Bob Broughton's Blog about British Columbia politics

Mexico initiates major high-speed rail project

Gov. Jose Calzada Rovirosa and Secretary Gerardo Ruiz EsparzaOn August 16, Mexican Secretary of Communications and Transport (SCT) Gerardo Ruiz Esparza and Governor Jose Calzada Rovirosa of the State of Querétaro announced the tender for a high-speed passenger rail line between Mexico City and Querétaro, a city of one million people 218 km. northwest of Mexico City. There are five or six potential bidders, and the bids are expected in four months.

The cost of the project is estimated at $3.2 billion. The train will travel at 300 km./hour, making the travel time 58 minutes. The one-way fare is expected to be $24. Trains will run every 20 minutes during rush hour, every hour at other times. The project will generate 20,000 direct jobs. The service should be in operation in 2017; the first segment of the high-speed rail line in California probably won't carry its first passenger until 2022.

The specific route will be from the Buenavista Metro Station in Mexico City, along or near the Kansas City Southern right-of-way, to the Calesa area of Querétaro, near Avenida Bernardo Quintana.

Artist's conception of Mexican high-speed trainsThis is one of three current high-speed rail projects in Mexico. Construction on the Mexico City-Toluca line started in July. A Yucatan Peninsula route from Merida to Punta Venado should be in operation in 2018. (The Yucatan Peninsula project is less ambitious; trains on that line will run at 160 km./hour.) Discussions are under way to extend the Mexico City- Querétaro line to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, in one direction, and León in another. The line to León could eventually be extended to Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city.

My Tienanmen Square experience

The current media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre has brought back some memories for me. I walked around Tienanmen Square one month after this event.

No, I do not go around looking for trouble. The trip that took me through Beijing was part of a trip that had been planned for a long time. I had been living in Oslo, Norway for three years, and wanted to return to Vancouver by traveling by rail from Oslo to Stockholm, by ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, by rail from Helsinki to Hong Kong, then flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I had already booked and paid for most of this trip through a travel agency in Stockholm a month or two before the massacre happened. This agency had canceled some trips scheduled for June, my my trip was still on. At that time, visas for travel in the Soviet Union were very specific; the dates of each visit to each city, and the hotel that you stayed in, were spelled out in the visa, and it was impossible to change anything. And yes, there were agents of Intourist who checked on you to make sure you stuck to the schedule.

Virginia Intermont College closes its doors

East Hall, Virginia Intermont CollegeVirginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA held its final graduation ceremony on May 4, 2014. The school had been in financial trouble for a while. The beginning of the end came in 2013, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated the school's accreditation. Although nobody ever confused VI with Harvard, this action was not taken because of academic standards. Instead, the problem was that VI had an unsustainable economic model. What this meant was, most of the school's revenue was coming from student tuition, and not from endowments and donations.

The SACS decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prospect of the loss of accreditation scared away prospective students, reducing the school's revenue, and making it inviable financially. VI's administration attempted to solve the accreditation problem by merging with another institution, but a prospective merger fell through.

How to play tennis in Mexico

Centre court, Club Britania, LeonPublic courts are rare in Mexico. Mexico has a lot of private clubs, where guests are usually welcome. These clubs don't do much in the way of publicizing their existence, so you'll have to do some asking around.

“Deportivos” (sports clubs) are more accessible. Usally, you pay a day fee of 100 to 150 pesos at the entrance. This fee covers all the club's facilities, so bring your bathing suit. The “Club Britania”'s found in many Mexican cities are actually deportivos.

Ball boys are commonplace wherever tennis is played. This is something easy to get used to; they speed up the game considerably. You're expected to tip them; the going rate is ten pesos per player per set.

If you're going to a high-altitude place such as Mexico City, Oaxaca de Juarez, or San Miguel de Allende, don't bother to bring balls with you. Only pressureless (“sin presión”) balls are legal in these areas. The most common brand is Tre-nis (sold as Tretorn in the US and Canada), but pressureless balls are easy to spot on store shelves; they're sold in cardboard boxes instead of cans.

There are clay courts (“canchas de arcilla”) in Mexico, buy they're gradually going the way of the dinosaur, due to maintenance costs. Hard courts are called “canchas duras”. You may come across synthetic turf courts; I suggest trying to avoid them.

A $40 billion bad idea in Nicaragua

Possible canal routesDaniel Ortega, who holds the office of President of Nicaragua in defiance of Nicaragua's Constitution, is championing a mega-project; a canal across the eastern part of Nicaragua that would provide an alternative to the Panama Canal. The estimated cost is $40 billion.

My initial reaction, when I heard about this is, Nicaragua's GDP is only $10.5 billion, and no foreign investor would be foolish enough to put up this kind of money to finance it.

I was wrong. Chinese billionaire Wang Jing is putting up the money, through the HKND Group, based in Hong Kong, and registered in the Cayman Islands. Jing and other Chinese see this project as reducing the time (and thus the cost) required to ship oil from Venezuela to China, and Chinese goods to the eastern United States. The HKND Group has contracted the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) to do a feasibility study. CRCC is owned by the Chinese government, and was responsible for part of the Three Gorges Dam project.

Why do I say that this is a bad idea? Although there are several possible routes across Nicaragua, all of them go through Lake Nicaragua, which is a large body of fresh water, and environmentally sensitive. Connecting Lake Nicaragua to two different oceans will not only introduce salt water to the lake; it will introduce exotic species. The canal would also introduce large container ships, which will inevitably spill oil, sewage, and other chemicals.

How the US can help Mexico

President Obama paid a visit to Mexico at the beginning of May, and met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

They talked about narco-terrorism and immigration reform. Nothing much much will come of this, because the government of the US is dysfunctional. Congress isn't going to pass any change to immigration laws, or do anything to curb the flow of assault weapons from the US into Mexico. And Mexico doesn't really want any more help from the US in the war on the narco-terrorists.

They also talked about trade, however. That's a different matter, because much of trade policy is controlled by Obama's Executive branch.

Unfortunately, there's no indication from the news reports that Obama and Peña Nieto talked about Mexico's corn imports. That's right, Mexico's corn imports. Corn is an essential part of the diet of Mexicans, and Mexico imported 11 million tons of it in 2011, 8.5 million in 2012. The 2012 imports cost Mexicans $2.8 billion, and this is a cost that has quadrupled over the past ten years, due primarily to the use of corn for producing ethanol in the US. These imports are about 40% of Mexico's corn consumption.

The effect of this on Mexico's economy has been devastating. (It's been even more devastating for Guatemala, a much poorer country that is also dependent on corn imports.) This isn't in the best interest of either the US or Mexico. When rural Mexicans can't feed themselves, they move to cities, and often on to the US. Draining Mexico's rural areas of people makes these areas more vulnerable to the narco-terrorists.

Cultivation of corn began in Mexico, and corn has a cultural value as well as a food value. There are 60 varieties of corn grown in Mexico, and the genetically-altered versions from Monsanto are a solution looking for a problem. So, why can't Mexico grow enough corn to feed its population, and what can the US do to help?

A New Age act of vandalism at Tikal

I made my first trip to Peru in 1986. During this trip, must of the Peruanos that I came in contact with who were capable of speaking English had some very unkind things to say about a Gringa visitor a few weeks earlier, Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine went to Peru to make the film “Out on a Limb”, and she went there with the firm conviction that Machu Pichu and other Andean archaeological sites were constructed, not by back-breaking and rock-breaking labour by the ancestors of the present-day Quechua people that I talked to, but by space aliens.

Do you see why this is a problem? If not, here's an anecdote, from my last day in Peru on this trip. I went to the ruins at Pachacamac, south of Lima. It's more than just a well-restored set of ruins; it's suspected of having archaeoastronomical value. I was joined on the tour of the place by a middle-aged woman from the US and her son.

As soon as we started out, the woman started insisting that we make a stop at the Temple of the Sun, because she wanted to “feel the energy there”. The guide had already said that Temple of the Sun was one of the stops on the tour, and he reassured her that we would be stopping there. That wasn't good enough. She started talking to him in pidgin, even though he could speak conversational-quality English. The told him that she was a “medium”, and spelled it out: “M-E-D-I-U-M”.

Even though I had nothing whatsoever to do this this woman, I found myself embarrassed by her behavior, solely because my skin is the same colour. At one of the stops, while she was off “feeling the energy”, I uttered “Dos Gringos locos”, and explained to the guide, “that woman believes that she can talk to dead people.” He laughed and said, “Well, if you want to talk to dead people, this is a good place to do it.”

This anecdote was brought to mind by a gathering of 7,000 New Agers that took place at the Tikal ruins in Guatemala on December 21, 2012. They had ceremonies with elaborate costumes and “shamans” speaking gibberish, with the overall idea of being at the Mayan ground zero when the end of the world takes place. While they were doing this, the genuine Mayans, who have lived in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras for 5,000 years, were wondering, “What's with these crazy Gringos?”, fully aware that their culture made no such end of the world prediction.