Before last summer’s clean-up of La Plancha, an abandoned steam engine of the U de Y – Unidos de Yucatan line – was readily accessible. The engine is in sorry condition, with many of the removable parts apparently scavenged by metal recyclers and much of the rest deteriorating rapidly to rust.
Engines of this type – narrow gauge 4-4-0 configuration – were built between 1880’s and 1928 or so. UdeY supposedly received some of the last steam engines built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the USA. Most remained in service until the late 1960s, running lines from Merida to Progreso; Merida to Tixcocob, Motul, Temax, Valladolid; Merida to Acanceh, Hocaba, Sotuta; Merida to Temozon, Yuncu, Muna, Ticul, Peto.
Another line, Ferrocarriles Unidos Surestes, connected Merida to Campeche and from there on to Mexico City. Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatan was built by Yucateco entreprenuers and operated isolated from the rest of Mexico for many years.
In the 1930’s, the national government of Mexico decided that Yucatan needed to be connected to the rest of the nation via rail. Attempts had been made since the turn of the century, but this new effort succeeded. The project was completed in 1950 and commemorated with a five-peso coin.
UdeY continued to operate independently until 1975 when it merged with Ferrocarriles Unidos Surestes as one overall company. The system was privatized in 1999, becoming Ferrocarriles Chiapas- Mayab (FCCM), which went out of business in 2007.
In addition to many miles of rail, Yucatan boasted nearly 3000 kilometers of tram lines, serving henequen haciendas as well as connecting the haciendas and rural pueblos to every city small and large.
Five remaining steam engines were sold in 1969 and removed from Yucatan. Today, this may be one of the few remnants of steam travel on the peninsula, quietly rusting away. Long ago, it was parked on a side spur, the timbers of which have rotted away, the rails sunken into the earth beneath the massive weight of the engine and tender.
While Merida is known for having the one of largest remaining colonial Centros outside Mexico City, historic preservation is unfortunately not always the top priority. Time and again, I’ve found a beautiful old home, large or small, torn down and replaced by another parking lot, or another strip commercial center of ugly two-story shops and offices. History is gradually being replaced by cheaper construction or modern conveniences.
It was fun to climb around on the old engine, peek into the firebox, imagine the view of the engineer as he rolled down the tracks across the peninsula.
There’s been talk about a “super train” connecting Merida, Chichen Itza and Cancun, but nothing has happened so far. Massive state and federal government financial support would be needed for bullet train construction.
For many years, there’s been talk of an “inter-modal facility” between Progreso and Merida where freight off-loaded in Progreso would be transferred, regrouped and loaded onto trains and trucks or prepared for air freight for shipment across southeast Mexico. If built, this too would reinvigorate rail services, at least for freight. In the meantime, there are a few freight trains, but no passenger service since the 1990s.
The old narrow gauge passenger rail line to Progreso was displaced, torn out and paved over when the highway was widened from 4 to 8 lanes of traffic. A station from that line survives as a little roadside convenience store at San Ignacio.
Merida has an outdoor train museum, located at Calle 43 x 48 y 46 Colonia Industrial, in an open field northeast of La Plancha. About 40 old cars and engines are found there. Some have been restored, while others await the time and money to do so.
This old engine is on its own in a separate location, abandoned and crumbling away.
There is a bright side to this story. Those who visit Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida can see four surviving sisters of this old engine. That’s who bought the last steam engines in service in Mexico from Yucatan, restored them in two years and put them back into service for the amusement park. A fifth was purchased by Disney, but found to be in too poor a condition for use and sold for scrap.
The four better engines were refitted with new boilers and ‘back-dated’ with older equipment — older style lanterns and chimneys — painted bright cheerful colors and given lots of chrome and brass trim.
Here’s a twin of Merida’s sad relic – an example of what Yucatan could have on display (or even put into use!) with quite a bit of work:
To read more on Yucatan’s Tram System, an excellent resource is found at Allen Morrison’s website — The Tramways of Mexico
To see photos from a 1968 trainspotting visit to Yucatan, check The Photography of John Dziobko – Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatán (UDEY) Photos
Surviving steam engines of Yucatan in Walt Disney World.
Apparently an official website of the Museo de los Ferrocarriles de Yucatan. (not all links work, but try Roster, Restorations, Collections (stamps) and People).
Engine photos from Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatan. This engine is very similar to the one rusting north of the station:
Look at the size of the wood being loaded for this engine’s tender — not exactly from large trees is it? Keeping these engines going must have required vast amounts of small diameter branches and trees cut from all over the countryside.
An early photo of Engine 351 at Acanceh
Alameda ( Alamesa?) rail stop:
Spanish account of trains in Yucatan: Breve reseña de la evolución
del tren en el mundo y en Yucatán
Hola Yucatan’s English translation of their History of Yucatan Rail. (this site plays a video advertisement automatically. Turn your sound off or down, then be prepared to stop the video in the upper right edge of the screen) Lots of local dates, names and facts found here.