IMPOSING ENTRANCE to Puebla Station, Mexico

IMPOSING ENTRANCE to Puebla Station, which is served by the Mexican Railway and the National Railways. By the National Railways’ line, Puebla is a 130 miles journey from Mexico City.

In recent years the railway tourist traffic has developed with the co-operation of American railway companies. Passengers travelling across the United States from New York to the Pacific coast are offered “side-trips” into Mexico at reduced fares, and various steamship companies organize combined railway and steamship tours. Expresses bring the tourists from the United States to Mexico City in the following times: New York, eighty-four hours; Chicago, sixty-nine hours; Los Angeles, sixty-eight hours; and St. Louis, sixty-two hours; in the two last instances without changing trains.

Mexico City is the headquarters of the system. The terminus of the lines from the United States border and from certain towns in western Mexico is the Colonia Station. The Buena Vista Station is the terminus of the lines of the Mexican Central section, and near it is the terminus of the Mexican Railway. These three stations are on the north side of the city. On the south-east side is the San Lazaro Station, the terminus of the Inter-oceanic Railway, arid to the west of this station is the San Rafael and Atlixco terminus of the National lines which lead south.

The main line of the National Railways extends south from Nuevo Laredo, on the Rio Grande, to Mexico City, passing through Monterrey, Saltillo, San Luis Potosi, and Queretaro - a distance of 803 miles. An extension of this line runs from Laredo on the Texan side of the Rio Grande, to the port of Corpus Christi. The main line is part of the National Railroad. Section, and a daily service of through Pullman cars is run from St. Louis over the Missouri Pacific Lines to Laredo and down to Mexico City, the 803 miles in Mexico taking about thirty hours.

The train crosses the river to Nuevo Laredo by an international bridge and enters Mexico at an altitude of 457 ft. It ascends to 1,771 ft at Monterrey (168 miles), a city of 150,000 inhabitants and an important railway junction and industrial centre. This part of the journey provides little in the way of scenery in the progress across the plains until Monterrey is approached; it is probably the route by which the early tribes reached Mexico. After leaving the city of Monterrey the line begins to

climb up to the great plateau. In the ‘forties the invading American Army under General Taylor fought its way south along this route.

Saltillo (235 miles) lies at an altitude of 5,249 ft, and is a city of 48,300 inhabitants, with a history dating back to 1575, when the Spanish discovered the region. The line continues to rise, crossing the Tropic of Cancer, and goes through a rich mining district. The track has swung to the west from Monterrey to climb to Saltillo, after which it turns south. The line ascends between the hills, reaching at 241 miles Buena Vista, where General Taylor and his 4,700 Americans defeated 23,000 Mexicans under General Santa Anna in 1847. The gradient is stiff to Carneros (259 miles), the line reaching the top of the plateau at an altitude of 7,300 ft. The great haciendas - the estates and farm buildings - were a feature of this district, one of them having no fewer than 20,000 peons (labourers) attached to it in the old days.

IN “LITTLE HELL” GORGE, on the line of the Mexican Railway

IN “LITTLE HELL” GORGE, or Infiernillo Canyon, on the line of the Mexican Railway between Vera Cruz and Esperanza. The rail journey from the harbour to Mexico City via Esperanza is a continuous panorama of fine scenery. The summit of the line lies 8,320 ft. above sea-level. The route was first opened to traffic in 1873, and it is practically the same as that followed by Cortes and his fellow Spaniards when they marched to the conquest of the ancient capital of Mexico.

San Luis Potosi (477 miles; 5,938 ft) is a mining city, which was exploited by the Spanish who worked the mines in this district. It is a junction for the line from the port of Tampico. After leaving San Luis Potosi the line passes through a flat valley, and then a stony region of steeper gradients, emerging into more fertile lands.

Empalme Escobedo (609 miles) is an important junction, and the line here turns to the east. Queretaro (637 miles; 5,938 ft), with 37,000 inhabitants, is rich in minerals, opal mines being near by. The Archduke Maximilian was shot on a hill outside this city with two of his generals, after the President of the United States, Queen Victoria, and the French and Austrian Emperors had tried to save his life by an appeal to the Mexicans. Before he died Maximilian asked the firing squad to shoot him in the body so that when his remains were sent to Austria his mother might see his undisfigured face. A chapel was erected on the site of the execution at the expense of the Austrian Government.

The line winds upwards again. At La Griega, 646 miles, it gains an upland fertile plain, which broadens to a region of fruit trees for some miles until again the land becomes rugged, and another climb begins. Huichapan (704 miles) is passed, and at Nopala (716 miles) the train climbs above the elevation of Mexico City to the summit of the line, and then descends; but it has to make another ascent to gain an entrance to the Valley of Mexico.

This valley is shut in by hills, and the track is led first through a deep cutting and then through a tunnel, 735 ft long, which is the only double-track tunnel in the whole of Mexico. The line thus gains the valley, entering the city and ending at Coloma Station, 7,349 ft above sea-level. This line was originally of narrow gauge all the way from Corpus Christi in Texas, but traffic increased to such an extent that in 1902 the decision was made to alter the gauge. A total length of some 960 miles was converted to standard gauge in about eighteen months without interfering with traffic.

Across the Gorge

The narrow gauge line had numerous gradients at 1 in 50 or steeper. The most severe was at 1 in 25 on the way to the summit at La Cima, beyond which was a descent at 1 in 26 to reach Mexico City. It was therefore decided not only to broaden the gauge but also to find a less severe route.

The present line branches from the old one in the section south of Queretaro; the steepest gradient is now 1 in 50 and the summit-level is 7,840 ft, compared with 10,018 ft of the old line. The new line added some seventeen miles to the distance between Queretaro and the capital, the total distance now being 167 miles.

Locomotives of the Mexican Railways

LOCOMOTIVE No. 178, one of the 4-6-2 engines owned by the National Railways of Mexico. This “Pacific” locomotive follows in design the standard American practice, having a feed-water heater before the chimney, and a bell behind it. The engine is equipped with the Baker valve gear, and has duplicate air-compressors - which can be seen above the rear driving axle - for the Westinghouse brake system.

2-8-0 ENGINE operating on the lines of the National Railways of Mexico. This locomotive, weighing 179 tons, has one of the modern double-bogie “Vanderbilt” tenders with a cylindrical water tank, surmounted by a fuel-space. This type of engine, the “Consolidation”, is used for hauling heavy goods and fast goods trains. In the year 1933-34 the goods engines of the National Railways hauled over nine million tons of freight.

SAFETY FIRST is the meaning of the Spanish words “Seguridad Ante Todo”, painted on the front buffer beam of this 4-8-0 locomotive of the National Railways of Mexico. This 202 tons engine is employed on heavy goods services, and resembles other Mexican locomotives in following American design. The National Railways have over 880 locomotives working their standard gauge lines, and some 200 on their 3 ft gauge routes.

The earthworks were considerable. At the seventy-ninth mile from Mexico City a gorge 1,033 ft wide and 126 ft deep presented a problem. A viaduct was one solution, but it was found that an embankment would be better. A concrete culvert, 476 ft long, by about 18 ft span, with walls nearly 18 ft high, was built to carry the water in the bed of the gorge, and about 400,000 cubic yards of earth and debris were dumped to make the embankment, which for years was called the “Big Fill”.

At Mile 120 a smaller gorge was filled, and the new line soon began to pay its way because of the lower fuel costs.

Another route into Mexico is that via Eagle Pass by a line which joins the route just described at the junction station of Saltillo. Eagle Pass is in Texas, the town on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande being Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras is 273 miles from Saltillo and 841 miles from Mexico City. Trains from the United States reach Piedras Negras from San Antonio. Sabinas, seventy-three miles south of the border, is a junction for a short branch line, as also is Barroteran (eighty-nine miles). Monclova (148 miles) connects with a longer line running to the west, and Paredon (228 miles) is the junction for lines west to Torreon and east and south to Monterrey and Tampico.

The most easterly gateway is afforded by the Brownsville-Matamoros route, which joins the main line at Monterrey. Brownsville, the city on the Texan side of the Rio Grande, is connected by rail with Corpus Christi in the north. The trains for Mexico cross the river by a steel bridge that cost £100,000, to Matamoros, which is 206 miles from Monterrey, and 841 miles from Mexico City. The railway follows the Rio Grande for ninety-two miles to Camargo, where it turns away to begin the climb to Monterrey, traversing picturesque country. There is a train in either direction daily, the time taken being about eight hours.

A NEW TRESTLE BRIDGE on the lines of the National Railways of Mexico

A NEW TRESTLE BRIDGE on the lines of the National Railways of Mexico. This fine steel structure is crossed by trains running between Guadalajara, a junction, and Manzanillo on the west coast of Mexico.

The route which keeps practically in the centre of Mexico is that from El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, and is 1,226 miles from Colonia Station, Mexico City, trains taking about forty-eight hours. This route was the main line of the Mexican Central - now part of the National Railways - and is said to have been the first railway to be built from the temperate zone into the tropics.

Construction began at either end, and the lines met at Fresnillo, 752 miles from the border, in March, 1884. The occasion was a ceremonious one. The American Consul at Zacatecas was on the engine from the south, and his brother, a Mexican citizen, was on that from the north. The American brother waved the Mexican flag and the Mexican brother the American flag, and the brothers saluted each other, as symbolical of the meeting of the lines from the two republics. This line was built by Americans with American capital.

Over the Rio Grande

El Paso is on the Texan side of the Rio Grande, and the train crosses the international bridge to Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico. This town was formerly Paso del Norte (Pass of the North), but was renamed to commemorate President Juarez. The altitude of the station is 3,717 ft, and the American engineers took the track to Mexico City through the mountains without one tunnel, although they had maximum gradients of 1 in 57. The line was standard gauge from the beginning, and was built in about four years, at an average rate of a mile each working day.

Going south through country which was once the haunt of Apache raiders and smugglers, and passing (114 miles) the station of Moctezuma (Montezuma), the line reaches the first town of any size - Chihuahua (4,633 ft) at the 227th mile. Chihuahua, with 30,000 inhabitants, is a romantic town in many ways. It is said that the early Spaniards who mined silver here were so careless that it would now pay to knock down some of the old buildings in the town and extract the silver from the walls. Cattle ranching suffered from the ravages of the bands of Pancho Villa, but is reviving again. The parish priest who became a soldier of revolution, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, was shot here in 1811. Hidalgo divided some sweets among the firing squad before he was executed. His head was cut off and taken to another town and displayed on a hook by the Spaniards as a warning to other revolutionaries. There is a fine monument to him at Chihuahua as “the father of Mexican Independence”. Other railways branch off from the town to the east and the west, and the town is the capital of the largest and richest State in Mexico. Early in the last century Apache and Comanche Indians who found the United States too hot to hold them crossed into Mexico and preyed on the settlers. The raids went on for years until the Mexican Government offered £20 for every Indian warrior’s scalp, later raising the price to £50, and thus checked the trouble.

THE METLAC BRIDGE on the Vera Cruz-Mexico City route

THE METLAC BRIDGE on the Vera Cruz-Mexico City route of the Mexican Railway. This remarkable structure is 350 ft long, has a curve of 325 ft radius on a gradient of 1 in 33, and is 92 ft above the river. It is supported by eight cast-iron and masonry-enclosed pillars. To ensure a proper reduction of speed round the curve flagmen accompany the traffic across the bridge.

Mineral-ore wagons are a feature of railway traffic in this neighbourhood. Santa Rosalia (327 miles) has hot springs, and sufferers from rheumatic complaints come here to the thermal baths for treatment.

Jimenez (373 miles) is the junction for the branch line which runs west to Parral and Rosario, with spurs to other towns. A church at Parral was completed in 1710 at the expense of an Indian miner, who brought a bar of gold every Saturday to pay the builders. When the church was finished the officer in command of the district seized the Indian and ordered him to show the way to the mine. The Indian refused and was put to the torture. As he would not speak he was tortured to death. The mine has never been found.

Escalon (419 miles) is a junction for a line going north-east to a mining area. The main line sends off other branches before reaching the new town of Torreon, 521 miles. Torreon was founded as recently as 1887 on a ranch, and now has a population of over 26,000. It possesses mills, factories, and ore-smelters. It has railway connexions with Monterrey in the east, and with the Gulf port of Tampico. A V-shaped line runs in the opposite direction, with the town of Durango (158 miles; 6,207 ft) as the base. The other side of the V is formed by the line going to Tepehuanes, 136 miles to the north-west. Another line, 167 miles long, goes south-east from Durango and joins the trunk line at Canitas. Beyond Durango, a line, part of which is in operation, is creeping towards the port of Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast.

From Torreon the trunk line forms a bight for nearly 200 miles to Canitas, or Felipe Pescador, which is the junction for a second branch to Durango, and is 719 miles along the route. Zacatecas (788 miles) lies as high as 8,010 ft, the gradient having been adverse all the way up from Torreon, which is 3,721 ft above the sea. The worst part of the climb is packed into the last nine miles from Pimienta (779 miles), which require twenty-five minutes before the train steams into Zacatecas, on top of the hill, enabling the passenger to look down over the city. Zacatecas is lodged in a ravine at the foot of mountains which have yielded enormous quantities of silver for nearly four centuries, since Juan de Tolosa found silver here in 1546. In the seventy-five miles to Aguascalientes (863 miles) the line descends 1,831 feet, as Aguascalientes lies at an altitude of 6,179 ft. The name means “Hot Waters”, and the town has a population of over 56,000. It lies west of Tampico, with which it is connected by a line which crosses the other trunk line to the capital at San Luis Potosi, 140 miles away, and then continues for a further 276 miles to Tampico. The trunk line proceeds to Leon (968 miles) in a fertile valley and on to Irapuato (1,007 miles), which is a junction for the railway which runs to Guadalajara and to Manzanillo. At Guadalajara connexion is made with the lines of the Southern Pacific, as explained later in this chapter. From Irapuato onwards the network of lines is close. Celaya (1,045 miles) is a flourishing city of over 25,000 inhabitants. At Queretaro (1,073 miles) the line joins the other trunk line from Laredo, but diverges to go to Mexico City by way of San Juan del Rio (1,108 miles; 5,938 ft). This stretch is a difficult one from Queretaro, as the line has to ascend to get out of the hollow in the Central Plateau, a process entailing a climb up to 8,237 ft, a descent and a final climb to gain the Valley of Mexico.

Tula (1,177 miles, and fifty miles from Mexico City) is a village of 2,000 inhabitants. It was the capital of the mysterious Toltecs, who appeared in Mexico for about four centuries and disappeared about the eleventh century. The line gains the valley by means of the Tajo de Nochistongo, or “Cut of Huehuetoca”, a trench once nearly four miles long that was cut through the mountains to drain the Valley of Mexico. Work started in 1607, the first plan being to drive a tunnel, and some 15,000 Indians were forced to labour, thousands dying from hardships. The tunnel was made, but in 1629 the engineer became nervous, and had it walled up during exceptional rains, so that Mexico was flooded. The engineer was put in prison and kept there until he proposed to convert the tunnel into a ditch. This meant more trouble with the Indians, who were always trying to desert. The work was not really finished until just before the beginning of the nineteenth century. Huehuetoca (1,198 miles) is at the top of the last gradient, and after this the train speeds up and gains Mexico City, 1,226 miles from the start.

Tampico, with a population of 100,000, is the great oil port. It has grown from a small town since 1901, when the oil industry began to develop. Two main lines run from it, one west to San Luis Potosi, and the other north-west to

Monterrey and the USA. This first line, 276 miles long, climbs up from Tampico into the mountains, leaving the region of tropical vegetation and mounting to 5,938 ft at San Luis Potosi. The route to Mexico City is thus a roundabout one of 602 miles.

East of Mexico City the system of lines is considerable. The narrow gauge Interoceanic Railway to Vera Cruz competes with the Mexican Railway. Beyond Vera Cruz the National fines intersect the Tehuantepec Railway, which runs from Puerto Mexico, on the Gulf of Campeche, across to Salina Cruz on the Pacific, while a further link of the National lines runs parallel with the south coast to the border of the Republic of Guatemala.

“Poison Trains”

The Tehuantepec Railway is of particular interest as it was built across the narrowest part of Mexico as a transcontinental route of standard gauge. It was begun in the ‘nineties at a time when the completion of the Panama Canal was regarded as impracticable after the failure of the French attempt.

TGRADIENTS OF 1 IN 22 are encountered on the Mexican Railwayhe original line was later improved, and important harbour works were completed at Salina Cruz. In 1907 President Diaz and a large party went to Salina Cruz, where the President set in motion a steam winch which lifted the first piece of cargo from a ship into a goods wagon. The party then went across the isthmus to Puerto Mexico, where the load was put aboard a ship. Puerto Mexico was formerly known as Coatzacoalcos, but the name was changed in honour of the occasion. Before the Panama Canal was opened, most of the goods for California and British Columbia were taken by the Tehuantepec Railway. It became also a link between Mexico and the republic of Guatemala. The distance by rail across the isthmus is 188 miles. There is one through train daily in either direction, the journey time being about twelve hours.

GRADIENTS OF 1 IN 22 are encountered on the journey by trains of the Mexican Railway bound for Mexico City. The above illustration shows one of the steep gradients near Alta Luz, ninety-nine miles from Vera Cruz. Electric locomotives haul the trains for over sixty miles of the 264 miles journey from Vera Cruz to Mexico City.

The line leaves Puerto Mexico, and goes through tropical country of such rank vegetation that “poison trains” have to be employed to prevent the jungle from overgrowing the track. Santa Lucrecia (seventy-nine miles), the junction for the line to Vera Cruz, has about 1,000 human inhabitants and many million mosquitoes. After Mogone (116 miles) the line enters a gorge which is the dividing line between the jungle and the uplands. Matias Romero (126 miles) is a new railway town where live the officials and workmen, many of whom are British and American. The summit-level is 730 ft at Mile Post 141, and although this height is insignificant compared with those described earlier in this chapter, it is refreshing by reason of the breezes from the Pacific. The line descends, passes through the one tunnel on the system, and goes through rocky country to San Geronimo (158 miles), junction for the Pan-American line which goes to Suchiate, 286 miles away, on the border of Guatemala. Tehuantepec, 176 miles from Puerto Mexico, and only twelve miles from Salina Cruz, is a town of 10,000 people, and is celebrated for its earthquakes and for its beautiful women, One theory for the earthquakes is that they are due to the efforts of Nature to re-establish the equilibrium of the mountains at this point, where the great backbone of the two Americas is at its lowest point, so that the earth often shakes.

The Tehuana women are energetic, enterprising, and attractive; they greatly outnumber the men. It is said that the shortage of men is the result of the civil wars, Pearson is the British name given to the last station before Salina Cruz. The name is in honour of the Briton who is remembered in Great Britain as the first Lord Cowdray. The great firm of Pearson did much to develop modern Mexico, and built the railway and the port of Salina Cruz.

The Pan-American Railway was opened in 1908, as part of the as yet unrealized scheme to have lines running from North to South America. The coastal region traversed by the railway is fertile and the first part of the journey is through country producing sugar-cane, maize, and other tropical crops, Then comes a timber region, where hardwood is so plentiful that mahogany is used in the building of the track. Rubber, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa plantations abound. Tapachula, 261 miles from San Geronimo, lies at the base of the volcano of Taconah, which is 11,970 ft high; at Mile 286 the border is reached at Suchiate, on the river of that name.

An Aztec Stronghold

Puebla, which is 130 miles from Mexico City by the National Railways line, is, as mentioned previously, also on the Mexican Railway. It is connected with Oaxaca by the line of the Mexican Southern Railway, which is part of the lines operated by the National Railways. Trains take about six hours for the journey to Puebla, and about twelve hours for the 228 miles thence to Oaxaca. Mexico City is 7,349 ft, Puebla 7,069 ft and Oaxaca 5,067 ft above the sea, and this journey is one of the most beautiful in the country, as the scenery is varied, and the snow-clad summits of the volcanoes are almost always in view. Tehuacan (5,487 ft), eighty miles from Puebla, is linked by a branch line to Esperanza, which, as previously stated, is at the top of the great climb made by the Mexican Railway line from Vera Cruz.

Oaxaca, with a population of 40,000, was first an Aztec and then a Spanish stronghold. During the revolutionary struggle against Spain the revolutionaries made a point of executing the royalists on the spot where the royalists had executed revolutionaries. The town does not mark the end of the line, as spur lines extend east, west, and south, in the manner of the roots of a tree.

Away to the east of this railway is the line of the Vera Cruz and Isthmus Railway (National) in the form of a twig. One fork of the twig rests on Vera Cruz, the other on Cordoba, and thev join at Tierra Blanca, which is sixty-one miles from Vera Cruz and fifty-eight miles from Cordoba. The stem of the twig goes 145 miles to Santa Lucrecia, to connect with the Tehuantepec line across Mexico; but this stem buds in branch lines at several places. The country traversed is noted for its luxuriant vegetation; Dr. Fuchs, the German botanist who gave his name to the fuchsia, lived for some time in this region, where varieties of fuchsias abound.

MODERN ALL-STEEL BRIDGE on the Manzanillo-Mexico City line of the National Railways of Mexico

MODERN ALL-STEEL BRIDGE on the Manzanillo-Mexico City line of the National Railways of Mexico. The National Railways have the largest system in Mexico, and also operate other smaller lines.

A National line famous tor scenery is that from Mexico City south through Cuernavaca to Balsas, a distance of 182 miles. The first part of the journey affords wonderful views of the Valley of Mexico, and the building of this section was a feat even in this country of remarkable railway engineering.

The original plan was to carry the line through to the Pacific port of Acapulco, but this was not done. The railway builders were unable to avoid a gradient of 1 in 33 to reach Cima (9,895 ft), and a similar gradient for the descent, the summit being thirty-eight miles from the capital. Cuernavaca Station (74 miles; 5,068 ft) is about a mile from the town, which is the centre of a beautiful district. Puente de Ixtla (112 miles) is an agricultural town. Beyond this comes another difficult section through the towering walls of the Canyon de la Mano, where a gradient of 1 in 25 was necessary. At Iguala (147 miles) the line descends to about 2,410 ft. Balsas, the terminus (182 miles) taps a mining district.

The newest routes from the United States, independent of the National lines, is that of the Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico, which is a branch of the Southern Pacific Company of the USA. This line is the western gateway to Mexico. It enters the country at Nogales, and runs near the Pacific coast, which it approaches near Guaymas, and connects with the National system at Guadalajara, for access to Mexico City. This route, opened in 1927, has attracted traffic from California. An air-conditioned “hotel on wheels” cruises through Mexico. The car starts from Tucson, in Arizona, enters Mexico at Nogales, stops for a day and two nights at Mazatlan, and for a day and a night at Guadalajara, where it proceeds on the National Railways, staying a night at Irapuato, a day at Guanajuato, while at Mexico City passengers can stay eight days or longer, as the car operates weekly.

After leaving the capital, passengers are given half a day in Patzcuaro, a day and two nights in Uruapan, nearly a day in Morelia, and some hours in Celaya. The car then goes up the central trunk line of Mexico to El Paso (Ciudad Juarez), where it crosses into the United States. This trip is worked in the reverse direction from El Paso, where passengers from New Orleans and Chicago join it, the tourists from Los Angeles entraining at Tucson.

The "Hotel Car"

The “hotel car” is self-contained. The front end has eight sections of sixteen Pullman seats which are converted into sleeping berths at night. The lounge has easy chairs, and contains a cafe for passengers who do not wish to take meals in their compartments.

The distance from Nogales to Guadalajara is 1,095 miles, and from there to Mexico City is a further 381, making a total of 1,476 miles. Although the line enters Mexico at an elevation of 3,869 ft at Nogales, this is no advantage, as there are many ups and downs due to the fact that it touches the sea. In its first few miles it climbs to 4,288 ft, it comes down to only 53 ft at Poza (118 miles), climbs to 1,520 ft, at Carbo (130 miles), and drops to five feet at Empalme (255 miles).

Guaymas, five miles farther on, is on the Gulf of California, but the main line runs parallel with the coast, some distance inland, sending out branches to various ports until it reaches the port of Mazatlan (729 miles). As far as Roseta (891 miles) there is not a station all the way from Empalme, which is as much as two hundred feet above sea-level; but in the thirty-three miles from Foseta to the town of Tepic the line has to rise from 187 ft to 3,001 ft. The line goes down and then up to Ahuacatlan (989 miles; 3,484 ft). Ixtlan, nine miles farther but at the slightly lower altitude of 3,394 ft, marks the beginning of one of the most difficult and costly stretches of track in America. The engineers had great difficulty with washouts and landslides in this section in the early days of the line.

There are sixteen tunnels (two nearly three miles long) in as many miles, twelve viaducts, and many fills and cuttings - to say nothing of a gradient of 1 in 66. The longest viaduct (860 ft) is 240 ft high and cost £60,000, and is called Salsipuedes, which means “get out if you can”. The Big Bend is at the end of the gorge and is a horseshoe curve five miles round and a mile and a quarter across. With occasional short descents the line climbs to Guada-laiara, which lies 5,036 ft above sea-level. From here the trains go over the metals of the National lines to Trapuato, Queretaro and the capital.

Thus the railway conquest of Mexico has been as remarkable in its way as the conquest by Cortes, as practically all the lines have to overcome very difficult problems. The summit-levels do not approach those described in the chapter “The Magic of the Andes”, beginning on page 297, but the Andean lines have rather less traffic on them than the National Railways of Mexico.


ON THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC SYSTEM. A long train of freight cars hauled by a 2-8-0 goods engine. The Southern Pacific Railroad has 39 locomotives, 686 freight wagons, 276 company service cars, and 37 passenger coaches in operation on their lines.

             [From part 42 and part 43, published 15 and 22 November 1935]

[Read the previous article in part 42]                 [Read the next article in part 43]

You can read more on “The Magic of the Andes”, “Main Lines of Brazil” and “North American Railroads” on this website.