The Mexico City Metro Line That Collapsed Had a Long History of Problems

Troubling questions have arisen in Mexico's capital following the collapse of a transport line that killed more than two dozen people and injured more.
May 4, 2021, 7:39pm
An aerial view of efforts to remove the damaged train after an overpass in Mexico City collapsed on May 4 killing 23 people.
An aerial view of efforts to remove the damaged train after an overpass in Mexico City collapsed on May 4 killing 23 people. Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY - The elevated Mexico City subway line that collapsed on Monday night sending a train plunging to the ground and killing at least 24 people and injuring more than 75 has had a long history of problems since it opened in 2012. 

That legacy has raised troubling questions in Mexico’s capital about the line’s security, particularly after the powerful 2017 earthquake that damaged thousands of buildings and killed hundreds. 

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In a country where a long history of negligence and corruption result in shoddy and often dangerous infrastructure, speculation quickly spread that Mexico City’s government had failed to keep up maintenance on the line. 

In an early morning press conference, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said that daily maintenance was performed on the metro and that the line in question  passed a full structural review last year.

“The promise that I am making to the metro users, to the citizens, is to get to the bottom of this terrible incident,” Sheinbaum said at a follow-up press conference on Tuesday, promising a swift investigation into the accident to be carried out by a Norwegian firm. Experts will carry out a structural revision of the train line that will “take as long as necessary to guarantee its security,” she said, adding that other metro lines will stay open because there is no indication of damage.

“Absolutely nothing will be hidden,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his morning news conference on Tuesday morning. “The people of Mexico must know the whole truth.”

The wreck occurred at 10:22 p.m. Monday night, killing 21 people on the spot. It has horrified the city, where the metro has become an emblem of urban life, carrying almost 5 million people every day below and above the metropolis’s traffic-snarled streets. Line 12, on which the accident took place, transports around 220,000 people daily, according to the metro’s director.  

As of Tuesday afternoon, only five of the victims killed in the train wreck had been identified, according to city officials.

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Since it was first inaugurated in 1969, Mexico City’s metro has grown to become the second largest in the Americas, after the New York City subway, but it has been outstripped by demand, especially for people living in Mexico City’s distant reaches. 

Line 12, the city’s newest, promised to transform the hours-long commutes of people living in the southeastern suburbs. But only 17 months after its inauguration, the elevated portion of the line was shut down for 20 months for repairs. In the accusations that flew, the main construction company, ICA, said that specifications for the project were changed midway through construction. ICA, a major Mexican construction company, partnered with a division of Grupo Carso, part of the empire controlled by the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim and the French multinational Alstom, to build the line, according to local news reports. In a statement, the Carso division, CICSA, said that it would await the results of the investigation. 

The accident threw a spotlight on two of Mexico’s most prominent officials, both close allies of the president. Sheinbaum, who has been the mayor since 2018, has a doctorate in environmental engineering and presents herself as a cerebral technocrat with a strong commitment to the president’s left wing causes. 

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, was the mayor when Line 12 was built and it was to be one of his legacies -- until it was partially shut down after he left office. He said he would willingly cooperate with the investigation. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” he said. 

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In radio interviews Tuesday morning, Fernando Espino, head of the Metro Workers Union, cast blame on a French company, TCO, which he said was in charge of maintaining the subway line. 

“We are constantly insisting that maintenance be our responsibility,” Espino told Imagen Radio. “But unfortunately the authorities don’t listen to us, and don’t let us help. They get rid of the best technicians that we have because [the technicians] don’t agree with what the administration demands.”

The Metro has suffered several accidents in the past couple of months, including the collision of two trains at a main hub, Tacubaya, which killed one person in March 2020. In January, a fire at the Metro’s central electrical station, led to shutdowns of several lines for weeks. 

Eliseo Ortega Léon, a civil engineer who is an investigator attached to Mexico’s judicial system, said that it is too early to determine what might have caused the collapse. The 2017 earthquake had widened cracks in the subsoil, he said, which required additional maintenance. 

In 2018, the metro’s director at the time, Jorge Gaviño Ambriz, announced that repairs to earthquake damage on Line 12 had been completed, including work on a column supporting the elevated track on the line beyond the station where the accident occurred. Florencia Serrania, who was named director general of the metro in 2018, said the infrastructure of the failed train line was last inspected in January 2020, “and it didn’t show any abnormality at the time.”

Serrania added that she had no plans to resign. “I will continue working and cooperate however I can to determine the structural damage,” she said at a press conference alongside Mexico City’s Mayor Sheinbaum Tuesday afternoon. 

Mayor Sheinbaum threw her support behind the metro director. “We are not covering for anybody,” she said. “The question here is, who is responsible?”