PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE NEARS END OF THE LINE IN MEXICO

PASSENGER RAIL SERVICE NEARS END OF THE LINE IN MEXICO

The Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico passenger train creaks and clatters its way through the heavy rain, its giant frame silhouetted in the darkness by a bolt of lightning.

Lumbering past the endless apartment blocks and barrios as it leaves Mexico City for the nightly 14-hour journey to the industrial northeastern city of Monterrey, the Regiomontano, as the daily connection is known, continues a fast-fading tradition.On this particular evening, the first-class "executive" car - the equivalent of a standard Amtrak car - has only a handful of passengers aboard. The nearly empty car is testament to an ending era, much like the era that ended in the United States.

Americans still harbor a love affair with railroads, even though the days of competitive long-distance train service are long over. Mexicans soon may find their state-owned rail service largely a thing of the past.

Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico (FNM) is in the process of a restructuring that is putting most of its emphasis on modernizing its freight component. Motor carriers carry as much as 80 percent of the U.S.-Mexico trade, and the FNM is working with U.S. railroads to recapture lost market share.

Promoting unit trains, double-stack service and in-bond shipments, FNM is luring back shippers who have used truck service but are less than thrilled with border delays associated with cargo clearance.

FNM also is trying to reduce its bloated payroll, providing "voluntary retirement" to more than 20,000 workers alone last year. With a smaller work force and greater attention to freight services, FNM clearly has made a decision that the lower-yield passenger service will take a backseat.

Making the decision easier is Mexico's highly competitive intercity bus service. Passengers going from Mexico City to Monterrey can choose from services that run from rust-bucket to standard video coach to plush. Commuter airlines also provide a cost-competitive alternative for travel.

Train service remains popular in southern Mexico, where there is far less development and a poor road network that often means trains offer a more direct service to remote towns and villages.

But FNM can hardly be blamed for putting its eggs in the freight basket, given the fact that, as in the case of Amtrak, passenger service is hard to run without operational subsidies.

In the case of FNM, the railroad has been ordered by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to become self-sufficient by the end of his term.

The Salinas administration has moved to privatize rail services, including all track and car maintenance. The government also is prepared to privatize the state-owned railroad or, at a minimum, allow private railroads to operate.

As focus shifts to freight services, the passenger service is expected to be limited to a few major lines and an occasional remote route. Insiders speculate that passenger operations may fall under the control of a tourism ministry to preserve a mode of transport that has seen its best days.

While it doesn't earn its keep, who could argue the beauty of the aging mode?

Certainly not someone who has ridden the rails through the Mexican night, seeing the lone firelight from a farmer's hut in the distance of rugged terrain or heard the mongrel dogs bay as the train creeps past a small village.

Certainly not someone who has stood between railcars and watched the sun come up and go down on Mexico's ageless cactus-covered canyons and valleys, breathing in the smells and taking in the sounds that no bus or plane could ever offer.