ARM Trip Report


Taking a ride on the Chepe Railroad

Allan Pratt


No, that’s not a mis-spelling of  “cheap”, it’s the nickname of the Chihuahua and El Pacifico train that passes through the Copper Canyon. My wife and I went on a tour of northern Mexico, which included a ride on that train. We boarded the daily train in the tiny town of La Fuerte about 50 miles inland from the port city of Los Moches, where the route begins its seriously complicated climb across the Occidental Sierra Madre mountains to the inland city of Chihuahua. There are some 86 tunnels and 37 major bridges, along with no end of smaller ones en route.

 The train was promised to arrive “sometime between eight and ten this morning.” However, it was only a little late. We boarded our very comfortable passenger cars about 8:30 in the morning. As we later learned, we were the first class section. A second train with “tourist” accommodations left an hour later. Our train had both a dining car and a bar car, both quite comfortable.

 

Those mountains are not extraordinarily high, reaching to just over 8,000 feet. But they are an incredibly tangled mass of volcanic ridges and valleys. Even California’s Big Four who hammered the track through the Rockies in 1869 would have been challenged by these conditions. First proposed in 1871, the last rail wasn’t laid until 1961, ending ninety years of frustration. Not long after we started, we began to see why this was such a problem.

Shortly thereafter we pulled off on a siding. Trackworkers were busy repairing a section of the main line, so we waited a bit.

Soon the workers moved off the track to allow a west-bound train go by. We backed up past the siding switch, which was then thrown to allow us to continue eastward. The westbound train was a variant on TOFC traffic. It consisted of flatcars with RVs lashed to them. After seeing the landscape and riding over some of the easier roads, we could understand how the RV folk preferred to take the train. They all rode inside their RVs, as there was no other option for them. 

After about six hours of passing through some very spectacular rugged countryside, we reached Divisadero, near the mid-point of the route to Chihuahua.

 

We thought that our Copper Canyon ride would be the end of train travel for us, but we were mistaken. A few days later, we were in the tiny town of Nuevo Casas Grandes. Our only reason for being there was that it is quite near the even tinier town of Mata Ortiz. This tiny town is much more famous, thanks to a fellow named Quezada. When the local logging business shut down, there was no work for anybody. Quezada began to create beautiful pottery, based on the work of the long-vanished local tribe. His work became spectacularly successful, and practically everybody in town is now a potter.

 In this tiny town there is a tiny train, powered by a four-cylinder Fiat engine.

 

We all clambered aboard this contraption, and rode all of 200 yards down the track, where we climbed off and went to lunch. On our return trip we saw the “real” train a mixed consist, of half a dozen men in one tiny open car and a load of hay bales in the second one.

Seriously, this is a real train. It runs from Nuevo Casas Grandes to Mata Ortiz, once each way each day. The track has been abandoned by FerroMex, and officially no trains have run on it since the lumber company formerly in Mata Ortiz shut down some years ago. However, some local guys have cobbled together this rig and seem to be making a go of it.


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