The Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad, known colloquially as “El Chepe,” is the only railroad that has been international in its vision since its inception. Reader’s Digest has called it “the most dramatic train ride in the western hemisphere.”
You don’t have to be a train hobbyist to be impressed and charmed by El Chepe. This engineering marvel took almost 90 years and $90 million to complete, featuring 37 bridges and 89 tunnels along the route. It traverses five climatic zones, from sea level to 8,000 feet elevation. At one point the train does a 180-degree turn inside a mountain, and at another point it loops over itself. The longest tunnel in Mexico, over a mile long, is on this route. In the mountain region, there is a drop of 7,300 feet elevation in 122 miles.
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The original route of the Kansas City Mexico Orient Railway (forerunner of the Chepe) was 1,600 miles long. It ran from Wichita, Kansas, through Oklahoma and Texas, crossing the border at Presidio, Texas and Ojinaga, Chihuahua. It continued on to Chihuahua City, then went west across the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain Range, ending up at Topolobampo Bay on the Sea of Cortez, near Las Mochis, Sinaloa. The purpose of the KCMO Railway was to shorten the shipping route to the orient by 400 miles.
Two Americans were directly involved in the conception of this railroad. Arthur Stilwell of Kansas City, Kansas, was responsible for completing 1,000 miles of the total 1,600 miles of track built. (Note: The founder of S&S Tours, Sue Stilwell, is in Arthur Stilwell’s family line, so El Chepe’s history is of great personal interest to us!) Albert Owens, a Pennsylvanian railroad engineer, surveyed the western end of the line.
Since El Chepe was privatized in 1998, it has been one of only two passenger trains left in Mexico – the other being the Tequila Express out of Guadalajara. The Chepe tourist line is presently the 400-mile route between Chihuahua City, Chihuahua, and Los Mochis, Sinaloa. To enjoy the most scenic part of this route during daylight hours, S&S Tours always begins tours into the Copper Canyon in Los Mochis.
In 1998, the private rail franchise – Ferromex – took over the railroad from the Mexican government, which had operated all the railroads from 1940. Ferromex has made a significant investment in a total modernization program.
A thorough renovation of the train stations has taken place in Los Mochis, El Fuerte, Bahuichivo (Cerocahui), Posada Barrancas, Creel, and the old train station with murals in Chihuahua City. The train track has been repaired and brought up to industry standards. This assures added security, comfort, and speed for the passenger trains. Twelve remodeled, air-conditioned Chepe passenger cars are on first-class express service.
It is a pleasure to dine in the new dining cars freshly decorated with the same elegant upholstery and carpet of the passenger cars. An excellently equipped kitchen serves delicious breakfasts, lunches, and dinners daily. The deluxe lounge cars offer all varieties of drinks and a place for close camaraderie on the trip.
Ferromex is to be commended for undertaking the extremely challenging task of offering first-class train service for tourists on this extraordinary, remote route.
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