The very narrow gauge railways of
photographed by Louis Cerny
in 1988 and 1989
Text and webpage by Allen Morrison
Before metal wire and nylon cord the world used rope to tie things together, and there was no better place to grow the agave plant, the source of henequen or sisal hemp, than the flat, rocky terrain of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. Hundreds of henequen plantations sprung up in that area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and an estimated 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) of narrow gauge railway track was laid around and between them, to transport the "green gold" from the fields to the processing plants, and thence to the towns and ports for shipment abroad. A variety of horsedrawn vehicles transported not only the sisal but also the plantation workers and, later, the general public. Yucatán produced 90% of the world's twine in 1915 and became one of Mexico's richest states. International competition and the development of synthetic fibers in the 20th century decimated the Yucatán economy and the figure dropped to 15% by 1935. Most of the plantations closed and the "tramways" were abandoned. But the rails were not removed and some remain in use today. Historians and rail enthusiasts flock to Yucatán to search for lines that still might be in operation.
In January 1988 and April 1989 noted U.S. railroad engineer and author Louis Cerny visited Yucatán and photographed railways still extant in four places. See map: TIXKOKOB is about 30 km east of the state capital, Mérida. SUMA is 60 km east. CUZAMÁ and CHUNKANÁN are 50 km southeast of Mérida. Here are 26 of his photographs.
An abandoned sisal processing plant near Tixkokob. The photograph was taken in 1988. The structure has since been restored.
The Yucatán countryside is littered with railways that seem to wander aimlessly into fields. Track gauge of most of the henequen lines is 50 centimeters or 19.6875 inches.
The photographer's son and wife at a junction south of Tixkokob. This photograph was taken in 1989. The rail and steel ties used on most of Yucatán's very narrow gauge lines came from Établissements Decauville in Corbeil, France.
A typical side-of-the-road railway. The view is north in an unidentified village south of Tixkokob.
Local railroaders pose on a truck - the term oddly used by Yucatecos for their home-made rail vehicle. (Mexicans sometimes write truk. The vowel is pronounced like the u in truth.)
The henequen lines do not generally have turn-outs or passing sidings. These gentlemen show what must be done when two trucks meet.
Another scene in the village south of Tixkokob [see map]. The women are using the rails to transport firewood. The man with the dog is probably one of their husbands.
Detail of the image above.
When the highway department tears up the rails to build a road, Yucatecos are not deterred. They simply drag their trucks across the pavement and re-rail on the other side.
An eerie, late afternoon view near this small town 30 km east of Tixkokob [see map]. The rails seemed to be in good condition - but nothing came along.
A family arriving in Cuzamá from Homún nearby [see map]. This truck has comfortable seats. Note how the horse avoids walking between the rails.
Heavy traffic on the railway between Homún and Cuzamá [see map]. Anyone with a horse and a truck gets free rail travel in Yucatán.
Another family on the rails. Since the decline of the henequen industry there has been no maintenance of the track. It is in the public domain now, for all to use. But the traveler must make do.
Terminus of the Homún-Cuzamá interurban tramway line [see map]. Note rails.
Many of the "streets" in Cuzamá have rail lines and, when not in use, each resident parks his truck in front of his house. No one owns an automobile here - but is that a telephone box hanging on the tree?
If one didn't know better - the photograph was taken in 1989 - one would swear that the owner of the truck on the left wrote "El Campesino.com" on his house. It must be very dark inside.
The century-old Decauville track needs repair, but still allows Cuzamá residents to maintain their leisurely, neighborly lifestyle. Driving along here in an air-conditioned SUV would not be the same.
The hitchhiker in the NIKE shirt looks a lot like the photographer's son...
The interurban line along the highway between Cuzamá and Chunkanán [see map]. In an article about his 1988 visit [see below] author Cerny wrote that when he saw one of these vehicles disappear into the distance "... the feeling was of watching them depart not to another place, but to another time in the past."
Every "street" in Chunkanán is railed. This is a total railway town [see map].
The very light, 20-pound Decauville track was designed to be portable, moved from place to place as needed. This track has been in the same place for many years.
On this street the railway line has endured better than the dirt road alongside. It probably also has better drainage.
Approaching a henequen plantation. The building behind the trees is shown in the next picture.
The Chunkanán processing plant still showed signs of activity in 1988.
The same spot in 1989, when the plant looked busier than the year before. Rails are (barely) visible in the grass on the left.
This photograph tells the whole story - describes the present status - of the very narrow gauge railways of Yucatán. Some track survives and is still used. Other sections of rail are intact but buried in the grass and unused. Still other sections are chopped off and no longer good for anything.
After his 1988 trip, Louis Cerny wrote an article entitled "Local Public-Use 1 ft. 8 in. (50 cm) Gauge Railways in the Yucatan Peninsula" which was published on pages 334-339 of the 1988 Proceedings of the American Railway Engineering Association (Volume 89). The article has six color illustrations, including four not shown on this webpage. Near the end of his text he commented: "The combination of such deteriorated track being operated without apparent maintenance by these poor families left a disturbing aura. But still, these are railroads, not kept for any tourist or hobby purpose, and they obviously are important to the people that use them."
Mr. Cerny returned to Mexico and still found rail activity in 1989. But a few years later, in 1993, railway enthusiast Gert Aberson of Amsterdam, Netherlands, visited Tixkokob and Cuzamá and saw numerous changes. There seemed to be no rail activity whatever anymore around Tixkokob. Bits of track were visible in the brush along the road between Homún and Cuzamá [see map], but most of the right-of-way shown in Cerny's photographs had been replaced by a concrete sidewalk. Aberson was told that trucks still plied the rails between Cuzamá and Chunkanán, but he did not have a chance to investigate. The Cuzamá-Chunkanán highway today is a broad, paved thoroughfare, without any trace of track.
It seems that the henequen railways of Yucatán continued to disappear at the end of the 20th century. However, there have been extraordinary, unexpected developments in the 21st...
The hacienda and plantation at Katanchel near Tixkokob [see map] was restored and reopened as a lavish resort hotel. The rail lines on the property were rebuilt and modified trucks provide rides for guests. Several plantations south of Mérida - Dzoyaxché, Sotuta de Peón, San Pedro Ochil - were restored and opened to the general public, also with railways for visitors to ride. Dzoyaxché is within the Cuxtal Ecological Reserve
The most extraordinary development of all was at Chunkanán. The plantation and processing plant were destroyed by Hurricane Isadore in 2002 and the town lost its principal employer. But the ever resourceful Yucatecos rebuilt 9 km of the railway that ran west toward Acanceh [see map], then repaired, roofed and repainted a fleet of trucks and inaugurated a service for visitors in 2005. The operation has been a phenomenal success and is now considered one of the principal tourist attractions in Yucatán - if not all Mexico.
If you have more information about the very narrow gauge railways of Yucatán, please e-mail me!
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