By Ines Amarelo
Mexico City, Jul 7 (EFE).- It’s been seven years since work began on the Mexico City-Toluca interurban train line, one of the biggest projects launched during the six-year presidential term of Enrique Peña Nieto and which has now become an effort beset by delays and cost overruns that the current government is seeking to complete by 2024.
Construction began during Peña Nieto’s 2012-2018 administration, but it has dragged on for much longer than the expected 2017 completion date.
“Once the project is completely finished, and the trains that will link Toluca with Mexico City are in operation, the investment is going to have amounted to about 90 billion pesos (some $4.5 billion),” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on a visit to oversee the work last November.
Now, the president and all those involved in the project are aiming for an estimated 230,000 passengers per day to be able to board the 30 trains provided by a consortium headed by Spain’s Construccion y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF).
“The social impact of the Mexico City-Toluca train will be seen almost immediately. We’re convinced that the flow will be very significant. People are going to see the benefits of using it and that’s going to justify the expense,” Carlos Mira Hatch, with the SGS company, told EFE.
During a tour EFE received of the project to become familiar with the progress, the spokesman for SGS – the firm providing advice, control and monitoring for the project – provided a wealth of detail about the project, which stretches for almost 58 kilometers (36 miles) but is proceeding slowly but “safely,” he said.
Huge pillars set up in the Toluca Valley, a tunnel through the mountains and a suspension bridge are just some of the parts of the project that provide an idea of the magnitude of the interurban train plan.
Divided into several legs, the project also includes a two-way tunnel, a viaduct that conducts water to Mexico City, bridges and an area for workshops and train sheds where trains are awaiting the starting gun to begin plying the route.
The engineer insisted that the project is fully transparent, with between 40-60 audits and he ruled out any corruption or irregularities in the work.
“The Mexico City-Toluca train is a highly audited project and any findings have had a solid basis and there have been no sanctions yet for any badly conceived decision or a situation that has not been dealt with properly,” he said.
Pablo Montes, the anticorruption coordinator at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), agreed in part with Mira Hatch. IMCO, a public policy research center, in 2018 published an investigation titles “Inefficiency and risks of corruption in public works: A Case Study of the Mexico City-Toluca interurban train.”
“IMCO didn’t find problems in the contracting. The problems we could see having a potential risk of corruption were just about the disputes over the lands through which the train was to pass. We didn’t find any significant corruption risks,” he said.
Regarding the train route, Mira Hatch said that changes had to be made in several areas for two main reasons: to adapt to social issues and to minimize the environmental impact of the project.
“Over the course of the work, there have been problems of continuity stemming from social demands, but they have been getting resolved,” he said.
But the project has been moving slowly for the past seven years because the planning done by the Peña Nieto government was not the most efficient.
“That’s a general problem with public works in Mexico: the planning,” Montes said, adding that although the planning problems originated with the Peña Nieto administration, the current government cannot avoid evaluating whether or not “it’s worth it” to finish the interurban train project, the costs of which have been multiplying over the years.
“This waste leads one to ask if the project continues to be profitable and whether the social benefit and cost of tickets are going to continue to make it profitable. If that cost were to have been planned for in the beginning, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Now, with the work is approximately 80 percent finished, projections are that the overall cost will be about 93.89 billion pesos ($4.7 billion).
The original budget for the project was about 38.5 billion pesos, according to the IMCO expert, who expressed surprise that Lopez Obrador, who had been very critical of his predecessors, did not shelves the train line as an example of an “overambitious project” undertaken without sufficient planning.