Riding the Rails 

Work continues on Tucson-to-Mexico train service, but many obstacles remain

Suppose you live in Tucson (Point A) and want to enjoy the experience of train travel deep into Mexico (Point B), letting someone else drive while you enjoy the view with a libation in hand. Suppose, as is the current case, that you can't get there from here.

Good news, travelers: There are glimmering rays of hope that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't an oncoming train, but a departing one, with passenger rail service into Mexico that would leave directly from Tucson's downtown rail depot.

"This is a long-term project that will involve a lot of testing to see what the market will bear, so we're not ready to declare victory yet, because there are still bugs to be worked out," says Augie Garcia. "Something like this doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time, but we're gaining on it and might be able to have the infrastructure in place in a couple of years."

Garcia is director of the city of Tucson's Puerto Nuevo office, charged with the mission of developing ports for global markets and exploring the potential for creation of new rail and truck port authorities.

"Go for it, Augie," says Connie Dudley, president of Sierra Madre Express Inc., currently celebrating its 25th season as a private passenger-train operator offering rail tours departing from Nogales, Sonora, headed primarily into Mexico's Copper Canyon. "We've been working with Puerto Nuevo, the city of Tucson and Mexican officials for at least five years--and were working on this project even before that--trying to achieve the steps that will allow us to initiate passenger service from the downtown train depot and take it across the border into various destinations in Mexico."

Dudley says Tucson is a "logical extension" of Sierra Madre Express' existing operation. "Currently, passengers have to grab a bus or make their own way to the border and cross the international boundary before they board our train. We would love to be able to originate from the downtown depot and operate between the U.S. and Mexico."

Garcia has been meeting, discussing and planning, drafting project proposals, having them rejected and starting all over again, since early 2000. "We've met with Mexican senators and their Congress, the foreign secretary, secretary of the treasury, department of tourism officials, customs and immigration authorities to see about getting laws changed to allow us to conduct a pilot project for passenger service entry from the United States into Mexico," he says. Available funding has been used to conduct an analysis on needed infrastructure, and a consultant's report indicates that if legalities and protocol could be agreed upon, only new station platforms and sidings next to the existing downtown depot would be necessary to provide some sort of a junction that would allow trains to move in all directions.

"We're looking to find funding from the private sector, some $10-15 million as an investment, to construct depot and junction modifications in order to set up some test-market trial runs, say, between Tucson and Guaymas on a limited scale on weekends," says Garcia.

Initial informal market analysis has been conducted with scuba-diving clubs in both Tucson and Phoenix. "They said, 'Oh man, that would be a treat' to have passenger seating for the divers and a railcar for their equipment. There are probably up to 500 divers going to Guaymas per month. We could take maybe 100 people a week there, leaving Tucson on a Thursday night, arriving in Guaymas by midnight, diving Friday and Saturday, and catching the train back to town on Sunday, arriving back in Tucson that afternoon."

And that's just one possible group of interested travelers.

"We're already veterans in handling special groups seeking experiential journeys," Dudley says, like the largest group they've ever carried, 75 professional songwriters who performed on the train and stopped at points along the way. "If our runs south started in Tucson, we could expand business offerings into an art focus, a culinary journey, family or generational travel ... all markets needing to be served."

But first, build it, and hope they will come.

"In our discussions to this point," says Dudley, "we've talked about Tucson, Nogales, Guaymas, Los Mochis, Mazatlan--we'd love to start out there and eventually operate along the coastline, expanding to include not daily, but perhaps bi-weekly or tri-monthly service to places like Guadalajara or Mexico City. The best initial approach would be for us to include tag-on service to our existing offerings so railcars could be added for specific purposes, like dropping off divers to be picked up on the return trip. We could easily tag on an operation to our schedule already in the pipeline."

Sierra Madre officials are focusing on the small segment of rail line between Tucson and Nogales, Sonora, as well as official authorization to do on-board customs verification procedures. "We'd like to get to the point where once we move the train down to the border, everything would be complete, and we wouldn't have to stop, off-load passengers and go through the process again," says Dudley.

As to how far along the continuum the project planning is, no one is willing to come up with an educated guess that might prove accurate.

"If we find infrastructure funding soon, we could begin to put that in place possibly as early as 2007-2008," Garcia says.

"Where are we?" asks Dudley. "We're optimistic, but it's real difficult to say accurately. We move baby steps ahead every day, but when you're dealing with this many entities necessary to make something like this happen, it's hard to put a firm timeline on it. However, we've been operating in the rail passenger service business for 25 years, and we know the ins and outs of what it takes to move quickly and get service up and running--once everything else is in place."

More by Lee Allen


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