November 05, 2003 GMT
Driving the Train

I first read about Copper Canyon a few years ago. It's bigger, deeper than the Grand Canyon and covered in trees. I really wanted to compare and contrast it to it's American counterpart.

What made it even more interesting is the Ferrorcarril Chihuahua al Pacifico, the Copper Canyon Railway. The track connects the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. It was apparently designed to compete with the Panama Canal, but, because of the almost impossible terrain was not completed until 1961, almost fifty years later.

From Los Mochis on the western coast it rises to 8,000 feet through Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre before descending again. It takes two days to travel the entire length of 1,000km. There is only one track.

The most spectacular part is the western side as it twists and turns through the canyons. There are 86 tunnels and 39 viaducts and some spectacular views. It is generally regarded as one of the world’s most scenic railways.

I went over to the station to find out when the trains arrived. There are only two trains in each direction each day, an express luxury one for tourists and an economical local one which stops at every station (and a few more besides).

Four years ago at a brief unscheduled stop the local village decided to rob everyone on the express train. As the tourists were helpfully handing over their cash and cameras one of the banditos spotted a camera being pointed at him. A well travelled Swiss man, deciding that this was a new experience and might be useful to the police, was taking photos of all the robbers. The bandito gestured that he hand over his camera. The man refused. A more agitated demand followed which was met with a similar but unwise refusal. The bandito shot him dead. Since then every train has an armed SDP guard on it.

As the train drew in (only half an hour late) I had positioned myself right at the front where I hoped the engine would stop. I ran forwards to the cab and waved at the driver. Using my most fluent gesticulations I asked if I could up into the cab. He looked down and shook his head. Bugger.

Rejected but undeterred, I found a seat with every one else. I rode the train to Buhuichiva and stayed at Ceocahui a few miles away near the edge of the canyon.

On the return journey the next day I had already formulated a new strategy. I positioned myself at the same place and waited for the engine to arrive. Only forty five minutes late this time but who cares? I took a few photos of it as it slowed to a halt.

Again, I ‘asked’ to enter the cab. The driver looked at me and smiled. He was pointing to the rear of the train. I was a bit confused thinking he was asking me to go and join all the other toursists again. I looked at him enquiringly and he then pointed down a bit. I clicked. He was pointing at the ladder!

Yes! I climbed up and into the cab. I offered him the ten dollars I’d been waiving in my hand but he declined it.

Whoa what fun! I was so excited.

I really felt that perhaps size does matter after all.

It’s one thing sitting on the floor with your Hornby engine making all the appropriate noises. The real thing makes a real amount of noise. The big diesel engine shudders and vibrates and feels alive as it and wobbles and grinds up the old tracks. It wasn’t possible to stand up in the cab without holding on to something as well as keeping my legs fairly widely apart.

This was a proper man's job like using a JCB or driving an articulated lorry. No namby-pamby computers but a big throbbing engine.

I was so excited. It was like being seven again but with my own live train to play with.

My ‘driver’ wasn’t the current driver at all, but he would be tomorrow. he was hitching a lift to Creel from where he’d take tomorrow’s express back to Los Mochis on the Pacific Coast. His name was Jesus (Hay sus).

We communicated with diagrams and pictures. The engine was of 200 litre capacity, rated at 3,000 horsepower and weighed 300 tons. The engine was made by GEC in the States.

It was a weird feeling looking out the front of the train, seeing the track ahead, whilst hoping that Miguel hadn’t forgotten to put the 6.15 goods train into a siding as we came through. There's no way to swerve if a train suddenly appears around the corner.

It was very noisy but seemingly simple to operate. There was one lever for the engine speed and another for the brake pressure. I ‘asked’ Jesus if I could have a go driving but unfortunately, he wouldn’t let me. He wouldn’t even let me blow the horn.

It’s not like that in Italy where I piloted one of the passenger hydrofoils at forty five knots carrying passengers between Milazzo in Sicily and the volcanic Lipari islands. But that’s another story.

After about an hour Jesus signed that he was getting off soon and got up. There were two doors on either side of the cab facing forwards. He went through the left hand door and held the door open motioning for me to follow him. I thought about it for an instant and followed him. The co-driver handed me my camera as I stepped outside. The train rocks quite a bit as in rattles and claws it’s way up the rails so I held on to the guardrail tightly.

The deck went right round the front of the train around a sort of bonnet about fifteen feet long.

I followed him to the very front of the train where he leant over the rail with his arms up and forwards a la Titanic. I copied him. We rounded a bend and went straight into a tunnel. Suddenly it became much colder and an awful lot noisier with the echo in the tunnel and as the driver raised the engine speed for the next incline. We emerged into a narrow cutting and tuned back into the sun. Jesus smiled and pointed off to one side through the trees.

A few moments later we went into another tunnel. This time as we emerged there wsas no cutting. There was nothing but a very slim, very slender bridge.

Leaning forward against the guardrail at the very front of the train with my arms stretched out above my head gave me a wild buzz of excitement.

I could see straight through the bridge down to the bottom of the canyon hundreds of feet below. The bridges are only two rails with a few sleepers connecting them and only every ten feet or so. There’s therefore a lot more empty space than bridge. It would be really difficult just to walk across they are so narrow. You’d have to walk one of the rails light a tightrope.

It was like a huge fairground ride in my own personal train - much more fun than sitting inside with all the tourists.

All you have to do is ask.

Visit for more stuff.

Posted by Jeremy Bullard at November 05, 2003 11:35 PM GMT
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