Question: What’s the best possible use of 12 pesos on a warm afternoon in Puebla? That would be about $0.92, USD. Well, if you’re me, it would be the entrance fee to the Museo del Ferrocarril, located at the corner of 10 Poniente and 11 Norte, in the northwest quadrant of Puebla’s Centro Historico. As long-time readers know, I’m fascinated by large machinery, and also visited the Museo del Ferrocarril in San Luis Potosí last year. So when I learned that Puebla too had such a museum, I put it on my must-do list.
The museum has terrific collection of both locomotives and cars, all sitting outside in a yard. And as it turns out, Puebla has long association with the railroads. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Puebla was blessed with three railroading-related businesses, and the first station was constructed in Puebla in 1869. This formed part of the route from DF to Veracruz, with trunk lines from Puebla to Apizaco. This station, along with its surrounding grounds, is now the museum.
The museum has a truly impressive collection of locomotives (about 9 or 10) and probably a good 20 or so cars of various types, from passenger cars, to mail cars, to military cars, amongst others. The mail car pictured below has special racks for mail bags, and a desk for sorting letters in transit. As the system grew, mail volumes multiplied.
The selection of locomotives also provides a nice history of the development of means of power. Initially, locomotives were coal-fired steam affairs. Coal was shoveled into a firebox, and from there the hot combustion gases were routed through a series of tubes surrounded by water. The combustion gases flowed forward and exited the chimney at the front part of the locomotive, converting the water to steam along the way. I was initially puzzled by this arrangement as it would have seemed more logical to have the smoke flow backward. But this would have put the firebox at the front of the train, well away from the coal car.
The old steam locomotives were truly enormous, weighing hundreds of tons, and standing 15′-20′ feet high. The locomotive shown below was constructed by the American Locomotive Works and the Baldwin Locomotive Works and is one of the 31 steam units specially designed for service in Mexico. This particular unit was constructed in 1946, though by then the age of steam was coming to an end. Its impulse lever and cylinders were cast in a single piece, which at the time was considered a marvel of engineering. Note also the enormous size. Each wheel is six feet tall, which gives you some sense of its overall magnitude. The locomotive was capable of pulling 13,060 tons of cargo at a speed of 25 KM, and 230 tons at a 4% grade. This Niagara type engine was amongst the last acquired by Mexico in the 50’s, and only 11 remain today.
Prior to the 1930’s, most locomotives were fairly customized pieces, with lots of variation designed to deal with the demands of service in different kinds of territory — mountainous, flat, freight, passenger, etc. They were also mostly coal-fired, steam powered machines. By the late 30’s, the General Motors Corporation and the Electro Motive Corporation sought to design a locomotive that would be largely standardized, able to be mass-produced, and available with only a few options, much as cars are sold today. The result of that effort was the FT locomotive, a diesel-electric unit which ushered in the modern era of diesel-electric locomotives, and remains the favored locomotive technology to this day. Such a locomotive works by utilizing a large diesel engine to drive a generator, long with a massive number of batteries. The diesel engine is run at a more-or-less constant speed, which maximizes fuel economy. In turn, the combination of the generator and the batteries drives electric motors which turn the wheels. Compared to steam, such engines are far more efficient, easier to fuel, and also hold the potential for regenerative braking, though I don’t believe the original FT had that feature. Also, compared to the old steam engines, the control room of the FT was spacious, simple, and cool. Frankly, as I toured the museum I wondered about the hellish conditions in a steam locomotive cab being used in the tropics.
Compare the nightmare of knobs, valves, and the heat generated by the firebox of the Niagara series of trains vs the simple switches and levers of the FT.
Another form of motive power was electricity provided by overhead cables. Such a system was developed for the steep grade connecting DF and Veracruz, which at times had a 4.7% grade. The locomotive shown below belongs to a group of 14 units that were built in the USA specially for use on this route, and put into service in 1923. The engines could be run in either direction, weighed 143 tons, and ran on 3,000 volts of electricity powering six motors on each locomotive. This locomotive was able to pull twice the weight at twice the speed of a comparable steam locomotive, making it especially suited to this steep route. One of its most notable features was its regenerative braking, which means it fed power back into the overhead cable as it descended the mountains, thus greatly reducing the costs of operation.
While the US rail system was built well ahead of the Mexican system, we also tend to take for granted the ability to move goods around the USA. We are blessed with numerous navigable rivers such as the Mississippi, the Delaware, the Hudson, augmented by the development of the Erie Canal, among many others. And the vast majority of the USA is flat, or hilly, with only the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas posing a real challenge to overland freight transport. Mexico is not that lucky. The main centers of wealth and population have historically been in the mountainous highlands, separated by steep peaks and valleys that posed a real challenge to unifying the country.
During the Porfiriato, (roughly 1877 to 1911) the rail system blossomed. When Diaz became president, the country had only 640 KM of track, and by the end the network had expanded to 20,000 KM, creating an economic boom. Diaz saw the railroads not only a tool of modernization, but a means of political control. Diaz always affirmed that with the rail system, he could easily snuff out any rebellion in any part of the country within a matter of days. This, of course, was not lost on the revolutionaries, who sought to control sections of track, or to destroy it. And in the end, despite his initial control of the rails, we know that Diaz ultimately lost the revolution.
After the revolution, the railroads increasingly came to be seen as an essential national resource, and too important to leave to the free market system that had characterized the Porfiriato. So president Lázaro Cardenas (1934-40) determined to both develop and nationalize the system. During this period, several additional lines were built, including Caltzontzín-Apatzingán, Sonora-Baja California, and Allende-Campeche lines. And in 1937, the senate approved the expropriation of all the Mexican railroads in order to reduce deterioration, and the financial instability of many of the participating companies.
However, by the late 80’s, the national railroad system was suffering enormously from competition from trucks and other forms of transit, and in 1991, the system lost 37 cents for every dollar of revenues. In 1995, the Mexican government announced that the FNM would be privatized and divided into four main systems. As part of the restructuring for privatization, FNM suspended passenger rail service in 1997. And so the system has come full circle, back in private hands.
The museum tells an interesting story, including some fascinating vignettes of the lives of the “ferrocarrileros,” or the people who worked on the trains. These were plum positions, and handed down from father to son. Apparently, many of these ferrocarrileros resisted the transition to diesel-electric, and longed for the “good old days” of steam power. In addition to the large train yard, the museum has a nice exhibit of videos, tools, photos, and other memorabilia. I highly recommend it.
This photo captures just a part of the total number of cars and locomotives on display.