Officials want Copper Canyon train ‘Chepe’ to add Juárez stop

Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, also known as "Chepe," will stop in Juárez if federal officials approve a proposal by the Chihuahua state Legislature. (Rio Grande Digital file photo by Mike Scanlon)

Train could connect to NM’s Rail Runner

The lounge car in Chepe, the train that carries tourists and others through Mexico's Copper Canyon region. (Rio Grande Digital file photo by Mike Scanlon)

Rio Grande Digital

The Chihuahua state Legislature this week asked the Mexican federal government to expand the route of the famous Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico to serve Ciudad Juárez.

The hope is to connect the train to a future southern extension of the New Mexico’s Rail Runner commuter train, which currently runs between Santa Fe and Belen.  There have been discussions about extending the Rail Runner to Las Cruces and on to El Paso under some kind of agreement with Texas authorities.

The Mexican train, nicknamed “Chepe,” is a powerful tourist draw. It winds its way from Chihuahua city through the spectacular Barrancas del Cobre — or Copper Canyon region — ending in the near-coastal city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa. The route is popular with Mexican nationals and tourists from around the world. It spans 653 kilometers (about 400 miles) and climbs from sea level to about 8,000 feet at its highest point.

Chepe crosses 37 bridges and snakes through 86 tunnels along its route. It is the only passenger train in Mexico, and it reportedly carries about 300,000 passengers a year.

There are two trains a day going each direction. One is a slower train that stops at more stations used primarily by Mexican citizens for transportation. The tourist train includes a dining car and a lounge car where passengers can purchase cocktails and beer. It stops at 10 stations.

The rails also carry freight trains.

The rail line celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2012. Since 1998, Mexico has invested 166 million pesos in maintenance and improvements of Chepe. When it first opened in in 1961, Ciudad Juárez was the eastern end of the line, but over the years, the Juárez leg was found to be unprofitable and was discontinued.

Adding Juárez service could boost tourism in the border city as well provide a public transportation alternative for people traveling between Juárez and Chihuahua and other places along the route.

But this year, the line has seen a 35 percent increase in passengers from last year,  said Rosalba Delgado , manager of tourism for the Mexican National Railway (Ferromex), a public-private partnership that operates Chepe. Ridership had fallen dramatically since 2008 with the downturn in the global economy and onset of drug-related violence in Mexico. Recent passengers were from Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, the USA and Canada, Delgado said.

The Mexican government has built some additional attractions along the way, such as a cable-car tramway at the town of Divisadero. There also are plans for hotels and other development along the route.

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