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Mexico’s Copper Canyon train: a study in contrasts

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, April 08, 2017

The passenger train service operated by Ferromex between Chihuahua City and Los Mochis in northwestern Mexico is both a regularly scheduled intercity passenger train (the last of its kind remaining in Mexico) and a tourist excursion. It passes through the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre, in Spanish) region (also known as the Sierra Tarahumara), an area of spectacular beauty, and serves isolated rural communities (many populated by the indigenous Rarámuri people) with no other reliable form of physical connection to the outside world. Yet it isn’t managed or marketed like any other intercity or tourist train in the world. In spite of this, the train, known as El Chepe (short for Chihuahua al Pacífico), manages to draw a significant number of riders, both international visitors and locals. A friend and I just got back from a trip that included three rides on El Chepe (two in First Class and one in Economy Class) and covered the entire line between March 29 and April 2.

El Chepe rounding a curve in the Sierra Tarahumara in January 2015. Photo by Flickr.com user Juniperus_scopulorum.
The Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, first planned in the 1890s by US investors but not completed till 1961, once connected the central US to the Gulf of California via the shortest overland route but has since had its cross-border connection (at Presidio, Texas) severed. The passenger service’s eastern terminus, Chihuahua, is the capital and largest city of Mexico’s largest state (the city and state have the same name). The western terminus, Los Mochis, is the principal city in the northern part of the state of Sinaloa. Both cities have commercial airports and are on major highways. Running daily in both directions, departing each endpoint at 6:00 AM, El Chepe offers First Express-class service with a full sit-down dining car. Three days a week (westbound on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays; eastbound on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays), Economy Class cars are added to the train (including a snack car), which makes more stops and takes an hour longer end-to-end on those days.

The equipment consists entirely of 68-seat coaches and food service cars built in Japan by Kinkisharyo in the 1980s for the National Railways of Mexico, which was broken up and sold off to private companies in the late 1990s. Their main unique aspects are the window blinds placed between two panes of glass, operated by control knobs at the top of each window, and the six air conditioning units mounted on the ceiling of each car. 1960s-built freight locomotives supply the motive power and the train lacks head-end power, so a generator beneath each car provides hotel power - making for a very loud train. The seats in both classes are padded with felt upholstery and offer generous legroom. And in case you were wondering, the coaches feature retention toilets, with two restrooms (one for each gender) in each coach.

The greatest contrast inherent in the operation is between the attitudes of the on-board crews and those of the front-office staff who handle reservations and marketing. Once you try to book tickets using the Chepe website (which has not been updated in at least four years) or over the phone, you will soon discover what crew members confirmed in conversations with my friend and me — that while the on-board crews enjoy their jobs and are customer-focused, the opposite is true of the corporate staff. It seems obvious that Ferromex would rather not be in the passenger business, despite the federal subsidy and despite that much of the Sierra Tarahumara region’s economy is dependent on the tourism that the train enables.

El Chepe passing a blooming bush, seen from an open Dutch door, in January 2012. Photo by Flickr.com user Adam Singer.
It is not possible to buy tickets through the website, and one is lucky to get an answer when calling the listed phone number for reservations — and even luckier to reach an agent who speaks English. The secret to making reservations (for First Class anyway), as I found out when I finally got someone on the phone, is to send an email containing the names and ages of travelers, travel dates and origin-destination pairs to chepereservaciones[at]ferromex.mx. If you know Spanish, it is best to write your email in Spanish to avoid any confusion from the use of translation software. Another option is to buy train tickets as part of a tour package through a travel agency or Copper Canyon tour company — this is probably how the majority of Americans who ride El Chepe get their tickets.

If you email the reservations department, a reply email will say that your reservations are on hold for 10 days pending receipt of payment and providing two options for payment: a link to pay by credit card through Santander Bank, and an address and account number to which to send a money order or wire transfer. Once your payment is received, you will be emailed a printable PDF ticket with a QR code for the conductor to scan. Note that the prices shown on the website (which are accurate) and the prices you will be quoted are in Mexican pesos — the current exchange rate is roughly 18 pesos for one US dollar. Children 17 and younger and seniors 65 and older receive half off the First Class fare. Economy Class tickets cannot be purchased in advance — only on day of departure from the ticket agent at either endpoint station or from the conductor on board (Mexican currency and cards accepted) if boarding at an intermediate station. Discounts on the Economy Class fare are only available for children.

Once you board the train, however, the customer experience becomes closer to what one would expect from a business that is trying to cater to international tourists. The First Class section of the train is very clean; the Economy Class section reasonably so (though the upholstery and interiors of the Economy Class cars look very worn). Generally at least one conductor or attendant on each train speaks English, as does the server in the First Class dining car. The diner is open for all but the first and last two hours of the end-to-end trip and serves an extensive menu of Mexican food (including breakfast all day), along with beer, wine, sodas, juices and bottled water. 

As an added bonus for railfans, photographers and lovers of fresh air, passengers may stand at the open Dutch doors in the vestibules (there are signs warning against standing there, but many passengers do and are never reprimanded by the crew). Sadly, there is no dome or other type of observation car, despite scenery that more than justifies one. Ferromex keeps one short dome in its Chihuahua City yard, which is used only by company executives.

The First Class dining car on El Chepe, the first car behind the locomotive. Photo by Malcolm Kenton on March 30, 2017.
The landscape traversed by El Chepe transitions from high Chihuahuan desert to pine forest to thick tropical deciduous forest to the fertile farmland of coastal Sinaloa. The beauty of the canyonlands rivals that experienced on the California Zephyr route through Colorado, particularly as the train winds through a series of horseshoe curves around Témoris and hugs the Septentrión River through Septentrión Canyon. And the line, with 36 bridges and 87 tunnels, gaining over 7,800 feet of elevation in around 200 miles — including a gain of 611 feet in 23 miles at its steepest — represents as impressive an engineering feat as any alpine railroad in Switzerland. The only other way to experience these places, besides on foot, is on rugged, mostly dirt roads. There is no paved road paralleling the railroad the whole way through. This is the reason why the Rarámuri have continued to live such an isolated existence.

Unfortunately for those dependent on tourism in the Sierra, and for Americans who are missing out on some breathtaking places, US State Department travel warnings advising Americans to stay away from the Copper Canyon area have depressed visitation to the area and cut El Chepe’s ridership. Visitors are perfectly safe as long as they do not go looking for trouble — the violence that triggered the warnings is no worse than that taking place routinely in many American cities and is not targeted at tourists. In fact, ever since a 2004 robbery on an El Chepe train, each train is patrolled by one or two Chihuahua state police officers armed with assault rifles.

The Copper Canyon train will only be around as long as the Mexican government subsidizes it, and the fewer tourists ride, the more subsidy the government has to pay. Ferromex is not helping the train’s cause with its outmoded website and poor telephone availability, so if El Chepe is to be around much longer, it will be up to people everywhere who love train travel to spread the word about it and plan trips to ride it.

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