Riding the Rails
Ferrocarriles de Mejico's Aguila Azteca
Settee with light on a heavyweight rail car
Let’s start with riding the rails in Mexico! Mind you, my trip took place the night of November 21-22, 1963. If that date doesn’t stand out for you, it should. President Kennedy was assassinated on the 21st. I was in Monterrey, Mexico, and learned about that unforgivable act on a Mexican television broadcast: El presidente de los estados unidos es morte (The president of the United States is dead). I can only begin to describe how I felt: sad, certainly; unable to comprehend it all, definitely, for it was the first time in my lifetime that anyone had even attempted to kill a president; frightened, yes, for there I was, a thousand miles from home with a closed border preventing me from returning. Did I say I was only fourteen years old at the time and that I was not with my family; I was with thirty-seven fellow Spanish students, our teacher, and two chaperones?
Our teacher decided that we should continue our journey, as planned. It was the best decision she could have made, for it put us in contact with the Mexican people in a way that we would not have experienced under ordinary circumstances. You see, as we made our way along, the Mexican people stopped to offer their condolences on the death of our president. Each night at midnight, a radio station played a somber requiem. Our neighbors to the south were mourning, just as we were.
But I digress. On to the train station!
We caught an overnight train, the Águila Azteca, to Mexico City. In those days, passenger rail service was provided by the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mejico. Heavyweight cars were pulled by freight locomotives. No Electromotive Division E-8 locomotives there! No Budd Company stainless steel Streamliner cars there! This was riding the rails on a more functional level -- or so it appeared until we boarded the vintage cars.
Then, I felt as though I had entered a different time and place. I had! These cars were from the 1920s! Wingback settees for two faced each other, while carriage lights on the outer walls provided lighting. I felt as though I had walked into a fairy tale. This was quaint. Why didn’t they build rail cars like this, anymore? Ah! But there was more to come! The seats of settees slid forward, toward each other, to form the lower berth. The porter added a mattress and linens. Above, a compartment pulled down to reveal the upper berth.
We were underway when the call came for dinner. The dining car was also of 1920s vintage and quaint, but what caught my attention was the quality of the food. No plastic-wrapped hamburger sliders there! Although I ordered a hamburger steak in onions, mushrooms, and gravy, it was delicious! Prepared with wine and flavored just so. I remember it to this day. Amtrak really should take a lesson from the railroads of the past.
I was rocked to sleep by the gentle motions of the car on the tracks and waked feeling quite rested and ready to go as dawn broke over the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. Several of us went out to sit in the vestibule between cars. There, the upper portion of the Dutch door was open, allowing the cool, early morning, mountain air to waft about us. I felt a bit faint, no doubt because I was unaccustomed to the high altitude. It passed in the cool air.
By nine o’clock, we were pulling into Buenavista Terminal in Mexico City. The mid-century modern building still stands, now freshly restored, but houses small rail lines and the city’s subway system. In 1963, however, it was bustling with passengers, luggage, and taxi cabs of every description. Soon, we were on our way toward discovering one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever visited.
It should be noted that, in the years after my Mexican adventure, the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mejico updated its rolling stock with EMD F-9 locomotives and Pullman Streamliner cars. I’m glad I got to experience the 1920s heavyweight cars. I’ll never forget them.