Taming 'The Beast': Company Hopes Faster, Safer Trains Will Stop Immigrants From Reaching U.S.

A railroad company in Mexico plans to invest more than $150 million over the next five years to boost train speed and security in an effort to deter immigrants from illegally boarding their freight trains to reach the United States.

It is estimated between 400,000 and 500,000 mostly U.S.-bound migrants travel through Mexico every year and many do so by illegally riding on top of a freight train, known as “The Beast” or “The Death Train.” Most of the immigrants travel hundreds of miles on the train from El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala to reach northern Mexico and then rely on smugglers, or coyotes, to illegally get them into the U.S.

Maria Isabel Pons, the deputy director general of Ferrocarriles Chiapas Mayab (FCCM), the company that owns the freight trains, told the Mexican newspaper Reforma that it plans to invest millions of dollars over the next few years to triple the speed of its freight trains from about 6 miles per hour to 18.

“The moment you raise the speed, you make the route safer, because they are not going to have the opportunity to climb onboard,” Pons told Reforma about the migrants. “People have been boarding the train because the quality of the railroad has diminished, the quality of the operation has diminished, and therefore the velocity of the train has diminished.”

Pons said the company plans on also eliminating the use of screws on their train tracks, opting instead to weld tracks together using planchuelas, or metal plates, that connect the rails. She said this will stop thieves from stealing portions of the train track, forcing trains to stop so that immigrants can climb aboard.

The company also plans on adding a Traffic Control Center, which would monitor the track and freight trains via new surveillance cameras. The hope, Pons told Reforma, is to find out where immigrants are boarding the trains and alert authorities.

In 2013, FCCM acquired 370 miles of railway in Southeast Mexico near the Guatemalan border, but it is still waiting on the Mexican government to approve and transfer control of the track to them.

The journey aboard "The Beast," or “La Bestia” in Spanish, is a perilous one. Often times, migrants must board 10 to 15 different trains over hundreds of miles to reach the U.S. border. Those who make the journey, most of them teenagers traveling alone, are targeted by smugglers, are kidnapped or raped by criminal gangs or face extortion by drug cartels or public officials. U.S. officials have recently enlisted the help of a U.S. advertising firm to create a song called La Bestia, "The Beast," to dissuade migrants from hitching a ride onboard the notoriously dangerous "Death Train." It is currently being played on 21 radio stations in Central America.

Derailments along "The Beast's" route are common. Earlier this month, a cargo train carrying about 1,300 Mexican and Central American migrants heading to the United States border derailed in Southern Mexico. No one was injured, according to Reuters. Authorities blamed heavy rain in the area for the derailment.

Another derailment in August of 2013 killed at least six people.

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