April 16, Tuesday
I got up and out the door by 0800, the plan to get the auto insured for Mexico (about $90 for a week), convert some cash to Pesos, and look around the rail yards in town before getting back to the motel room for Mary and Eliot. In converting my dollars at the local Commerce Bank, I felt I was in Mexico already--no "Ingles" to be heard! I converted $200 US into $2600-or so Pesos, and headed for the tracks, coming face to face with an eastbound Texas-Mexican train (KCS 604 / 726 / TFM 2386) headed into the morning sunlight at San Bernardo Avenue. Nearby was the TM operations office, and I stopped in to harvest whatever information I could about local operations. I had the good fortune to meet F. Javier Ramos, manager transportation service, a former TM dispatcher and third-generation TM railroader. He loaded me down with TM goodies: a timetable, a calendar, a window sticker. Ramos said that the bridge crossing is operated north and south in six-hour blocks. UP, TM (KCS) and TFM all stage their trains out of town, then fleet them toward the bridge when the time comes.
I headed to the border bridge, driving along the tracks toward a UP train stopped at the customs shack. A spotless SP GP40-2 in "flying SP" lettering was on the point. I noted a few military types in fatigues toting machine guns, and decided I'd keep a low profile. Too late. I was quickly approached by two LARGE U.S. Customs officers inquiring what I was doing. I muttered something about taking photos of the trains and working for the railroad, and, "besides, I was just leaving anyway." Trains crossing here pass through a giant X-ray machine. I noted that that must not be very much fun for the crews driving the trains through the contraption, then decided it probably wouldn't do my film much good, either.
Back at La Quinta, Mary and Eliot were ready to go, but Eliot was listless and sporting a 103 degree fever. We located an emergency room at a hospital on the north side of town. It was brand new, and nearly empty. We were in and out in an hour and a half. The doctor said the fever was caused by a virus kids were getting, and Tylenol and Motrin should keep it in check. By the time we were out the door, his temperature had dropped to 101 degrees. We hit a Burger King for our last American food for the week and filled the fuel tank, as gasoline at the PEMEX stations across the border was rumored to be close to $2.00 a gallon.
Next stop: The border. No problem. Across the bridge, and past the checkpoint with the red light/green light "coin flip" inspection. We got a green light. It used to be that Mexico customs workers were greedy, corrupt individuals who'd hassle you for no reason and confiscate whatever they wanted. Then a new program called "Guía Paisano" was instituted by the government, weeding out corruption (the logo is a drawing of an apple with a bite taken out of it with a Circle/Slash around it) and replacing arbitrary inspection with a random "red light/green light" wheel of fortune at the border. Next stop: Get the tourist visa and a permit to take the car into the country. Actually, you can go into the country without paper work as far south as 21 kilometers; beyond that, you need to pay a bond on your car to insure you'll bring it back and get a document that allows you to travel in the country as a tourist. Both of these could be had at the large government structure along the river that looked like a bus terminal from the 1950s and had that kind of lifeless, soulless bureaucratic feeling to it that I'd associate with Cuba or some Central American dictatorship. Thank God Mary was along, as those behind the windows weren't in much of a mood to elaborate on how the process worked. Go to window one--oops, first, go to the payment window, THEN to window one. Then go to window two for copies. Then to--no, not three, but to four. Finally, go to the Banjercito at the end of the building to pay for the bond on the car. There was virtually no line ahead of us, and we were taken care of in less than a half hour.
FINALLY! ON THE ROAD! Our trusty guidebook we bought at the Sanborn's Insurance office in hand, we headed south out of town, getting a windshield washing without our asking at the first stop light. We must've missed a turn or something--maybe we should have turned right at the third big statue of a revolutionary leader instead of the fourth?--because where we were and where the guidebook said we should be didn't jibe. Eventually, after making a big loop around the Nuevo Laredo airport, we got ourselves straightened out, and eschewing the quick, fast, smooth toll road to Monterrey, we headed west a few miles to pick up Highway 1 via Bustamante to Monterrey. Two lane, kinda bumpy, free--but best of all, paralleling the railroad all the way.
The northern half of Mexico is today operated by two major railroads, Ferrocarril Mexicano, or Ferromex (FXE) and Transportación Ferroviaria Mexicana, (TFM). Both were created in the late 1990's when the Mexican government, under president Zedillo, privatized the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM), which only a few years before had consolidated the state-owned NdeM and regional railroads into a single railroad. The privatization occurred concurrent with the easing of trade restrictions resulting from the NAFTA agreement. The timing was fortuitous, because with NAFTA, US companies went crazy in relocating manufacturing facilities in Mexico, where lower wages more than made up for the additional cost of shipping finished merchandise into the US. The NAFTA boom created a need for more modern, efficient railroads--until this time the Mexican railroads were largely run as they were during the steam era, where jobs were plentiful and the government would always provide. No more. Privatization brought US investment; in a huge bidding war, the northeast railroad, TFM, was awarded to a consortium of Mexican industry and the KCS, and northwest railroad, FXE, was awarded to a group including Union Pacific. Curiously, the majority of TFM's interchange at Laredo is with the UP. And at Eagle Pass, FXE's major Texas border interchange, much of the interchange comes from BNSF. U.S. investment has quickly changed the face of Mexican railways. They're fully modern now, and the abandoned depots, maintenance of way houses, and new CTC and modern motive power show that current management is as rapid about changing things in Mexico as their compatriots in the US have been. And, sad to say, that means no Alcos or old GE's anymore, let alone cabooses, six man crews, telegraph dispatching and open depots.
A few miles southwest of Nuevo Laredo, we passed a northbound TFM train with two SD70M's (1628 / 1662), and at Sánchez Yard, a dozen or so holding tracks out in the boonies where trains are staged and switched prior to their crossing north, a pair of GE "Super 7's" (2372 / 2351) were working at the north end of the yard, clad in KCS-like grey with yellow nose stripes. Sharp. At the south end, UP 9114 / DRGW 5349 / UP9355 rested next to TFM AC4400's 2661 / 2669 and TFM 2347 / 1343 (Super 7 / SD40-2).
The country is desert and wide open for the 60 or so miles south of the border until you near Lampazos, where the railroad turns due south in a valley between the Sierra de Lampazos to the east and the Sierra Pájaros Azules to the west. This is beautiful desert, and as the railroad climbs toward Monterrey, the mountains become more rugged and steeper, and the railroad passes through a forest of Joshua trees south of Los Alamos. The TFM was quiet until we neared a highway overpass, where a single AC4400, 2601, walked slowly up the grade with a lengthy string of empty auto racks. I was able to find a place to park the car and got the photo with moments to spare of the AC with the backlit Sierra de Gomas in the background.
At the bottom of the grade, near a rice processing plant at Los Morales, a northbound waited in the siding. We spun the car around and chased him back up the grade. Despite his six SD70MAC's (TFM 1664 / 1638 / 1632 / 1674 / 1640 / 1653) he had a struggle with a heavy train of mixed merchandise. I assume at least some of the units were off line.
With these two nice photos safe in the camera, we turned south for Saltillo. We bypassed the sprawl of Monterrey by using the toll road, but were awed by the beautiful setting of this city of easily a couple million, ringed with towering peaks on three sides. The highway between Saltillo and Monterrey climbs steadily along the foothills of these mountains, gaining elevation from 1500 to 5200 feet in about 50 miles. I was so awe-struck by the display of mountain majesty to our north and south that I failed to realize that for much of the route we were paralleled by a TFM mainline, which makes a precipitous drop from Saltillo to Monterrey, often requiring helpers on southbounds. On the outskirts of Ramos Arizpe, we saw a northbound TFM train descending the grade; two new Union Pacific SD70M's with flared radiators and big flag decals, en route from the Bombardier-Concarril plant at Ciudad Sahugún, Hidalgo, near Mexico City, were on the rear of the locomotive consist. Bombardier-Concarril assembles the locomotives under contract to GM. We arrived in Saltillo at dusk, and after dinner at Pollo Loco, one of Mary's favorite chain restaurants in northern Mexico, we drove around this provincial capital and finally got a room (around $45 US) at the Hotel Rancho El Morillo, a quaint 1934 hacienda surrounded by huge trees and gardens on the town's south west side. You'd never know you were on the edge of Coahuila's capital city of 450,000 from the quiet of the night--but it was easy to tell the TFM mainline, dropping off the 1.5 percent grade from Carneros--wasn't too far down the hill behind us. Sweet music throughout the night!
April 15, Monday
April 16, Tuesday
April 17, Wednesday
April 18, Thursday
April 19, Friday
April 20, Saturday
April 21, Sunday
April 22, Monday